The Boston Marathon bombings showcased Twitter as a source for real-time citizen engagement between authorities and the public. When the Boston police Twitter handle, @Boston_Police, announced, “CAPTURED!!! The Hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And Justice has won. Suspect in custody,” the city of Boston and the watching world took a deep sigh of relief after following the 48-hour search for bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev online in real time.
Deputy Superintendent John Daly runs the official Twitter account of the Boston police. In addition to first reporting the suspect had been captured, he was also responsible for posting the chilling news that the bombs had gone off near the finish line of the marathon just days earlier. For a police department in pursuit of a dangerous criminal, Twitter has become a means to spread information, and often diffuse misinformation.
In an interview with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program about the Boston Police’s use of social media, Daly explained, “[Chief Dan Linskey] was thinking that [social media] is an important component to responding in a crisis. We immediately started sending out real-time tweets of what was going on at the scene and gave people instructions on what to do and where to go. It wasn’t just our public affairs office that were tweeting, our operational staff was involved as well.” Social media is becoming an active force to instantly engage and instruct the public in times of crisis.
Though the ubiquity of social media can be a double-edged sword for law enforcement, public agencies and the media. In the wake of the bombings, the story unfolded through the real-time news cycle by citizens and the media alike. Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook showed a constant flow of information, real or perceived, related to the manhunt for the remaining suspect.
CNN fell victim to rogue reporting in the aftermath, claiming that the suspects had been arrested, when they were still on the loose. The New York Post erroneously posted photographs of people they claimed were suspects, when the FBI claimed otherwise. The Post also falsely stated that 12 people had died in the aftermath, when the number was actually five.
In the midst of the crisis, people sharing the link to authorities’ radio chatter via Twitter and Facebook had the potential to both overload the website and jeopardize the manhunt. Boston Police used Twitter to issue the following warning to the public:
Events like this magnify how useful, but sometimes dangerous due to misinformation, the social media culture has become.
Social media is changing how citizens communicate, interact and mobilize—reinventing the everyday work of government and public service management. The era of the digital citizen is now a force to be reckoned with, and that is only going to continue to grow.