Social media and the search for the Boston bombing suspects

With a virtual world of armchair detectives, did the medium help or hinder the manhunt?


The Boston Marathon bombings are certainly a tale of terror, but also a tale about the power and perils of social media.

"At one point I wrote, 'I just wish I had a fact filter for Twitter,'" said Lance Ulanoff, the editor-in-chief of -- an online web site designed for those who "live their lives through the digital experience."

"They're going to social media before traditional media?" CBS News correspondent Tracy Smith asked Ulanoff.

"Well, not only are they going to it, they're living on it. I mean it's always with you. It's on your phone and your phone is in your pocket. And if you look at people ... most of the time they're looking at their phone," he replied.

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And when the FBI released photos of the suspects, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens rushed to the FBI website. These amateur detectives made the footage go viral and beyond.

"There's tremendous value in everybody becoming foot soldiers in your quest to find the truth," said Ulanoff.

While the whole virtual world was watching Watertown, police used social media to announce the news everyone was waiting for: CAPTURED!!!

Even Mayor Tom Menino tweeted "We got him."

"I think it's a watershed event. ...this is the high-water mark in reaching out to the public I think," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor who is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"They really were validating the idea of social media. There were millions of sets of eyes looking for these two guys," he said. "There was nowhere they could turn."

Almost overnight, one suspect was dead and one was in custody.

"This represents a whole new way of thinking," said O'Donnell.

It was a stunning example of what can happen when hard information is released to users of Twitter and Facebook.

"... obviously they were desperate for more information, even when there wasn't information," said Ulanoff.

The people who follow this say social media is undergoing an evolution of sorts. It started as a way of getting information about ourselves. Then people used it to report the news and now people are using it to try to solve crimes.

"They became investigators," Ulanoff said. "Their stated goal was to find the bombers before the F.B.I. ... so they [laughs] weren't necessarily saying, 'Let's help find the bombers' they were like 'We're going to beat them to it. We are really good at this.' And I think their intentions are really good."

A lot of these online investigators began gathering on a site called

"Essentially it's a message board for cool stuff you find on the web, with all of these sections and -- what they call sub-Reddits. So one of the sub-Reddits that was created was called 'Find the Bombers' and ... what they're able to do in real-time very quickly is coalesce into a group. Into a very focused group to do something and then they start talking about it," Ulanoff explained.

It's a phenomenon called crowdsourcing or crowdsleuthing.

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"So what they do is they take the image and they put it up on a server were everyone can see it," Ulanoff continued. "They all work together and try and figure it out."

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Reddit was criticized for making mistakes.

"And didn't they ID the wrong people at one point?" Smith asked Ulanoff.

"So Reddit would, on occasion, have the wrong name. And they'd find a face that was clear and they'd start to pass it around," he explained. "And because of the virality of social media, that takes off like a shot."

But, as Ulanoff points out, the crowdsleuths did have some success.

"They weren't always wrong. So if you look back 17 -- between 17 and 20 hours there's an interesting photo that they were looking at, and it's a photo that you've since seen in other places and on the news, of the alleged bomber walking away. Turning a corner. I mean it's him. It's the white cap. It's him," Ulanoff said. "I've seen this time and time again. The internet corrects itself. ... Social media figures it out."

And you can bet that when the next big event happens, these online citizen reporters and amateur detectives will be out there watching very closely.