By Maddie Gugger, Henry Schmidel, Sneha Shetty and Anneliese Ziegenbein

Merrimack Valley residents used social media to spread information (and misinformation) during the natural gas disaster of Thursday, September 13.

When Columbia Gas experienced disastrous malfunctions in their natural gas lines last Thursday, the residents of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover were left in the dark. Structures went up in flames, plumes of smoke erupted into the sky, and nobody knew what was happening, or who was safe.

When the traditional forms of communication failed, social media stepped in to help. Many people were evacuated from their homes, away from their televisions and the standard local news. As a result, news spread like wildfire through texts, Twitter, Facebook, and every other such site. All of them were overflowing with information and anecdotes from the people living the situation.

One of the most popular and simple ways to notify others about your safety was through Facebook. A safety check was created by the popular website in which you could mark yourself safe. It was also useful in order to get updates about the situation and learn about safety centers. Senior Charlyna Lopez commented on the Facebook check saying, “That’s how I knew most of my childhood friends were safe since I couldn’t contact them directly.”

Twitter was another form of social media that was used to learn about the unknowns. Many users checked the pages of several news channels as well as accounts from first responders and town officials in order to comprehend the situation and the necessary precautions to be taken.

While many were evacuating, traffic built up by the second. Senior Alice Burke shared how while she was driving to her grandmother’s away from Andover, her driving app, Waze, kept her updated on road and highway closures every thirty minutes.

Andover High School cheerleading coach and Lawrence educator Ashley Baldwin, who is highly connected to students in both communities, relied on social media platforms and email to contact her students and cheerleaders “in order to make sure that they were safe…, keep in touch and offer [her] support in regards to what was happening… and also [to] keep them informed in regards to scheduling and location changes if need be.”

While social media proved to be an effective resource for communication it soon became a home for hearsay and rumor. Many Andover High School students shared similar stories about how they heard that the Andover High fieldhouse and West Middle School exploded. It appears that many saw the abundance of fire trucks loading at West Middle in preparation for duty and assumed the school was on fire, sparking a spread of rumors around town.  

“We heard that the field house was on fire, it was not. We heard that McDonalds was on fire, it was not,” stated senior Olivia Gillman.

With all the different social media platforms, spreading misinformation was much easier and happened much quicker.

Baldwin remarked that “social media as a whole can be negative for the community when people…unintentionally set fires with false information…instead of waiting it out for the actual information from first responders, or the governor, or the town offices.” The circulation of false information added to the mass hysteria and built unnecessary worry where it was not needed.

This is one in a series of articles reported by the students of the Newspaper Production class following gas explosions and fires in Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover last week.