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April 26, 2013

Multi, Social Media Play Huge Role in Solving Boston Bombing

by Carolyn Presutti

The two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were identified, in part, through a massive dissemination of information and photos to the whole world.  Twitter, Facebook and Internet websites all are credited with the effort.

Millions across the world saw these photos instantly.  And this video of the suspects on a surveillance tape from a store across the street from the marathon finish line.

“Today we are enlisting the public’s help in identifying the two suspects,” said Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] special agent Richard DesLauriers.

The FBI photos of suspect 1 and suspect 2, as they were known at the time, were instantaneously tweeted and re-tweeted.  Facebooked and facebook shared.  This is the world we live in now.  Immediate access.  Active citizen involvement.

“This is a very serious situation we are dealing with.  We would appreciate your cooperation," said Massachusetts State Police Col. Tim Alben.

So thousands of marathon spectators flipped through their cell phone photos and videos - to see if they could match the suspects. They re-posted the FBI website address.  But the social media aspect had a downside - when the public made a mismatch and targeted an innocent bystander.  FBI special agent in charge Richard DesLauriers warned against rash judgments.

“Other photos should not be deemed credible, and they unnecessarily divert the public’s attention in the wrong direction and create undue work for vital law enforcement resources,” he said.

Eventually police got a clearer look at both suspects -  brothers Tamerlan and  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  And, through Tamerlan's YouTube page, discovered his support of jihad or Islamic holy war. 

In the end, it was not a printed news release, phone calls or a news conference that announced the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  It was a twitter message posted by the Boston Police Department.

It said "Captured! The search is done.  The terror is over.  And justice has won."

VOA found out through a police two-way radio on the scene in Watertown.  Boston's mayor sat in a police cruiser, grabbed the radio and addressed the officers saying, "We got him! Congratulations and Thank you".

Sean Mussenden teaches digital journalism at the University of Maryland.  He says this is the new normal for investigations.

“It’s also the present, the modern media landscape in which we live.  The audience is a huge active participant in these sorts of stories,” he said.

From surveillance cameras to cellphones to facebook to twitter to YouTube - the Boston bombing investigation relied on it all.  But in the end, it was the public and their social connections that helped police crack the suspects' identities.