Social Media Etiquette in the Midst of Tragedy

social media
Image via Flickr/ Phil Campbell

Sadly, last week’s events in Boston, in West Texas, and all around the globe have become all too familiar. Yet, some people still have trouble grasping how to behave online during a national tragedy. While the news dominated Facebook and Twitter, some continued to carry on, business as usual and oblivious to what was unfolding.

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Admittedly, it is difficult to know what is appropriate when emotion and fear is running high. For that reason, we have put together some simple guidelines on how to behave on social media in the midst of a national tragedy:

Saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing. 

You can never go wrong with being silent when a tragedy occurs. Most of the social media ire from this past week was directed to companies who either turned the events into a promotional opportunity (yuck!) or allowed scheduled tweets to persist as news was coming out. Unless you or your company was directly involved (which is a whole other conversation with your PR team), it is best to remain silent. This goes double on the promotional front.

If you feel particularly moved, you can respectfully express your condolences at a later time… or not. You are not required to comment on every single tragic event in the world. Really! 

Stop all promotional tweets.

The first moments of a tragedy is not the time to talk about your prescient post about “how to cope with loss” or “how to talk to you kids” or what not. Don’t co-op a tragedy to promote your “breakfast energy” or amazing “scones”. This is not the time to capitalize on keywords or hashtags. Bottom line: Don’t make this about you. If you have something meaningful and helpful to share, then do so. Just do it at a later time when the initial shock has settled and people are ready to deal.

Weigh what’s too soon.

Woody Allen once wrote, “Comedy is tragedy plus time”… but how much time is enough time?  With life’s events happening over social media, the bubble of “too soon” is shrinking every day—from 3 weeks with 9/11 to 3 minutes with the Boston Marathon reported Gawker. Regardless of the severity or senselessness of a tragedy, millions of would-be comedians take to social media to test the odd tension of making the first “funny”.

Humor can be incredibly healing. It’s a bonding, a release, and a much needed distraction. However there is a wrong way and a right way to do it. Remember that humor takes many forms and not all boundaries are drawn the same.


Just think before you tweet:  It is worth alienating your clients and customers for a few LOLs? Is it worth your business or your reputation? Is it really THAT funny?

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Don’t RT any breaking news bits that you cannot personally confirm.

In fact, take a break from Twitter all together.Slate Magazine’s Tech Columnist, Farhad Manjoo said it best when he wrote “Breaking news is broken. That’s the clearest lesson you can draw about the media from the last week, when both old- and new-media outlets fell down on the job.” 

It takes time for a news story to take shape. In the meantime, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of information, blind alleys, and wrong turns of citizen journalism. Before you tweet or retweet something, take the time to find out, “Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? Is it from someone close to the event?”  

According to Manjoo, you are no less informed if you wait a couple of hours to read your favorite newspaper’s home page than someone who has been tracking the story moment by moment. It’s better to wait for information that has been confirmed as true before say – wrongly accusing an innocent man or contributing to a witch hunt.

It is okay to not be aware. It is not okay to be clueless.

As the very first #PrayforBoston tweets surfaced, I was sitting in a pediatrician’s office with my big kid. By the time photos of the scene were being shared, I was waiting for a prescription to be filled and being assured that it would “only be another 10 minutes.”  Then, I had to get my little one from daycare and run to the store. Somewhere in the middle, my phone died. When I made it home hours later, I was oblivious to anything else going on in the world.

It’s odd given my minute-to-minute attachment to social media, but it happens sometimes. We all get caught up in our day.  It doesn’t matter the nature, time, or place of some far-reaching news item. It doesn’t matter if it’s something that I feel everyone should be obviously aware. There will always be someone who will ask what I’m talking about. 

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It is okay to not be aware of everything thing the very moment that it happens, but scan your feed before you post or tweet something. Read the room. Don’t be the jerk complaining about the long lines at the pharmacy when there is an actual tragedy happening.


Celebrate the heroes and honor the victims.

When the alleged Boston Marathon bomber was captured on Friday nightmany people expressed concern over the rejoicing in the streets. Some associated it with the celebrations that followed the killing of Osama Bin Lin. What about the innocent victims? What about the families still healing? Are we just as bad as the terrorists?  

The genuine outpouring of gratitude, online and in person, for the brave men and women who risked their lives in the manhunt was needed. The huge sigh of relief from a city in lockdown and living in fear was understandable. The dancing in the streets? I left that to my friends in Boston to decide. Many were okay with it, although they were not about to throw a party or take to the streets themselves. Others found it uncomfortable.

The lesson here is that people react in different ways and it’s hard to tell what will trigger an emotion. Whether you agree with it or not, try to be sensitive. You don’t need to be defensive or convincing. Just let them know that you didn’t mean to offend and move on.  

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Where do you get your updates from during times of tragedy – social media, news stations, or do you tune it all out? 


What do you think?

Social Media Etiquette in the Midst of Tragedy

Grace Duffy is a Dallas-based Digital Strategist and blogger with a passion for connecting people through technology-- be it to a goal, a solution, or simply with one another. She is a Principal and Co-Founder of Splash Creative Media. Her personal blog can be found a She is everywhere you tweet her name (@graceduffy) To learn more about Grace, you can find all of her links and social media profiles on ... More

Tell us what you think!


  1. ProudMomma says:

    I dont get involved with social media and the things on it. I have facebook to keep up with family and friends, but that’s all.

  2. i said nothing. too many false stories and conspiracy theories.

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