Technology, Social Media, and the Boston Marathon Bombing

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The Boston Marathon bombing, like most tragedies, has prompted countless reflections and questions; some of this soul-searching has been quite general – how is humanity capable of both ruinous evil and heroic good? – and some of it is quite specific – how many people where injured, who are they, exactly how did they get hurt? The much-discussed topic of how technology and social media have impacted the response to the Boston Marathon killings is also both general and specific. It is general in that people are asking expansive questions about what role, if any, amateurs armed with computers and an internet connection should play in an active terrorist investigation, and it is specific in that, regardless of how you answer the first question, amateurs are playing a role in an active terrorist investigation, zeroing in on the minutest details of the thousands of photos of the crime scene floating around the internet. We’ll attempt to navigate between the two poles, exploring the intersection of technology, social media, and the Boston Marathon bombing details that have emerged so far.

Immediately after the bombing, the world of social media exploded with activity. Everyone had something to say on Facebook and Twitter, and many people used these sites to reach out to anyone they might know in the Boston area (ourselves included). Activity also spiked on social media sites like Reddit and 4Chan – users of both forums immediately attempted to sift through data (primarily pictures) to help identify a suspect. Because of the work of thousands of eyes, users started to identify small details that might be relevant. People in the marathon crowd with backpacks were naturally scrutinized with particular care, and in one highly notable instance, two men were misidentified as suspects and put on the front page of the New York Post. In fact, neither person had anything to do with the bombing, clearly revealing the dangers of amateur investigators rushing to conclusions.

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As anyone even vaguely acquainted with the news today will surely know, the two suspects – Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, brothers thought to be originally from Chechnya or thereabout – have been identified, which led to a crazy sequence of events that will never be forgotten, at least not by the residents of certain neighborhoods in Boston who lived through a night of shootouts, car chases, and explosions. One suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who at age 26 is the older of the two brothers, was killed during the night in firefight with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, is still at large at the time of this writing, and multiple communities in Boston are on lock down as a consequence. Given that events are still unfolding, it is not yet clear exactly what role users of sites like Reddit and 4Chan, with their painstaking attention to photographic detail, played in identifying the suspect. However, given that law enforcement officials explicitly sought public assistance after the bombing, in part because they did not immediately know of any suspects, it seems likely that the wisdom of the crowd of amateurs, whatever shape this took, played some role.

Consider, for instance, what Timothy Alben, Superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police, said the day after the attack: “There has to be hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs, videos, or observations that were made down at that finish line yesterday. And I would encourage you to bring forward anything – you might not think its significant, but it might have some value to this investigation.”

And this is of course what people did. In addition to the thousands of tips submitted by people after the bombing, individuals also sent in an untold number of pictures and video. To help identify the suspects, federal agents reviewed terabytes of data, largely in the form of photographs and video. Where did all of this data come from? To be sure, some of it came from traditional sources, like surveillance cameras and pictures taken by journalists, but a huge amount of it also came from people at the marathon using cameras on their phones. The large number of images of the crime scene greatly increases the chance that at least some important detail is captured for further analysis. Indeed, after photos and videos of the suspects were released yesterday, users on Reddit quickly identified in additional photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a photograph that, as chance would have it, was taken by an amateur – a marathon participant using his iPhone.

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The availability of all this data is great, but the sheer volume of course makes it difficult to process. Take one of the more daunting tasks – watching thousands of hours of video. Fortunately, there are tools that can help index information in videos, allowing particular objects or people to be tracked, thereby pinpointing which segments in a sea of video clips are potentially relevant. For instance, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had a white baseball cap on, and this detail could conceivably be used to identify key parts of thousands of hours of video. Such tools are not perfect, though, and there is always power in numbers, so crowdsourcing efforts on sites like Reddit can seemingly play a helpful role as long as hasty conclusions aren’t reached.

There is much more to learn about the Boston Marathon bombing. The horror has not even reached a conclusion – one suspect is still at large, and there are hundreds if not thousands of law enforcement officials in Boston trying to figure out how to bring an end to the madness as we write. However, it seems clear that social media and technology played a not insignificant role in the wake the bombing. The countless photographs and videos submitted by people, which exist because almost everyone has a camera on them in the form of a phone, could not fail to have some relevance, and the work of users across various social networking sites certainly had some effect as well, whether good or bad.

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The Internet Patrol is and always has been free. We don't hide our articles behind a paywall, or restrict the number of articles you can read in a month if you don't give us money. That said, it does cost us money to run the site, so if something you read here was helpful or useful, won't you consider donating something to help keep the Internet Patrol free?
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