Thinking about Twitter post-Boston

This isn’t quite the post I promised last week. I’ll get to that one — a list of my favorite Twitter feeds — next time.

For now, I can’t stop thinking about the events of last week as a watershed in the history of social media. At every turn, from first-hand accounts of bombings at the Boston Marathon, to public mourning, to the role of Twitter and Reddit in attempting to solve the crime via crowd-sourced investigations, to FBI encouraging people to broadcast suspect photos via social media, to the official use of Twitter by government officials placing greater Boston under de facto martial law, to the inability of print and television media to keep up with events as they unfolded on Twitter, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

The culmination of a week of bad news — bombs, exploding fertilizer plants, stupid Congressional votes on guns, ricin letters in the mail — came, of course, when I woke up on the morning of the 19th just in time to read (on Twitter) about shots being fired near MIT. As the drama unfolded, I worried first that it was a campus shooting, and so I quickly searched Twitter feeds of friends who teach there to determine everyone was okay. And then my day was pretty much derailed as I read the commentary (mostly on Twitter, supplemented by trips to the Times and the Globe websites to see if they had any official versions of the stories) in real time. At one point, the most engrossing feed on Twitter came from a kid (Twitter user @akitz) who was watching the shootout going on outside his Watertown home. Someone somewhere tweeted something to the effect that never before in human history had the observed world and the recorded world meshed so fully so immediately. It certainly felt that way.

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People were tweeting information gleaned from police scanners. Suspect names came across. Amateur sleuths kept at it. Commentators sensitive to representations of Muslims in the media pointed out that the principal suspect had a Hindu name. The FBI photos made it look like one of the suspects was white, but we were given to understand that one of his parents was Indian. Someone suggested that this suspect, a former Brown student, already had a polished social media image crafted by his family, in the interest of finding him after he’d gone missing last month. They linked to this article. I retweeted the link, fascinated by the degree to which social media had shaped this story even prior to the bombings.

Of course it turns out that the missing former Brown student wasn’t, in fact, one of the two suspects lobbing IEDs at police in the streets of Watertown. Twitter proceeded to melt down:

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A Twitter acquaintance whose steady sensibility I admire had already asked this question:

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This really made me think. What were we doing? Simply consuming news? Participating in a collective ritual of some sort? Watching a new form of reality TV? Collective commentary is one of the most enjoyable and most annoying things about Twitter. People routinely observe that things like the Academy Awards are so much more bearable, even kind of fun, if you participate in a running commentary on Twitter, than they would be otherwise. I’ve tuned into several media events — including but not limited to awards shows — simply to enjoy the simultaneous chatter on Twitter. Watching major TV shows in common with your Twitter friends is also something people have come to enjoy, as long as you’re in a leading time zone and not exposed to spoilers. But what happened in Boston last week was something else altogether. Or was it?

I responded to Barthel:

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As it turns out, amateur sleuths on Twitter and Reddit really screwed things up, not least by exacerbating the pain of a family whose kid was already a missing person. So much for the strength of crowd-sourced information, at least in this instance. The fiasco has been the subject of much commentary. From a particularly rich piece in the Washington Post:

[T]he social media revolution meant that the FBI and Boston authorities were under intense pressure to move even faster, because thousands of amateur sleuths were mimicking the official investigation, inspecting digital images of the crowd on Boylston Street and making their own often wildly irresponsible conclusions about who might be the bombers.

On an investigative forum of, since removed from the site, users compiled thousands of photos, studied them for suspicious backpacks and sent their favorite theories spinning out into the wider Internet.

“Find people carrying black bags,” wrote the Reddit forum’s unnamed moderator. “If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.”

The moderator defended this strategy by arguing that “it’s been proven that a crowd of thousands can do things like this much quicker and better. . . . I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day.”

In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social media complicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.

That decision, which appeared to be a straightforward request for the public’s help in identifying the two men, turns out to have been a tactic with several purposes.

As investigators reviewed images, the young men in the black and white baseball caps came to stand out from the rest, Davis said.

By Wednesday afternoon, Patrick said in an interview Saturday, investigators had narrowed in on images of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the most likely suspect. “It was a remarkable moment when they narrowed in on Suspect Number 2,” he said.

Law enforcement officials debated whether to release the photos, weighing the risk of the suspects fleeing or staging another attack against the prospect of quicker identification. Officials said they went ahead with the public appeal for three reasons:

●Investigators didn’t want to risk having news outlets put out the Tsarnaevs’ images first, which might have made them the object of a wave of popular sympathy for wrongly suspected people, as had happened with two high school runners from the Boston area whose photos were published on the front page of the New York Post under the headline “Bag Men.” At the news conference, FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers sternly asked the public to view only its pictures or risk creating “undue work for vital law enforcement resources.”

●During a briefing Thursday afternoon, President Obama was shown the photos of the suspects by senior members of his national security team. Senior administration officials said that although Obama was not asked to approve release of the images by the FBI, the president offered a word of caution after viewing them. Be certain that these are the right suspects before you put the pictures out there, he advised his national security team, according to the administration officials.

●Investigators were concerned that if they didn’t assert control over the release of the Tsarnaevs’ photos, their manhunt would become a chaotic free-for-all, with news media cars and helicopters, as well as online vigilante detectives, competing with police in the chase to find the suspects. By stressing that all information had to flow to 911 and official investigators, the FBI hoped to cut off that freelance sleuthing and attend to public safety even as they searched for the brothers.

It’s probably safe to say that many champions of grassroots, socially networked reporting felt duly chastened. (“If you can’t trust a pseudonymous Reddit user called ‘Pizza Time’ who can you trust?”) The unwitting bombing suspect’s family is rightly indignant. But it seems more clear to me than ever that we live in a new media landscape. In spite of its failings, I can’t imagine going through a situation like last Friday’s without Twitter as my primary filter for news. Those of you who don’t use it — where do you turn, and what kind of information do you find there?

4 responses to “Thinking about Twitter post-Boston”

  1. Dave says:

    Twitter is good for stuff like this, if you know how to filter messages for likely truth value. Not everyone knows how to do that. I also listened to the local public radio station some, and watched the stream of the local CBS station. Plus the Unfogged comment thread — Unfogged is good when enough people turn their attention to an unfolding event.

    Twitter was great, much better than any other source, for the big OWS actions. You still had to filter, but at least you got information, and it was granular and from lots of sources.

  2. T-Mo says:

    On Thursday night I saw the story about the MIT officer right before I went to bed. I woke up around 4am and was unable to go back to sleep right away, so I checked the news on my idiotPad and saw notices of the developing story (shoot out, manhunt, etc). I found the app, downloaded it, and started following their Twitter feed on the story, occasionally jumping to other news sources (and FB, where friends were pointing to even more sources). I was completely gripped as I “watched” the story unfold.

    I’m still unsure that I’ll ever develop an affinity for or facility with Twitter, but I’m glad it was there to help me follow these events more or less as they happened. It felt a bit like what I imagine it was like reading ticker tapes as they came spilling off the teletype machines of yore.

  3. Bryan says:

    Carr and Scott talking abt how they get news during a crisis. I identify w/ the preference for scrubbing through the underbrush of social media making sense for yourself rather than listening to someone report. Scott’s idea — that if you’re watching someone on TV “reporting” then they’re not actually finding out anything new at the moment — makes me realize why I detest TV news and even find radio less and less useful.