The 4th Estate: Does Social Media Help or Hurt the Search for Suspects

Today, we look at how images shared on social media can be used to solve or even potentially interfere with criminal investigations. Almost a year ago on April 15, 2013 one of our nation’s most prestigious sporting events – The Boston Maraton – was devastated by an act of terror.

That afternoon two pressure cooker bombs exploded 13 seconds and 210 yards apart near the finish line. The explosions killed three people and injured an estimated 264. With 26,839 runners and thousands of spectators along the route, authorities had to work fast. While the nation mourned, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Boston Police Department scoured surveillance footage and photos taken from spectators’ smartphones from the scene. On April 18th, the FBI released photos of “Suspect 1” and “Suspect 2” to the public asking for their help in identifying the two.

The public went to work. Cyber detectives emerged on social media sites such as Reddit posting information and sharing photos in what became a race to beat the FBI to discover the identities and locations of the suspects. Within 24 hours, Suspect 1, now known as Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dead after a shoot out with police and Suspect 2, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was in custody. Social media was also used by authorities and elected officials to inform the public of the younger Tsarnaev’s capture with the Boston Police Department and Mayor Tom Menino among those who tweeted the news.

Despite the swift end to the chaos in the greater Boston area, another type of chaos had unfolded online. The wrong names and pictures of people who resembled the suspects went viral, causing people to be misidentified. Social media users were also blamed for interfering in the investigation when people listening to police scanners during the ongoing investigation would share on the web what they were hearing.

Today, life in the greater Boston area is returning to normal and this Marathon Monday Boston will run again.

Below are surveillance footage and other  images shared on social media from the Boston Marathon bombing investigation.

– – –


Credit: Reuters

Surveillance footage of the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon.



More surveillance footage of the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon.



Surveillance footage of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev three days after the attack.

Credit: Boston Police Department

Credit: Boston Police Department

A tweet from the Boston Police Department announcing Dzhokhar Tsarnaey’s capture.

– – –

Do you think using social media to identify suspects can help or hurt criminal investigations?

The Collaborative Services Team


Tagged , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: