Photo by Nina Bayatti/The Gazelle

Boston Marathon bombings: Social media as driving force in investigations

Photo by Nina Bayatti/The Gazelle As F.B.I. special agent in charge Richard DesLauriers released the photos of the two suspects from the Boston ...

Apr 27, 2013

Photo by Nina Bayatti/The Gazelle
As F.B.I. special agent in charge Richard DesLauriers released the photos of the two suspects from the Boston Marathon explosions in a press conference on April 18, a relationship formed among the media and the police force.
“Today we are enlisting the public’s help to identify these two subjects,” DesLauriers stated.
Through social media, the public plays a pivotal role in aiding federal agencies with investigations such as the search for the Boston Marathon suspects.
“On, we have photos of the suspects,” DesLauriers instructed. “The photos and videos are posted for the public and media to use, review and publicize. For clarity, these images should be the only ones — I emphasize the only ones — that the public should view to assist us.”
His emphasis to rely only on what is published by the government officials is a result of an earlier instance of social media’s help gone wrong when The New York Post published its own account of the Boston Marathon suspects. The cover story included an image of 17-year-old Salah Barhoun, wrongly labeling him as a suspect in the case.
Barhoun cleared his name quickly with police, but the damage was done. His image and the accusations attached had already gone viral.
Social media is a powerful tool to spread the word. But, it requires that thoughtful and factual investigations are made. We need credible sources that avoid speculation, much like The New York Post’s unsubstantiated accusations against Barhoun, to be passed along as journalism.
When announcements are verified and sourced by the experts in charge as all news should be, social media inspires a collaborative and safeguarded community to form.
“For more than 100 years, the F.B.I. has relied upon the public to be its eyes and ears,” DesLauriers said in the press conference. With social media’s real-time updates and viral impact, we are strengthening the F.B.I.’s overall reach.
He continued his statement, “With the media’s help, in an instant these images will be delivered directly into the hands of millions around the world.” In an instant is absolutely right. The power of social media is what drives our justice system and communication paths forward.
National Journal’s Online Editor Brian Resnick compared the increased efficiency in the search for Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev to the seven-year search for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing perpetrator. Granted, the scales of these events differed, yet the way in which we could track down the Marathon suspects’ Internet footprints served to clarify the identities of the brothers.
The F.B.I. acknowledges the value of utilizing social media in criminal investigations, as outlined in an article by Robert D. Stuart, assistant chief agent at the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center.
“Criminals will use social media to share information about their whereabouts and those of their associates,” Stuart wrote. “They also have been known to share photos and videos of their criminal acts. Such electronic information can help apprehend fugitives, single out associate suspects, link individuals to street gangs and provide evidence of criminal activity.”
Stuart refers to the case of the Kentucky State Police using Facebook to solicit information from the general public to identify a female body found in 2001. With little details beyond a rose tattoo and jewelry found with the body, the search via social media has brought more details to the case.
Police forces realize the extent of social media’s reach. It is time we embrace our Internet dependence. Citizen journalism and social media has inspired a new kind of community — one that makes everyone a viable lookout, empowering our justice system to work towards achieving the immediacy and interactivity that we have come to expect from the Internet.
Nina Bayatti is managing editor. Email her at
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