The dramatic manhunt for suspects in the Boston marathon bombings that took place in the evening and early morning hours of April 18 and 19 was covered extremely well by a group of non-journalist online civilians . . . until it fell apart under its own weight.
It began with a tweet at roughly 11 pm, saying that shots had been fired on the MIT campus. As an editor on the FT’s newsdesk in New York, I alerted our reporter on the ground in Boston and began to hunt online for more information.
Having written the previous day about the benefits and dangers of internet sleuthing to identify suspects based on pictures from the scene, I was keen to watch the internet’s detectives and vigilantes operate in real time. What you see below is how the night unfolded, based on emails, tweets, texts and other communications.
About 11:15pm, a tweet directs me to MIT’s emergency page, which says that shots have been fired on campus. Shortly after that, I find a Reddit post dedicated to tracking the MIT incident. The post has since been removed by “mods” (moderators who oversee sections of Reddit) but is recreated here.
Reddit leads me to two more things: a link to an online stream of the Boston Police scanner and a chatroom of people listening to and discussing the scanner.
The chatroom is a mixed bag of conspiracy theorists, scanner hobbyists (which I guess is a thing), and people following the case. Together, they turn the fragmented and hard-to-follow stream coming over the scanner into an intelligible flow: repeating important tidbits, helping to clarify what needs emphasis, making sure statements that are retracted by the police are heard clearly. Numerous times throughout the night when the phrase “officer down” is heard, it is a part of “send an officer down to…” instead of implying injury.
Just before midnight, I pass along to one of the editors this tweet from the Cambridge Police account, detailing that the scene is active:
— Cambridge Police (@CambridgePolice) April 19, 2013
It becomes clear that there’s a natural flow of information: from the scanner to the chatroom or the Reddit post’s comments, which then makes its way to Twitter. Meanwhile, television news has reported on the MIT shooting, but much of what I see is concentrated on the tragic explosion in Texas.
About 12:45 am, after listening to the scanner for at least an hour and trying to piece together whatever information I’ve missed, I consider calling it a night. The Reddit post and chat room are going nowhere, with nobody seeming to have heard much of anything since the shooting.
And that’s when things come alive. Over the scanner, there is a call from Watertown that shots have been fired and explosives used in an engagement with police. I pass that information to our reporter on the ground, then feverishly reload Reddit. The chatroom is reinvigorated.
In the chat room, people are constantly passing links to different scanners back and forth, as some stop working (attributed in the chatroom to the sudden increase in attention). Some people are listening to the Cambridge PD scanner, others Boston, or now Watertown. I eventually settle on Boston.
Twitter also begins to explode. The number of people listening to any particular scanner increases dramatically (many of the streams display how many listeners are tuned in). People on Reddit and the chatroom as ecstatic that they have all this information before the TV stations.
In addition to listening to the scanners, people begin posting other quality resources. Seth Mnookin, (@sethmnookin) a journalist at MIT, has been on the story since the initial shooting and tweets many useful updates. Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) later posts photos of bullet holes in his house from the shooting, as well as the police presence in the area. This is the crowd at its best – finding useful people and making sure others know about them.
— Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) April 19, 2013
At this point, the information I’m getting from a bunch of people I’ve never met is helpful. We’re not going to report any of it as fact, but it has aided in getting our people to the right places. It’s also proving to be a hornet’s nest of paranoia.
Most of the people I came across where reasonably level-headed. Quite a few, however, were intent on spreading their own personal viewpoint about what was going on. Links to posts on 4chan arguing the events in Boston were a “black flag” operation meant to help President Barack Obama ramp up gun control were popular, though not as popular as the prevailing theory about the identities of the bombers: that one of them was a Brown University student who had recently gone missing.
Over the next couple of hours: Things continue to escalate.
The TV channels eventually catch up to the story and begin broadcasting from Watertown. The images match what had been heard on the scanner and spread through the internet – police flooding the area and setting up perimeters. One suspect in custody. Something about a naked guy. Everyone is trying hard to keep up, but the fact that much of what goes out on the scanner gets contradicted or retracted minutes later makes it very difficult to determine what exactly has happened.
As the major news outlets turn their attention to the situation, they begin to report from what the internet doesn’t have: sources in law enforcement. The Boston Globe reports what everyone had suspected: the scene in Watertown is related to the bombings at the Boston marathon. Other reports emerge from various outlets: a suspect in custody is injured; the suspect in custody is dead; the suspects had improvised explosives with them in the form of pressure cookers.
It’s in this chaotic atmosphere that the night’s worst falsehood emerges. Just before 3 am, a friend who I’m talking with on GChat forwards me a tweet saying the Boston PD scanner has identified the two suspects, one being the missing Brown University student who had been discussed on Reddit and various other sites as a possible bombing suspect.
It hits Twitter like wildfire. There are hundreds of retweets of the names, attributing them to the BPD scanner. And the scanner has been so good to us so far, how could it be wrong?
But I’ve been listening to the scanner, and I have heard nothing like that. I pay particularly close attention to the chat room to see what the others listening heard. Nobody mentions the name until many minutes later. But that’s enough for some of the people who believed it was him all along.
At this point, trying to claim that the scanner never identified suspects would be like trying to talk down a tsunami. Links are passed around: photos of the student (who admittedly bears some resemblance to the FBI photos), a video from the family wishing for his safe return, collages of photos that online sleuths have put together.
What until then has been a flawed, but seemingly well intentioned and relatively accurate flow of information, has been suddenly and absolutely destroyed. From that moment on, almost everything I read or saw reported was seen through the lens of these two misidentified suspects.
Around 5:15 am, I call it quits. The scanner news has slowed as the manhunt broadened. A Massachusetts State Police officer has given a statement, providing us with the concrete confirmation of facts to publish.
Proponents of online sleuthing say that the majority of people involved have good intentions and can help authorities. I think they’re right. There is some good that comes out of these situations. My experience last night was mostly positive and generally helpful.
Unfortunately, the system is easily manipulated by people with ulterior motives – particular theories, viewpoints, or just a penchant for mischief. The extreme liquidity and openness that gives online sleuthing and crowdsourced investigations so much of their power, also make them easy to trick.
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