Thousands of people from Tucson and across the world turned to social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to get the latest news about the January 8 shooting that has thus far claimed six lives. Within moments of hospital officials uttering a body count or condition update, the facts and figures would be Tweeted and Facebooked (by yours truly among many others). [As updates go, the current tally is 20 shot, six dead, one (Congressional District 8 Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) in an intensive care unit, three in serious condition and several others still in the hospital, though in hospital units that care for people who are less acutely sick.]
If it was not already obvious, it should now be crystal clear to Tucsonans how news coverage has changed. The flow of words is immediate, and that has implications, some more obvious than others. TucsonCitizen.com blogger David Morales posted a sentence to his blog, The Three Sonorans, minutes after the shooting happened. He was at a Pima County Democratic Party meeting when he got the news via text message. Two other people at the meeting got a similar message so Morales posted what he knew to his blog. “Gabrielle Giffords shot in the head in Tucson,” the headline read. The post was immediately picked up by Google News, among others, and soon TucsonCitizen.com was down, overrun by people looking for news. That was approximately five minutes after the shots.
Minutes later, NPR reported that the congresswoman had died. That news was instantly retweeted and reposted, with prayers going out across the Internet before it became clear, also through a tweet, this time from University Medical Center public affairs staff, that Giffords was not in fact dead, but rather in surgery. The AP reported that the suspect’s name was Jared Laughner, which was retweeted (again by yours truly, among others) – misspelling intact. While misinformation is transmitted within seconds, so are corrections. In my case, a commenter alerted me to the error.
And meanwhile, before it was clear what the health status was of the 20 people shot, a seemingly limitless number of commentators set in. Some criticized heated rhetoric, but plenty more dished it out. It seemed almost as likely a comment would say something to the effect of “Giffords was a bad representative” as it would communicate prayers or coordinate a candlelight vigil. Or blame the Tea Party.
At this point, almost all the information we have about the suspect, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, who is now in federal custody, was discovered through the Internet. None of it necessarily communicates a motivation, though it does communicate a state of mind. Nobody has spoken for Loughner. While we could electronically look up his address and property records, his parents haven’t spoken. We’ve seen Jared Lee Loughner’s YouTube channel (“let the bodies hit the floor,” whispered, on repeat), we may have seen his MySpace page (if we were fast enough; it’s been taken down) and if we missed any of that, we can defer to Praetorian Prefect who collected a mess of Loughner-related posts. Loughner’s posts seem almost to plea for attention (“Goodbye friends … don’t be mad at me”). But what did we really learn? More importantly, what does it mean?
While words flow free and fast in the social media universe, they stick around a long time, given a shelf life perhaps unmatched to the thought put into the utterance. Written or spoken comments that might have earlier been more ephemeral are searchable, linkable and like-able. They take on a new life and a new context. The results are often eerie. For example: a Twitpic search of photos related to Giffords; Gifford’s last tweet, announcing the start of the “Congress on Your Corner” event; an MSNBC interview after Giffords’ Tucson office was vandalized in March 2010. We make meaning from the curation of bits of information gathered. This was always true, but pre-Internet there were fewer bits of personal information out there. I’m brought back to the question: how do we make meaning? How does the shifting context change things?
Then there is the issue of people found and interviewed through social media outlets. Among the most instantly famous was @caitieparker, who tweeted that she knew Loughner and then was barraged with media interviews and new followers. At last check, she had posted: “This has become something way out of hand. I’m not doing ANY more interviews, or tweets about Jared. So might as well just unfollow now ”
To end on a (slightly) more positive note: Members of the Tucson community have used social media adeptly to bring people in mourning together. The graphic at the top of the post went viral hours after the first reports of the shooting. While I haven’t yet tracked down who created it (perhaps you know), it spread from Facebook profile to Facebook profile with a simple cut and paste. An act of unity. [Ed. Note: Apropos for this story, the answer to the question has been provided via social media (and the internet) the creator according to former Tucson Citizen courts reporter A.J. Flick is Michael Joplin] for Tucsonan Diana Uribe said about 1 p.m. today that about half of her friends were using the graphic. Blogger Ted Prezelski of the blog Rum, Romanism and Rebellion created a Tumblr page that is serving as a kind of online memorial, not to mention the prayers for Gabrielle Giffords Facebook page.
That was not the way I had planned to introduce myself, but that’s the news. I’m Carli Brosseau, TucsonCitizen.com’s social media editor. I was previously a reporter at the newspaper the Tucson Citizen, and I’m a graduate of the journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I plan to post frequently on subjects related to social media and journalism, as observed in and from Tucson. I have a lot of questions. I hope you have some for me too. You can contact me @TucsonCitizen, at Facebook.com/TucsonCitizen.com, and at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.