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 Patton Oswalt’s “good guy” speech dominated Facebook newsfeeds for hours after the event, as did Mr. Roger’s quote 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

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1648274959 Clare O’Mahoney

    This is so true. Thank you for putting it out there. Not only now, but it has been happening during so many distressing incidents, where someone uses something so tragic to boost their popularity or gain essentials. It really sickens me. Do they have no feelings? An innocent 8 year old boy life was taken, his mother with critical brain damage, his sister with painful wounds and this person rather then helping the world in even just a little way and send a little love, he wanted more followers on his twitter account.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1614229258 Martin Hawes

    I don’t see what they did wrong? They made an account with a legitimate purpose, and they never did anything wrong… they got shutdown without any reason. They only they did would be to stop potential donations.
    This article is just a desperate reach for a non existent story.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000097803521 Andy McIntosh

      Martin, they claimed to be associated with the Boston Marathon when they weren’t and, even though they had their posting retweeted many times they donated no money. They had no legitimate purpose and they got shutdown for a very real reason. They preyed upon people’s vulnerabilities in a sad attempt to be “clever.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004362243442 Sean Johnstone

    Shame they even did it,they seem ignorant people just so they can be popular,its wrong to take advantage of people who have lost loved ones in any act of violence and this minority of numptys should have been stopped,but its not how social sites work.Shame on them!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002724166931 Karen Taylor

    Thankfully my encounter with tragedy (the OKC bombing) occurred pre-twitter, there were enough crazy stories going around as it was. But as much as I want the asshole(s) behind this bogus post to be punished, I just don’t know how to do it. As I remarked to a friend last night, there seem to be a lot of emotionally stunted people out there. People like M.H. who just don’t understand the harm this sort of thing actually does. It’s a sad-sad world these days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002581598663 Hans Johan Svensson

    Terrorism is insane. What is even more insane is that a terrorist often expects to make a valid point this way. What could that point be. . . . This prank is an illustration of that fact.
    The design of a very good prank often means that the victim will not laugh until later – sometimes much later.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=865760240 Stephanie Archibald

      It was not necessarily a terrorist attack. Terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation for ideological and political purposes . The authorities know no such thing yet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000352385494 Rebecca Hogan

    This was a great read, really insightful! Thanks :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513754634 Sarah North Youle

    If they catch who set up the fake account, they should be made to donate $1 for every re-tweet. People can be fined for criminal offences, it’s just the same, but in this case the money would go to the victims rather than the govt.

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