Lesson Learned: Twitter and The Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects

Insane. That is the best explanation I have for what I experienced on Friday, April 19, 2013. At 2:30am I was woken up by texts and calls from a number of friends. A single message was clear, “Turn on your television!!”

Immediately, I flipped on CNN (figuring it was most accurate and least bias) and became enthralled with what I saw. The police had engaged in a firefight with potential Boston Marathon bombers and were currently conducting a manhunt. Yes, the Boston PD was actively searching for a 19 year old kid who had fled from them. This is the same kid who, along with his 26 year old brother, had thrown pipe bombs and grenades at police, shot and killed a MIT police officer, and killed 3 innocent civilians at the Boston Marathon.

Considering my background in military and defense security, I was hooked. Quickly I jumped on social media, specifically Twitter and Reddit. Soon after I turned on the Boston PD police scanner. To say I was set-up in an internet manhunt command center would be an understatement.

After getting set-up, I began live tweeting all of the information I was getting. Things started out slowly and only the die-hard fanatics were awake for the first 4 hours. Between 6 and 7am, normal/sane people began waking up. The fun ensued. As I continued to live tweet the updates I was getting, Twitter users started to retweet, favorite, and reply to my content. At first it was a person here or there. Soon my Interaction timeline had so much activity that I couldn’t keep up. People from all over the world were paying attention.

Almost 20 hours later, I sent the best tweet of the day. It wasn’t the funniest or the cleverest, but it was the most important.

 

Throughout the 20 hour marathon of madness, I ate very little and slept even less. There was over 600 tweets total. Twitter shut down my account twice for exceeding their hourly rate limit. I gained close to 550 followers, had more than 750 retweets, and was mentioned over 300 times. While individuals from all over the world were tuning in to stay up-to-date on the newest developments, I was learning an important lesson.

Twitter is the most dynamic social platform on the face of the earth. The dissemination of real-time information has never been so easy. After the second Boston suspect was captured, tweets poured in describing how valuable my coverage had been. I don’t share this to boost my ego. I share it because I think that more individuals and companies should follow suit. Journalism and news are changing. A 24 year old sitting in his bedroom in North Carolina should not be 5 minutes to 3 hours ahead of the major news outlet.

Real-time authenticity is here. It’s not going anywhere. More and more individuals are coming to expect this. From teenagers to adults, people want updates, transparency, and results. Hopefully there are organizations paying attention because if not, they will be left behind!

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8 thoughts on “Lesson Learned: Twitter and The Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects

  1. Love this post. Coverage of the Boston bombings have shown just how valuable citizen journalism can be. That the average Joe can compete with the big guys is exciting stuff, and well done.

  2. Good stuff here. I was following it between work (tv, social, web) and you led the way on Twitter for me. You also convinced me that I should purchase a scanner for entertainment purposes…to do list. Thanks for the journalistic work!

  3. I have a completely different take on this. I live in Somerville, Massachusetts (just north of Cambridge) and have been hooked on my scanner, my TV, Twitter, Reddit, and mainstream media websites for the last week. Like many people, I was up all night listening to my scanner (in your case a stream of a scanner) and constantly checking twitter, the mainstream media, Reddit, and Channel 5/Channel 7 here in Boston. I actually had been listening since the shooting at MIT was reported at about 11pm. I only took a few naps throughout the next day.

    I have to say that I found social media to be a really ugly, unreliable form of information. I won’t say anything specifically about you because I haven’t read what you tweeted, and perhaps you did an exemplary job, but Twitter has been mostly a cesspool of rumors and misunderstandings. I think it was more frustrating than ever for me because this story obviously impacted me personally as I live less than 5 miles from where the manhunt was taking place in Watertown and the entire metro region was pretty much shut down on Friday while we all locked ourselves inside our homes.

