Pulling Pranks in Times of Crisis: Did the Fake Boston Marathon Account Go Too Far?

Hours after the explosions at the Boston Marathon, scammers took to Twitter to do what they do best: act insensitive in a time of crisis. One fake account, @_BostonMarathon, caused controversy when it claimed it would offer donations to Boston Marathon victims for every retweet it received. Though the account was suspended within 30 minutes of its creation, its methods have incited an angry debate over the role of social media in responding to national events.

Some people have called this move a sort of “coping mechanism” on the part of the user. I agree with this theory, as long as we’re assuming “coping mechanism” is just a fancy way of saying “attention-seeking.” Maybe I’m getting my definitions mixed up but I don’t think what @_BostonMarathon did qualifies as a coping mechanism. Curling up on the couch after a break-up with a barrel of ice cream waiting for the Sex and the City marathon to start is a coping mechanism. Swearing off things like sleeping or showering after being fired from your dream job is a coping mechanism. Dressing up in bedazzled dance suits and claiming to be the reincarnated soul of Elvis Presley after surviving a Final Destination-esque catastrophe is a coping mechanism (or the beginning of schizophrenia, maybe). But starting a fake social media account for the purpose of “pretending” to help victims of a tragic event is not a coping mechanism; it is an insult.

Whether or not the person behind @_BostonMarathon intended to make money off of this scheme does not matter to me. What matters is the thought process behind this move, the idea that it is okay to take advantage of a bombing, a word that has frightening connotations in itself, by making this account just to have a couple of laughs. That’s really what this is, after all. The user of this account did not receive any money from this stunt; they simply received the satisfaction of having a couple thousand Twitter followers for less than an hour. They manipulated a sensitive national crisis so they could have their 15 minutes of fame. Nothing more, nothing less.

I don’t want to blame social media for anything because, along the lines of “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” I believe social media is a tool that can be used for good or for evil. Technology has not only changed the way we understand the world and also, the way we understand ourselves. That little pang of excitement you get when someone likes your Facebook status or retweets one of your posts means something. It is a natural development of social media’s increasing role in the construction of our egos. The problem is not so much that momentary feeling of joy but rather, what happens when the desire to achieve that feeling goes too far, when someone, minutes after dozens of people have had their limbs blasted to bits, thinks, “Hey, I could probably get a lot of Twitter followers if I made a fake philanthropy account around this cause.” That’s when it becomes a problem.

That being said, social media sites like Twitter were also beneficial during this time. The live updates from news sources like @BostonGlobe and @CNNbrk allowed people to find out what areas had been affected and what places were still under investigation. The American Red Cross account advertised areas where people could donate blood, an offer which dozens of runners took advantage of immediately. Bostonians and non-Bostonians alike began tweeting hotline numbers and websites where family members of runners could determine if their loved one had crossed the finish line before or after the event. And through Twitter, people were able to expose the fake @_BostonMarathon account and have it removed less than 30 minutes after its inception.

Social media, as a concept, brings a lot of baggage. However, it also has the power to highlight the values of society at critical points in history. While the trending topics immediately after Monday’s event revealed a disturbing collective mindset about the reason for the attack (hashtags like #Muslim, #Saudi, and #Terrorist skyrocketed to the top of the list), they also demonstrated a more inspiring pattern about the tendencies of the country as a whole. #PrayforBoston ousted #BostonMarathon and #BosBombings for the top trending topic and about the power of helping.

Boston is my city, as much as a city can belong to a person, so I might be a little biased in my outlook. Although the “hype” over the bombings will likely pass, as America’s attention span is about the size of a pea, that doesn’t detract from its significance in our history and the significance of our reaction to it. So, I return to my original question: should @_BostonMarathon be considered nothing more than a prank, the result of an ignorant human trying to take advantage of America’s sensitivity “for funzies”? Or should the creation of this account be considered a more serious offense?

Image via MSN.com