The unprecedented surge of social media posts – accurate and otherwise – in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing after “stunned” public safety officials, spurring calls for reform, said panelists at the Online News Association Conference in Atlanta.

ONA led an off-the-record workshop over the summer with journalists and Boston officials in a bid to improve social media usage during breaking news events. Panelists revealed findings – including suggestions for systems to rank and verify tweets – Thursday.

When the bombs went off near the finish line on April 15, public safety organizations and hospitals were overwhelmed by the volume of social media posts.

“At first, they didn’t know how to handle it,” said Teresa Hanafin, director of engagement and social media for the Boston Globe.

But officials quickly realized that social media was their single most valuable tool to connect with the public, Hanafin said.

Social media became backup communications when e-mail systems crashed. Authorities disseminated emergency information and announced news conferences via Twitter and other platforms, but also spent much valuable time correcting misinformation circulating online.

“It became a distraction,” Hanafin said.

Some medical officials viewed social media as “unreliable” and “noise.” Authorities could not verify Twitter accounts of people requesting information about injured or missing loved ones.

In the end, officials said called for establishing a social media public information command center that includes a collection of verified Twitter accounts.

ONA conducted brainstorming sessions to prototype new tools and solutions for future emergencies. Ideas included creating a more robust mobile alert system and setting up social media verification teams.

ONA is using the findings to fuel prototypes for new systems, said workshop leader Reggie Murphy, principal consultant at Electronic Ink.

“As this point, one of our goals is to determine how to move this conduit forward,” he said.

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