Mom Shellie Ross' Tweet About Son's Death Sparks Debate Over Use of Twitter During Tragedy

Mommy Bloggers Defend Ross' Tweet, Saying Online Community Is a Support System


Dec. 16, 2009 —

Amid tweets about the weather and her pets, mommy blogger Shellie Ross shocked many of her 5,000 followers with a message on Twitter they weren't expecting to read.

"Fog is rolling in thick scared the birds back in the coop," Ross tweeted at 5:22 p.m. on Monday.

At 5:23 p.m., her son called 911 to report that his brother, 2-year-old Bryson, was floating unconscious in the pool. Records show that the Brevard County Fire-Rescue paramedics arrived at Ross' Mirrett Island, Fla., home at 5:38 p.m.

And 34 minutes later, at 6:12 p.m., Ross tweeted again. "Please pray like never before, my 2 yr old fell in the pool."

Nearly five hours later, after her son had been pronounced dead, Ross tweeted again.

"Remembering my million dollar baby," she wrote. Ross included a photo of Bryson in the post, time-stamped at 11:08 p.m. A few minutes later, she posted another photo of her son.

The Brevard County Sheriff's office told that Ross' 11-year-old son called 911 after they discovered the toddler's body floating the pool. According to Public Information Officer Lt. Bruce Barnett, the mother and older son had been cleaning out a chicken coop while the toddler was playing in the backyard.

Ross had asked her older son to turn off a hose inside the pool enclosure, and the gate behind him evidently did not close properly, said Barnett.

"When [Ross] finished cleaning she went inside and was looking for the 2-year-old, who she thought was with her 11-year-old, and wasn't able to find him and started to panic," he said. "That's when she found him floating."

Barnett said that Ross estimated her son was in the pool for "maybe five minutes," and performed CPR on her son for the duration of the nine-minute 911 call.

Another officer working on the case told that they are aware of the mother's Twitter account and are looking into it, but declined to say more, citing the open case.

Reached by telephone at her Florida home, Ross told, "Nobody has a right to question" why she tweeted.

"I didn't tweet-by-tweet the accident," she added.

Shellie Ross Criticized by Some For Tweeting Son's Death

Ross' public announcement of her son's death prompted both sympathy and anger from fellow bloggers and Twitter users, many of whom were so taken aback by the shocking announcement that they questioned the validity of her tweet.

Madison McGraw was one of the bloggers who reached out via Twitter to several news organizations asking them to verify the boy's death so she would know it wasn't a hoax. "Hope no one is sending donations w/o verifying," McGraw tweeted.

In response to her critics, Ross said, "Anybody who is attacking me on Twitter is a small-minded a**hole who deserves to rot in hell."

"People who are attacking me are just trying to drive attention to their blogs," she added.

Lisa Neal Gualtieri, an adjunct clinical professor of the health communication program at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and an expert in social media and public health, said that for some, social networks become their "entire support networks."

"Many people become closer to the people who they use Facebook and Twitter with than they do with their friends and neighbors," said Gualtieri. "And many people even use social media as their primary way of connecting with their friends."

"But, it's hard to understand under the circumstances how somebody could, in such a devastating situation, sit at their computer or phone and type," she said. "It's not so much that she used Twitter to reach out or that she was doing a very ordinary activity at such an extraordinary time."

Ross, who tweeted under the moniker "Military_mom," was a prominent mommy blogger on the site Her friends there had already begun organizing a central place for cards and donations to be sent just minutes after she sent the first tweet announcing the death.

The furor over Ross' tweets has been felt even by those who were critical of her.

McGraw told that she is receiving threats on her Twitter account by other bloggers who are saying she should be "beat up" for questioning Ross' story.

"The first thing I thought when I saw the tweet was that it was very sad," said McGraw. "But then I thought, 'Who would tweet that her son just drowned?' I couldn't believe it."

"I looked at news stations and couldn't find anything and I hoped it wasn't just another scam," she said. "I asked for verification, and boy did that get me in trouble."

McGraw said that as a former paramedic who has three children of her own, she found it shocking that a mother who had just lost a child could be composed enough to tweet about the incident.

"I've seen people react [to a death], but they're screaming their heads off, crying and they don't know what to do," she said. "They're not on Twitter. I've never seen that before and I was just shocked."

"I think she was very entrenched in Twitter," said McGraw. "And I think maybe her whole life seemed to revolve around social media and now this is a great lesson for all of us."

Ross sent a tweet to McGraw Tuesday morning asking where her heart is.

Mom Bloggers Defend Use of Twitter During Tragedy

Trisha Haas, another mom blogger who founded the site where Ross was an administrator and worked on the public relations team, said that it was not unusual for Ross to want her online community of friends to know what was going on.

"She twitters a lot and was very good close friends with people in the [blogging] community," said Haas, who also knows Ross personally offline.

Asked if she thought it was shocking that Ross tweeted the news of her son's death, Haas said, "Absolutely not."

"It's an excellent way to disseminate information," she said.

Haas said that while Ross could have called 200 of her friends, tweeting the news was "much easier" to reach out to all of her friends simultaneously, who then "immediately set in place a support system in one moment."

"As quickly as we can get the information out to support someone is as quick as there's criticism," said Haas, of some of the negative attention Ross' case has been receiving from people like McGraw. "It's very unfortunate that's the reaction."

Colleen Padilla, another mom blogger, said that she too would consider reaching out to the online community in a time of need.

"In the defense of her tweeting during a tragedy, that is her community," said Padilla. "I think today, the Internet is a place where mom's are seeking support, advice and answers."

Ross, who is now mourning the death of her son with her husband Steven, who is in the air force and was scheduled to deploy to Iraq, said that she and her family want to be left alone, and want their son to be remembered as a "powerful little boy."

"He was full of life and commanded attention in a room when he entered it," she said.