Shortly after the attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris began on Nov. 14, Benjamin Cazenoves found himself in the floor of the concert hall, wounded. He sent a Facebook message that he was hurt bad, and that the terrorists were still killing people.
His friends saw the message and immediately began sending Tweets to let law enforcement and anyone else who would listen know what was happening. Then he described the carnage, the dead people, and that the terrorists were killing people one by one, he posted on Facebook.
Shortly after that, police stormed the concert hall to rescue the people trapped inside. According to a report by CBS News the reports from Cazenoves and others who were trapped were instrumental in convincing the police to attempt the risky rescue instead of trying to negotiate for their surrender.
There is no question that the fact that people were able to communicate during the attack enabled law enforcement to get a better picture of what was going on than they would have had otherwise, and in this case, there are people alive today who would not have been, had the rescue been delayed.
There were other cases. Parisians were offering refuge in their apartments near the site of the attack so that people would have some place to go. Users of social media, including some news media such as the French Newspaper Le Monde, provided video of the attack in progress, and more video showing avenues of escape.
After the attacks were over, Facebook enabled its Safety Check feature which enabled people to confirm that their friends were safe. I used this feature to check on the status of two friends whom I knew to be in Paris during the attacks.
One of them told me that he’d been in the soccer stadium during the attack and had been evacuated later by French police. The other, a former eWEEK editor, had been on a plane that left Paris for home shortly before the attack.
This idea of a safety check has been belittled by many. But the fact is that the transmission of health and welfare messages is a significant factor in both the problems of communications during any kind of natural disaster and a significant drain on the resources of volunteers who might otherwise be assisting others in real danger during an attack.
I know that during my years as a ham radio operator, I’ve spent long nights by my radios, copying the messages as they arrived from some other part of the globe in Morse code, then transcribing them and sending those messages on their way, eventually to find family or friends to let them know where their loved one was and how they were doing.
Social Media Saved Lives, Brought People Closer During Paris Attacks
I remember the pleasure at finding that some of those messages were destined to my area, and of hearing the sounds of joy when I made the phone call to deliver the words of assurance.
Over the years, cell phones have picked up this task and phone companies have done what they could to make it easier. During the terror attacks in France, for example, Verizon eliminated charges for phone calls between the United States and France so that people could communicate with their friends and families.
This need to get assurance of the safety of family and friends has its negative consequences as well. It’s a major reason why phone circuits are perpetually clogged during disasters of all types-or even just a spell of bad weather.
I’ve written many times in these pages about why it’s important not to depend on the cell phone network for voice calls during even minor emergencies. It’s not uncommon for even something on the scale of a major snowfall to tie up cell networks for a while.
But I’ve also written that Short Message Service (SMS) texts can frequently find a way through the network because of the small bandwidth they require. Even networks that are otherwise inaccessible for voice traffic will often forward a text message.
But how many people know that you can send a text message to Twitter and have it show up? You can just send the message to the phone number 40404, and if you’ve previously set up your phone in Twitter—then your Tweet will go out just as if you’d used a Twitter app. This is a way to get your message out to the world even in times when nothing else works.
Unfortunately, disaster also can also bring out the worst in people—including on social media. During the Paris attacks there were hoaxes, misinformation and innocent transmission of reports that were simply incorrect. Despite some social media details, the city of Paris was not burning.
Social media also yields important, if unexpected, information in times of disasters. Despite the assertions by the intelligence community that the terrorists had somehow found secret ways to communicate, their public social messages are now appearing when someone searches for them, including messages in advance of the attacks that weren’t hidden or even encrypted. They were simply missed.
Fortunately, during the attacks, the right people were monitoring social media and because of that they got the information they needed to take action. This may have been the first time during a terrorist attack that social media played such a role, but now that first responders at all levels know about it, it shouldn’t be the last.