In a horrifying attack, 3 people were killed and more than 100 were injured, many seriously, when two bombs exploded near the finishing line of the prestigious Boston Marathon on 16 April 2013. A police officer was killed, and another was seriously injured in the ensuing manhunt for the two suspects believed to be the perpetrators of the attack. Eventually, a suspect was killed during the manhunt and the second was apprehended on 19 April 2013. Both suspects, who were brothers, were ethnic Chechens who spent time in Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan before moving to the United States a decade ago.[1]

The scene of the explosion. Source: bbc.co.uk
The scene of the explosion. Source: bbc.co.uk

The bombing was significant as it was the first successful terrorist attack on US soil since the September 11th Attacks in 2001. The use of social media tools like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook in the aftermath of the attack also attracted discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of the use of social media.

Response of social media users
One of the first indications that explosions had happened at the Boston Marathon was an update by a user with the handle @DeLoBarstool on Twitter. In his message, DeLo posted: “Uhh explosions in Boston”.

As the immediate aid response to the Boston Marathon attack was drawing down and investigators started seeking answers to solve the attack, police authorities started to request help from members of the public by asking them to contribute videos and photos of the attack to aid in the investigation.[2] However, some users on the Internet and the social media went even further and began posting updates of police operations and pictures of suspected “bombers” in the aftermath of the attack, causing much confusion and distress for the victims, investigators, and the general public.

The FBI released images of the two suspects involved in the bombings. Source: abcnews.go.com.
The FBI released images of the two suspects involved in the bombings. Source: abcnews.go.com.

Virtual manhunts were started on social media sites like Reddit and 4chan, where users on these sites started to analyse photos and videos of the scenes. Pictures of people who were behaving strangely before, during and after the attack began appearing on these sites. A “lead” on Reddit indicated that a possible suspect was a 17-year-old Salah Barhoun, who was identified on the site as “Blue Robe Man” because he was shown to be carrying a “sagging” shoulder bag – an indication that he was carrying something heavy, perhaps a bomb. The New York Post, a traditional news media outlet, picked up on this story and published his picture on its front page, claiming that Barhoun was wanted for questioning, an untrue claim.[3]

In another case, accusations by these online vigilantes caused even more grief and sadness for the family of Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student. One Reddit user claimed that she saw Tripathi in the footage of the bombing. After police investigators released images of the two suspects in the attack, members of Reddit believe that the image of one of the suspect indeed matches the description of Tripathi, and hate messages began streaming in on the Facebook page that Tripathi’s family used to find him. As it turned out, Tripathi had nothing to do with the attacks and Reddit users had misidentified the suspect.[4]

In another example, during the manhunt for the two terrorist suspects in Boston on 19 April, social media sites like Twitter were abuzz with tweets from residents in Boston about the police activity in their neighbourhoods. There were also live streams of the police radio chatter on the Internet, allowing listeners to hear what the police officers involved in the manhunt were talking about. Listeners also began to post updates on Twitter on what they heard from these radio streams. The Boston Police Department, concerned that these tweets may compromise their operations since they reveal locations and tactics employed by officers involved in the manhunt, released a statement on their official Twitter page: “WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched”.

Updates of police radio conversations posted on Reddit. Source: www2.macleans.ca
Updates of police radio conversations posted on Reddit. Source: www2.macleans.ca

Conclusion
Users and administrators on Reddit started to apologise for their actions when it became apparent that many of their “leads” turned out to be misinformation. The administrators of Reddit issued a public apology for their actions, which said that the “reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret” the incident, and pledged that they will “look at what happened and make sure that in the future” the team will “help and not hinder crisis situations”.[5]

President Barack Obama also commented after the manhunt of the suspects that in “this age of instant reporting, tweets and blogs, there's a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it's important we do this right”.

While some people may spread inaccurate information in the aftermath of such a crisis, there are also others who will use the social media responsibly to provide accurate information. In the case of the Boston attack, Massachusetts Institute of Technology teacher and journalist Seth Mnookin used his Twitter feed to rebut any inaccurate news or postings on the social media after the attack and during the manhunt. [6]

The Boston Marathon attack not only demonstrates how the threat of terrorism remains real today, but it also shows the damaging impacts of the misuse of social media in the aftermath of the incident. Although the social media may be a useful tool to disseminate critical information during a crisis, it is also important to remember that any information disseminated should be accurate and truthful, to prevent any unnecessary confusion for the public.

Thinking questions
  1. During a crisis, is it beneficial to use social media platforms to spread information? Why?
  2. What are some measures that can be taken to prevent irresponsible individuals from posting misleading information on the Internet?


[1] Boston Marathon bombing investigation turns to motive
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/20/us-usa-explosions-boston-shooting-idUSBRE93I0GQ20130420
[2] FBI Seeks Images in Boston Marathon Bomb Inquiry
http://nation.time.com/2013/04/16/fbi-seeks-images-in-boston-marathon-bomb-inquiry/
[3] Boston bombing: How internet detectives got it very wrong
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22214511
[5] Reddit Apologizes For Speculating About Boston Marathon Suspects
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/22/reddit-boston-marathon-apology-suspects_n_3133472.html
[6] Boston 'witchhunt' on social media sites – and a bad week for the old guard
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/22/boston-bombings-witchhunt-social-media