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Where do you first hear about breaking news? 

Your local news station? Twitter and Facebook?

If you polled a cross-section of today’s “everyday” social media user, many would tell you that they hear about breaking news in one of two ways…

1. Twitter Feeds or Trending Stories – Twitter displays the top stories as they occur, or the stories that become the most popular whether via tweeting or re-tweeting.

Here is a look at Twitter’s current trending topics as of 8:40 PST, May 7, 2013:

Twitter_trends

Users watch this info intently waiting for popular topics to surface.

2.  Facebook News Feed – Facebook users read news from their friends’ posts in their newsfeeds. A quick “share” can spread this information rather quickly.

Remember these top headlines?

Quite a few headlines broke on social media sites before popular offline media outlets could even put pen to paper.

  • Whitney Houston’s Death – Broke on Twitter 27 minutes before press
  • Osama Bin Laden’s Death – A next door neighbor tweeted about the noise and didn’t realize it was the raid on Osama bin Laden
  • Hudson River Plane Crash – Broke on Twitter
  • Announcement of the Royal Wedding – Broke on Twitter

While social media serves as a platform for people to receive trending news—and fast—it can also become a double-edged sword.

The recent devastation that occurred in Boston had people rapidly sharing the news on Facebook and Twitter within seconds of the explosions. According to a Pew Research Center study, more than half of a subgroup made up of 18 to 29-year-old young adults turned to social media to find out more information about this catastrophic event.

Think about it… it’s kind of hard not to discover breaking news on social sites, especially if you frequent Facebook or Twitter daily from your desktop or mobile device. Avid social media users check the sites more than a few times a day and some are constant lurkers.

So what’s wrong with social media sites breaking news first?

Misinformation

Though social media can break news faster than any popular news outlet, it can also be the bearer of false information, and even worse, be used as a source for popular news outlets.

According to an article in USA Today, both the Associated Press and CNN reported false information gathered from social sites about the Boston bombing suspects being in custody. Seeing AP report the news, a local news station in Boston, along with other media outlets also re-tweeted the false information and it spread virally.

And yet another incident…

How would you like it if your missing son was accused of the bombings even though he was innocent?

Reddit had to apologize to the family after publishing information that a missing Brown University student was a bombing suspect. The misinformation prompted online searches and cast speculation, all because of one tweet that could have been thwarted with a few more minutes of research. The family had to cease their efforts of finding their son because so many people had accused him of being one of the Boston bombing suspects.

The Race

In a race to be the first to disseminate information, it seems as if the “need to be the forerunner” has taken precedence over facts. Because breaking information spreads so fast on social media sites, news outlets cannot compete, and as a result, some publish false information and do more harm than good.

This misinformation is also dangerous for law enforcement who are using social content to help their efforts.

The Boston Police Department relied heavily on Twitter during the investigation and even tweeted the capture of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as it occurred in real time.

According to CNET senior editor, Dan Ackerman, “When you have a developing news story you look to Twitter because you can get a lot of information from different sources at the same time,” he explained. “You have a real-time feed of TV, local stations, and newspapers.”

On the flip side, Ackerman also realizes the risk involved when people “in high places” use Twitter to source information that can affect the outcome of an investigation.

Ackerman explains days after the bombing, “There’s a huge risk. We saw that earlier this week when we had some wrong people identified and people on the internet thought they were doing the right thing, but then you end up with somebody with their face on the New York Post and it’s not the right guy and you’re losing time and damaging people who are totally innocent.”

The Silver Lining

Though social media can prompt news outlets to publish false information, the sites have also become a platform for people to share their stories in hopes of gaining support from others.

I find it so amazing when I hear how ordinary people who have never even met can unite for a cause greater than themselves. Social sites have given people the opportunity to band together across race, nationality and social status, and fight for a common cause… the good of humanity.

Meet the Corcoran Family…

Corcoran_family

I read an article this week that touched me deeply. It was about the Corcoran family who was tragically affected by the Boston bombings. Celeste and Sydney Corcoran were cousins who had planned to meet an aunt as she crossed the finish line. The bombs exploded a few feet from where they were standing and as a result, the cousins suffered major injuries. Sydney experienced massive blood loss and injuries to her legs and Celeste had both legs amputated.

The family banded together and started a fundraiser to raise money for the girls’ medical journey ahead. A cousin started an account on GoFundMe, hoping to raise $20,000. She shared it on Facebook and since then the account has exploded to $725,315.00.

Celeste_and_Sydney_Fund

These courageous women have more medical treatment ahead but the love and generosity from complete strangers has astounded them and put smiles on their faces.

The world may be getting bigger, but with the aid of social media sites and the good old human heart of compassion, the power of human touch is making the world much smaller, a place where meaningful connection is no more than a tweet away.

See this page for information on the online fundraising events for the Boston bombing victims: 8 Campaigns Helping Boston Victims and Their Families

Do you trust the “facts” the news outlets publish? Where did you first find out about the Boston bombing?

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