After a lone gunman went on a shooting rampage at two separate locations on the Virginia Tech campus on a Monday morning in April 2007, it took the school until the next evening to confirm the worst.
The massacre consisted of two separate attacks approximately two hours apart on April 16, 2007, that took place on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, U.S.
The perpetrator, Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 people and wounded many others before committing suicide.
While the number of people killed and the shooter’s death were reported by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University at 2:15 pm, it wasn’t until 7:15 pm that all the names of the victims were officially released by the school.
But all of the victims had already been correctly identified hours before the announcement by social groups on Facebook.
The popular social network quickly saw more than 500 groups spring up focused on the Virginia Tech Shooting — groups with literally hundreds of thousands of members.
Prominent groups such as “I’m OK at VT” started as places where students who were not harmed in the tragedy could report that they were safe. But the groups quickly became a place where desperate family members and friends began a terrible problem-solving exercise of indentifying who the 32 dead were.
What’s surprising is not only the speed with which victims were identified, but the accuracy of the information, says Jeannette Sutton, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“It’s incredibly accurate information and people are always updating it and correcting it,” she says. “This is the idea of crowd intelligence.”
Speaking at Toronto’s World Conference for Disaster Management, Sutton discussed how social networks — such as Facebook and Twitter — are becoming increasingly important tools for communicating information quickly and accurately during a disaster.
It’s a commonly-held misconception that “crowd-sourced” material isn’t reliable, she says. But her studies show that the opposite is true: mass collaboration produces highly accurate information and is spreads it quickly.
From the California wildfires of 2007, to the U.S. Airways crash in the Hudson river in January, to Winnipeg’s Red River Flood and the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic, social media has shown its usefulness, she notes.
Sutton is a research co-coordinator at the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, which dedicates time and resources to investigating the phenomenon.
The Virginia Tech case study should serve as a wake-up call for public agencies to take new modes of social media communication seriously, she says.
“We never once came across a wrong name being listed. Every time someone listed a victim’s name, they had to explain how they knew. It certainly lent some credibility to the posting.”
Sutton’s study shows that many Facebook users were able to post information about the deceased because they often had a direct relationship with that person. Or the source was passing on second-hand information, after a conversation with an eyewitness.
“My roommate just found out that her lost a very dear friend MR pray for her family and her soul tonight thank you,” Aaron B. wrote on a group’s wall. Other victim confirmations came from a sorority affiliation, an Air Force affiliation.
When a listing of victims was posted without any apparent sources, other group members would prompt for another level of verification. At times, other Facebook groups that were also collecting names of the dead were referenced as sources.
In other discussions, great care for accuracy is shown. Although the name of one potential victim was known, it was not added to the group’s victim list because the student could only be considered “missing” and there was no confirmation of being deceased.
Questions on whether it is appropriate for such information to be released during a time of crisis aside, the case study demonstrates the wisdom of the crowd, Sutton says — and such phenomena aren’t restricted to Facebook.
Twitter was very active during the California wildfires in 2007 that caused many communities to be evacuated. It was a way for those affected to communicate if they were being evacuated, and where they were going.
The Red River flood that occurred in March also saw social media being used in an organized fashion. Twitter was used as an update method for well checks, and Facebook used to organize people to build sand bag dams.
The most recent use of Twitter to push out accurate information has been from citizens in Iran, who are protesting the recent election despite a crackdown from top authorities.
“People have been using social media to get the word out,” Sutton says. “Twitter has been instrumental in sharing information beyond the government.”
It all reflects a sea change of sorts, the researcher adds. People aren’t relying on top-down methods of communication any more. The public is sharing information among themselves because it proves to be much faster, and just as credible.
Public agencies should take note and get involved with the new social media tools, Sutton says.
But the misguided tendency of such old-school institutions may be to see these channels as another point for dissemination. But it shouldn’t just be about pushing out information, it should be about getting engaged in the conversation there, the researchers says.
“It can be a way to get situational awareness,” she says. “It’s an incredibly valuable tool we have. You can craft your messages based on the way that people are responding to it.”
That’s just one lessons that can be gleaned from a tragedy as terrible as a school shooting.