    Here are the most serious concerns from Thursday night and Friday:

    1. At least once per hour, Twitter would light up with people retweeting that suspect #2 had been captured, when it wasn’t true. Why? Because people are listening to scanner streams without any previous experience at listening to a scanner. What was happening was that suspects in unrelated crimes were being picked up in other parts of the metro area, the listener would hear “Suspect in custody,” and they would assume the police were talking about bombing suspect #2 (as if he were the only criminal in all of Boston).
    2. Twitter falsely accused a missing Brown student of being suspect #2. This is the ugliest I have ever seen Twitter. The name of this missing Brown student was the top trending item. In a short period of time, people had directed an immense amount of rage at a completely innocent person. This person’s reputation will be damaged for the rest of his life.
    3. Twitter was frequently lighting up with information that the suspect was known to be at a specific address and the police were about to raid it. Not only was this false, but if it were true, the suspect could have used this information to help him harm even more police officers or somehow escape (again).
    4. As Boston woke up and paranoia was rampant, people started reporting every unattended bag and every person with a hat and backpack to the police. I’m sure you are well aware of this having listened to the feeds. The police, taking absolutely no chances, responded to every one of these. Unfortunately, many people on Twitter simply reported these as “potential bombs” and “potential suspect” which was freaking people out all over Boston because these reports were literally coming in from every neighborhood.

    Years ago, chain rumor e-mails were very popular (and still are in some circles). Every day you would see e-mails such as “FW:FW:FW:FW: MICROSOFT TO TAX EMAIL.” Twitter is literally the same thing, except in real time.

    Again, you yourself might have done a great job. But someone browsing twitter has no idea if someones tweet is the result of responsible journalism or just another unsubstantiated rumor. It is impossible to distinguish the signal from the noise. Ironically, the only time a tweet like this has value is when it links to a mainstream media source that corroborates it. Then people turn around and say Twitter is replacing the mainstream media.

    I also should point out that every local media outlet in the world has a radio scanner. This has been true since the beginning of time. The reason you don’t see them use the radio scanner as a primary source is because it is an unreliable one. Information received from the scanner is verified (usually) with a department source before it is reported.

    By the way, the best source throughout this ordeal (besides my scanner and experience with it) was WCVB (Channel 5) in Boston. They did a hell of a job.

    • Keith – I really appreciate your comment. To be honest, I use to feel exactly how you did. Coming from a background in the military and intelligence, information is always important. Here are a few things to think about:

      1. Many individuals sent me emails, texts, or tweets saying that they were in some sort of situation where Twitter was their only source of information. These individuals were more concerned with getting the general idea of emerging events, rather than the exact details.

      2. I encourage you to go back and read through my stream. As I shared information, transparency was of the utmost importance. If I hadn’t confirmed something, I was explicit about it. I felt that sharing information in real-time was more important than ensuring that every detail was confirmed. My followers seemed to agree as well.

      3. Unfortunately, I was one of the many individuals who tweeted the Brown students name. I agree with everything you said above on the topic. The reason I used his name was because the police were saying his name over the scanner as a suspect. At that moment in time, the police considered him a suspect. In my eyes, it was worth sharing. Very unfortunate that they were wrong.

      4. While I understand your point about Twitter being more real-time than more traditional “confirmed” news, I believe that will be the future. People want to experience the ups and downs of the investigation. They want to be led down a path, only to find out it was wrong minutes later. It is better than a Hollywood movie. With that being said, the platform allows for real-time news sharing. I think that users will eventually find sources that they trust and follow them. Will individuals tweet obnoxious, blatantly wrong information? Of course. Those users will lose followers and be subjected to the “punishment” of the community.

      In all, I think that there is a self-selection process that occurs in social media. If you create authentic, transparent, and compelling content, than you will develop a following. If you don’t, nobody will be listening as you talk. This is the beauty of social media. Again, I encourage you to check out my coverage and let me know what you think. See if it falls in-line with what you think is acceptable. Thanks!

      • “In all, I think that there is a self-selection process that occurs in social media. If you create authentic, transparent, and compelling content, than you will develop a following. If you don’t, nobody will be listening as you talk. ”

        This statement is excellent, AJ. I think you make a fantastic point. Great blog post!

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