Social Media, Speculation, and Terrorism: a Double-Edged Sword in Boston

By Kameel Dada
posted on May 9, 2013 in Politics and Society

Like many people throughout the United States, I was shocked and sickened by the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. I recall telling a colleague the attack resembled the methods of homegrown terrorists and that the perpetrators would be caught soon. It would only be a matter of time before the government agencies created to combat terrorism would catch up to the individuals responsible for the attack.

Alas, when the FBI reported that it was looking for two male suspects, social media went crazy and individuals on websites such as Reddit started to take police matters into their own hands. People started trying to identify the perpetrators of the attack. While many of these people had the best of intentions, the activities of some individuals resembled a digital witch-hunt.

The rampant speculation had consequences for private citizens. Some were falsely accused of being responsible for the bombing. It didn’t take long for social media users to single out Sunil Trapathi, a student at Brown University who’d been missing for a month before the bombing. As fate would have it, Sunil’s body was found days later in the Boston River and all indications show that he committed suicide, reportedly after battling depression -- but not before the speculation had spread. Imagine the anguish that Sunil Trapathi’s family endured. Other social media users targeted a high school track student and his coach, who were both dubbed the “Bag Men,” and had their pictures splashed across the web and notable print media such as The New York Post.

Internet users and social media helped law enforcement agencies identify the perpetrators sooner than they might have otherwise. Unfortunately, though, it also complicated the lives of innocent people. We will never know the effects of speculation on these people, but I hope they do not allow themselves to be re-victimized. It is worth noting that some social media fora, like Twitter, positively affected the aftermath of the attacks in Boston. Twitter allowed individuals to inform their loved ones and friends of their whereabouts during the confusion that reigned after the bomb blast.

In the case of Boston, social media became a double-edged sword. It helped many users assure friends and family of their safety. Other individuals used social media tools to create confusion and target innocent people. We should reflect on how social media users can abuse these tools.