From spreading false rumors about everything associated with the bombing to showing extraordinary insensitivity and rank partisanship at a time when the nation should have come together, social media proved to be as much a hindrance as a help during the last few dramatic days following the Boston Marathon bombing.
A couple of innocents got caught up in social media’s hysteria and paranoia, pointing up not only the ubiquitous nature of Twitter, Reddit, and other sites, but also their potential for causing trouble for mainstream media.
In short order, forums like Reddit and 4chan were alive with speculation — based on little or no evidence — that the culprits were Muslim fundamentalists or perhaps right-wing extremists.
In a mad rush to be the first to identify the perpetrators, anonymous posters online began openly naming people they believed had planted the bombs. Caught up in the mania, some traditional media ran with that information. Thursday’s New York Post cover showed a photo of two men at the marathon under the headline “Bag Men” and implied that the two were prime suspects. In fact, neither was a suspect and one of the men, Salah Barhoun, was a high school student from outside Boston and had nothing to do with the explosions.
Once the FBI released images of the actual suspects, things really got out of hand. Online gumshoes scoured the Web for faces that might match and illustrated their work with drawings, circles and other home-brewed CSI techniques.
Some amateur sleuths focused their suspicions on Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who has been missing since last month. Using an animation tool, they used an image of Tripathi to highlight similarities between his face and the FBI photos of one of the Boston bombing suspects.
However, Tripathi has no apparent connection to the marathon bombing. That was underscored Friday, when authorities revealed the identities of their suspects, two ethnic-Chechen immigrant brothers — Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Cambridge, Mass.
“We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil,” Tripathi’s family said in a statement on Friday.
Advocates of social media and crowd-sourcing have long touted its unrivaled power to gather huge amounts of information quickly in crisis situations. With tens of thousands of people on hand at the marathon, most armed with smartphones, the sheer volume of data available for analysis proved too tempting to ignore.
“People in the moment want to participate. They want to be a part of what’s going on,” said Nicco Mele, an expert on technology and social media at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
So as the Boston Police Department engaged in a gunfight with the two brothers in Watertown, Mass., early Friday, tens of thousands of Web denizens tuned in to live streams of police scanners, furiously tapping notes and ideas into Reddit and Twitter.