Social media facilitated the Arab Spring, broke news of a plane landing on the Hudson River, and now assists in the battle against the Texas wildfires. Social sites are not just where we share trivial updates about our day; they've become a part of how we act and react in a time of crisis.
So could Twitter and Facebook have made a difference on 9/11?
Social media experts disagree wildly on this topic, with some saying it would have made the situation worse and others saying lives could have been saved. And although revisionist history can be frustrating and even inappropriate, a look at how the events of 9/11 might have unfolded with social media could help us prepare for another attack.
The most jarring theory about how social media might have changed 9/11 is the idea that it could have prevented the terrorist attacks altogether.
"The terrorists might have participated in violent or anti-American rants on Twitter, Facebook, and/or in blogs and thus may have caught the eye of the FBI early on," says Sam Richter, a sales entrepreneur and social media expert. "At the very least, admissions officials could have checked out their backgrounds and found that the individuals had no previous flying experience, and thus it would have been ludicrous for them to be taking classes on how to fly a jet plane."
It only takes one post to leak a plot, and although the terrorists were extremely careful and would have been even more so in the era of social media, there would have been more opportunities for authorities to flag suspicious behavior.
"It's a lot harder to search email," says Derek Burrill, associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside. "For that you have to get a court order. But anyone can go on to anyone's Facebook page and find out who they're connected to. We might be better able to catch people that are planning to do this because the tech of Facebook enables you to communicate your hubris."
What about on 9/11 itself? There was a serious problem with communication that day. From first responders to families to the president himself, it was difficult if not impossible to get reliable information at any point in the morning. Today, many airline carriers offer Internet access. Would passengers on the second or third planes have known about the fate of the first? Would they have been able to organize and fight the hijackers the way the heroes on the fourth plane did? Although there were only minutes between the crashes of the planes, minutes feel like hours in Twitter time. Many New Yorkers felt the recent earthquake but didn't believe it until they saw their Facebook news feeds light up in a matter of seconds. If a plane full of Americans had known more, perhaps they could have done more.
"Those people (on the fourth plane) knew what was going on, and I think we can argue that what those passengers did probably did save lives," says communications strategist Samra Bufkins, of the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. "That plane did not make it to its target. So I think it's quite possible social media could have made a difference. I'm not sure about the towers, but maybe by the time of the Pentagon crash. It's not too much of a stretch to think it might have stopped at least one of those planes."
But of course social media doesn't just give us all the right information; it often gives us a lot of wrong information. And there was already a ton of bad information in the fog of war on 9/11. Many New Yorkers thought another plane was headed for the city, even after the first two hit. A rash of tweets suggesting that would have only enhanced the panic. And the terrorists might have thought to clutter the Web with even more misinformation, in order to distract authorities. Surely at least one sympathetic extremist, if not thousands, would have declared the intention to attack targets around the nation in the hours after the towers came down. There were hundreds of planes flying that day; terrorists could have claimed on the Web that dozens of them had been hijacked in the hopes of getting the U.S. military to zero in on the wrong airliners.
"It might have been difficult to sort out," says Bill Ward, a social media professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. "I don't know that larger organizations could have reacted in time."
Ward suggests that authorities develop an emergency hashtag so they can communicate during crises and trust the information behind those handles. On 9/11, the New York City firefighters and police officers had serious communication breakdowns. If there's a Twitter feed that only first responders know about, they could be even more effective when something awful happens.
But then, of course, there's a risk of that hashtag being hacked. And of course there's a risk of the entire Web being overloaded and shut down. It's sometimes hard to get a signal at a football game, let alone in a national crisis. When Osama bin Laden was killed, 5,000 tweets per second flooded Twitter at one point. That would have been nothing compared with what would have happened on 9/11.
"In some cases, people believe they are safer but they really aren't," says Charles Palmer, professor of new media at Harrisburg University. "They are relying on a piece of technology they think is safe but it's not. It could be a false sense of security."
One thing is for certain: Social media would have made 9/11 far more intimate -- for better and for worse.
We would have known -- and perhaps seen -- what was going on in the towers and even on the planes. As horrifying as that sounds, it might have given some of the victims a way to communicate one last time with the people they love. We may have seen the heroes in action, from the firefighters to the lacrosse player with the red bandanna who helped dozens to safety before he died in a collapsing tower. So although we would have seen the terror the attackers wanted to create, we also would have seen more of the bravery that gave us great inspiration and solace in the painful days that followed 9/11.
"Back then, you were feeling it through Peter Jennings and Aaron Brown," says Michael Serazio, assistant professor of communications at Fairfield University. "With social media, you would have been feeling it in a much more personal way. I think it would have brought us closer. It would have been extremely powerful and extremely chilling."
Families would have heard news about their loved ones sooner. The search for the missing would have gone more smoothly, with Facebook serving as an international billboard and a virtual meeting post. And recovery efforts would have worked better, with more communication about places to donate time, food, or funds.
"When it comes to getting out important information," says Bufkins. "Twitter is proving to be a good emergency management tool."
And there would have been online memorials for those who died. Complete strangers would have been able to thank the brave and mourn the lost. Bereft families would have had thousands of supportive messages from all over the world. Stories about the fallen would have been shared in a de facto public memorial. The events of 9/11 may not have changed all that much with social media, but the healing would have been more inclusive.
A nation that came together quickly may have stayed together longer.
"You feel so helpless and you want to do something," says Bufkins. "Sometimes just the act of retweeting something would make you feel better in a situation like that.
"But I hope we never have to find out."