Noel Wilkerson was in her southwest Austin home on Sunday when her evening was jarred by the sound of an explosion.
“It sounded like a huge cannon had gone off,” Wilkerson said.
Turns out, it was a bomb. Her neighborhood was the site of the fourth attack by Austin’s suspected serial bomber. Like many of her neighbors, Wilkerson turned to social media to find out what happened.
“Within seconds, Nextdoor started with posts,” she said, referencing the private social network for neighborhoods.
Her experience was far from unique. Technology provided a new way for Austin residents to deal with the crisis. Residents used internet-enabled video home security technology like Ring to surveil their homes and report suspicious activity. And as bombs kept exploding in Austin and surrounding areas this month, many Texans turned to Nextdoor and to private neighborhood Facebook groups and email lists to keep each other informed and feel safer. But some also acknowledged that the fear expressed on the sites can make a crisis seem even worse.
Police used the tools, too, to collect evidence and share information with the public.
“The neighborhood, while freaked out because of the seriousness of the ongoing bomb situation, remained calm,” Wilkerson said. “Using Nextdoor, we were kept up informed as the story unfolded — all through the night to now. We were told of the roadblocks, lockdown, tips on turning in surveillance to authorities, suspicious vehicles that had been seen, road openings, media staging and details about the bombing.”
The attacks killed two people and injured several others before the bomber died in a confrontation with police on Wednesday. In addition to the bomb in southwest Austin, three bombs went off on the east side of the city. Another bomb exploded at a FedEx facility in Schertz, near San Antonio. A sixth was found at another FedEx facility but never detonated.
Authorities say 23-year-old Pflugerville resident Mark Conditt was responsible for the violence.
Since the first attack, there were hundreds of conversations about the bombings in local communities, according to Steve Wymer, the vice president of communications and policy for Nextdoor.
Wymer said neighbors have been using the site to check in on one another, share helpful news articles and receive updates from the Austin Police Department. He added, however, that he couldn’t say definitively whether the increase in the number of posts is specifically related to the bombings.
“There’s definitely an uptick of activity and reports in Austin because there’s a ton going on,” Wymer said, noting that the city recently concluded its annual South by Southwest festival. “This happened in Houston during the hurricanes or even when something positive happens, like the Astros winning the World Series. You see massive upticks just because people discuss, virtually, what they would in real life — important newsworthy events.”
Residents say the bombings have been a big topic of conversation on the forums. People have drawn attention to suspicious packages and exchanged theories about the attacks. In one neighborhood, a post even offered the services of the author’s dog, which had been trained to sniff out bombs.
Lilly Timon, who lives about four miles from the fourth bomb site, recalls walking her dog before it got dark Sunday evening and then settling in at home with her husband for a late dinner and a movie.
“We got a text message from my step-son in North Austin asking if we were OK and if we had heard about the bombing,” Timon said. “While my husband flipped on the news, I got an alert from our private neighborhood Facebook group page. One of our neighbors has a sister who lives on the street where the bombing occurred.”
Timon regularly checks her private Facebook group, which she said is limited to others living on her street. Now, Timon said, she has a greater appreciation for the group and relied on both her community and social technology to stay updated on news.
Authorities utilized the technology, too. The Austin Police Department has a partnership with Nextdoor, which allows it to post specific messages to relevant communities within the city. When Sunday’s bombing hit, the police department warned those in nearby areas to stay indoors and to stay vigilant.
Local authorities also asked Texans to send in video footage captured from video doorbell and surveillance platforms to help them catch the person responsible.
“If you have video surveillance on your house, we want to get your video footage so we can have that analyzed or identified for anything that might be of interest,” interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said at a press conference Monday.
Gov. Greg Abbott later said that investigators used surveillance images to confirm that the bomber’s car appeared at multiple bombing locations.
Anthony Nguyen, who’s lived in north Travis County for more than eight years, said he’s been using technology security services since before the bombings. But as of late, he’s been more vigilant. He said these sites serve as a “double-edged sword,” however, since they help him and his neighbors know what’s going on while also creating the perception that there’s more crime, when in actuality there’s just an increased awareness to it.
Dale Dougherty, the founder of Make Magazine, said the gains that come with these apps come with their own frustrations. Social technology often opens the door to racial profiling and unreliable self-reporting, he said.
“The downside probably is answering the question of how much you trust some of the self-reporting done [through these apps],” Dougherty said. “People can be deceived, anxious and emotional, and that can make situations seem worse.”
But in times of emergency, specifically the bomb scare that was afoot in Austin, Dougherty said apps like Facebook and Nextdoor provide a real benefit to communities.
Timon, the southwest Austinite, agrees. Since the bombings, social technology has helped keep her fears at bay rather than add misinformation fuel to the fire, she said.
“It’s been more of a security thing for us because we know these groups and we trust the people in them,” Timon said. “At the end of the day, we trust what’s being posted.”
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