After bombings, I believed social media

May 2, 2013

Messages left at a memorial in Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. — Anyone who has turned on a television, radio or computer in the past couple of weeks is aware of the monsoon of misinformation surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing. But it was social media that led me astray.

The early days after the attack were chaotic: Innocent people were misidentified as suspects by citizen vigilantes on Reddit. Chechnya was widely confused with the Czech Republic as the origin of the bombers. And the New York Post got so many things wrong I’m starting to wonder if the publication thinks of inaccuracy as its signature feature, like the gap in Madonna’s front teeth.

Almost immediately, social media was buzzing with word of another bombing, one that had supposedly killed at least 30 people at a wedding celebration in Afghanistan. Reports alleged that U.S. planes had mistaken traditional shooting at the wedding for hostile fire.

Angry commenters across the Web criticized the complete absence of coverage of this terrible story by any mainstream news outlet, and expressed indignation that three lost lives in Boston should mean so much more to us than 30 in a foreign country. What many, myself included, did not initially realize, however, is that  the reports were about a real incident that had occurred over a decade ago.

I was among those who not only believed the report, but circulated it by posting it to my Facebook feed and bringing the incident up in conversation. I self-righteously argued that we seem not to care about the suffering of citizens in Afghanistan, and thus don’t even find it worth reporting.

I saw the story as the perfect tool to help me correct the intolerance of those who see all Muslims as extremists. But when I discovered that the report was about an incident from 2002, I stopped short, deflated by the likelihood that somebody had intentionally circulated the old story in order to serve an agenda.

By referencing the story, I was unintentionally exhibiting a lack of sensitivity the very thing I’d been arguing against.

I knew that I still wanted to do something to promote more understanding between U.S. and Afghan citizens, but now that my pitch had been tainted with untruth, I was unsure  how to proceed.

Then, as I scanned news and social media sites, one story that caught my eye made clear to me what the mistake in my approach had been. Documentary filmmaker Beth Murphy had been working in Afghanistan when she heard about the bombing in her home city of Boston. Seeking to send home support, she set out to take a series of photographs of herself holding a sign that read “From Kabul to Boston with Love.”

NBC World News reports that as Murphy spoke with Afghan citizens, she was surprised to find not indifference, but heartfelt sympathy. “As I started to talk with people here about what was happening,” Murphy said, “ I saw the expressions on their faces change. They experience things like this here all the time. … There was this shared experience of pain and suffering, and the way people expressed that to me was really beautiful.” It struck Murphy to ask the citizens if she could photograph them holding her sign. The result was a moving series of photos that demonstrated to the U.S. that Afghan citizens were in fact not a country of extremists, but people who felt empathy for Americans.

These images saturated the Internet, too, and were even responded to by Boston residents holding a similar sign of their own to send the love back to Kabul.

It’s true that the marathon bombings claimed fewer lives than have been lost in any number of attacks in Afghanistan, and Murphy mentioned that some of the citizens in Kabul (though too polite to say so) were surprised when they heard that the initial deaths numbered only three.

What’s important, though, is that her work inspired more understanding than a self-righteous argument ever would have, and I won’t forget that.

Lauren Quirici is a student at Mount Holyoke College.

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