To Catch A Bomber: The Pros and Cons Of Social Media Sleuthing

One week you’re musing about Twitter’s new music service (it launched yesterday, by the way); the next week you’re wondering if social media can help catch a terrorist. If that doesn’t tell you how all-encompassing social media is, I suppose nothing will.

So, yes, like many of you, I’ve been horrified and enraged that some person or persons actually thinks that setting off a couple of bombs  -- killing and maiming in the process -- is the right way to get some as-yet-unarticulated point across. But I’ve also been fascinated by how social media has embarked on trying to solve the biggest whodunit since social media began … and wondering if this is a good or bad thing.

These vague thoughts rattling in my head over the last few days achieved a certain focus when I saw this simple post from Barbarian Group (and former Bostonian) Benjamin Palmer, who, when posting a link on Facebook to the popular 4chan thread that is trying to find the bomber(s) said, simply: “go internet go.” At that moment, I actually thought to myself: “What if the hivemind did crack the case?” -- as silly as that might sound.

If you’re not aware, what 4chan and Reddit and any number of other hobbyists were trying to do is use the vast amount of publicly available visual material before, during and after the bombings to identify who in the crowd might be responsible. To some extent, it’s an irresponsible exercise, in that, if you believe that information is meant to be free, that means misinformation is too. Essentially, in this instance, that translates into anyone who brought a black backpack to the Marathon finish line last Monday having now been outed as a potential bomber. And, the hivemind was almost entirely wrong. There were plenty of alleged suspects posted on various forums that we now know were not the people the FBI had set its sights on.

But there’s an upside to this mad social media dash to find the bomber(s) too. First, there is the sheer volume of information now available, some of it provided by official sources like surveillance cameras and TV news, but much of it provided by the likes of you and me. While the authorities may find some of this amateur sleuthing unwelcome, a preponderance of potential clues -- as hard as it will be to sift through them all --  is a problem I’d think any investigator would like to have.  If that were not the case, you wouldn’t have seen agents swarming Logan International Airport as marathoners left town, trying to scare up evidence.

The problem, as always, is balance. We are an untrained, angry mob, which is probably looking to social media tools to solve the crime as a way of taking back some of the control and empowerment we lost on Monday. The FBI is a measured, well-trained organization that has patience and can find significant evidence in something most of us would pass over. (Allegedly, the person who found the lid of the pressure cooker used in one of the bombs on a nearby building first thought it was a hubcap.)

And then there’s the official media, whose main motivation seems primarily about being first with the story, even if they’re wrong 10 times before they actually get an element of the story right, but that’s another story.

But wherever you fall in this discussion may, in some sense, not matter. While solving crimes has often involved both police and the people, social media, as it so often does, amplifies the vox populi. What we saw this week is the blueprint for how many notorious crimes will be tracked and solved in the future. It will be imperfect, but if some social media sleuthing is part of what it takes to catch a bomber, we may have to learn to live with the downside.

Go Internet, go.

Recommend (1)
3 comments about "To Catch A Bomber: The Pros and Cons Of Social Media Sleuthing".
  1. Corey Benjamin from L Street C , April 19, 2013 at 1:32 p.m.
    No doubt, there are pitfalls to relying on the untrained public at large to locate clues and provide actionable details. However, the mantra of "See Something, Say Something" hasn't gone away since it was first popularized following 9/11, it was just lulled into the background over time. So what are we going to do now? Well, we all have phones (nearly all of us) and we all have eyes (again, nearly all of us)...so we should build an app or something that allows people to share this information efficiently with a network of others. Entering stage right, the crowdfynd app and website (www.crowdfynd.com), for Lost, Found and Crime/Suspicious Activity Reporting.
  2. Nancy Jean from Lifespan , April 21, 2013 at 4:57 p.m.
    Catherine, another great post, and so insightful. I too struggled with it this week, but I think social media is a vital part of every aspect of our lives, for better or worse. I agree that this may be just the beginning of things to come in terms of "social media sleuthing." But let's face it... these social networks and our digital lives allow us to stay up to date with breaking news, share information, opinions and sometimes too much information, connect with people, show support, empathize, and even come together as a country in times of tragedy. Helping to solve crimes seems like a logical next step, right? I will always remember the "CAPTURED" tweet by the Boston PD, and will always recall with chills the "I'm a stress free kind of guy" that Suspect #2 tweeted just two days after the bombings. It's been an amazing, historical and emotional week, and through it all, social media was part of it, and helped to solve the first terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. I think we need to respect its many uses! Thanks for this wonderful post!
  3. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost , April 22, 2013 at 10:56 a.m.
    Hi Nancy Jean, Thanks for the effusive comment! Cathy