How Boston Police Won the Twitter Wars During the Marathon Bomber Hunt

Hundreds celebrated on Hemingway Street in Boston's Fenway neighborhood after police announced the second bombing suspect's capture Photograph by Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

The first official announcement that law enforcement agencies had concluded their manhunt for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev didn’t come at a press conference by police commissioner Ed Davis or Mayor Tom Menino. It didn’t come from a press release or a dispatch over a police scanner. It came instead from two tweets:

The final tweet, from the Twitter account of the Boston Police Department just before 9 p.m. on April 19, was sent by Deputy Superintendent John Daly. The officer who runs the official Twitter account of the Boston Police confirms that this was the first official dispatch.

That law enforcement agencies such as the Boston Police and Massachusetts State Police took to social media to deliver information in the wake of the twin explosions on Boylston Street is nothing special. The Aurora, Colo., police released breaking news through Twitter following the mass shooting in a movie theater. Virtually every police department now runs a Twitter feed for official communications, from the New York Police Department to the one in my hometown of Belmont, Mass., which kicked into overdrive after Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fled to Watertown. (I grew up a little less than two miles from the address at which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended).

What is unusual is how adroitly the officials in charge of responding to the Boston tragedy took advantage of social media, from the first explosion until now. Unlike other big-city police departments, Boston has been investing in its police department’s social media presence for years. The department’s Twitter account was created in 2009 at the behest of Daly and was first used to publish public safety instructions during the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The department’s social-media presence expanded onto Facebook, YouTube, and video-streaming site UStream. All these social media accounts are handled by the Bureau of Public Information, which provides information to local and national media outlets and handles most media relations functions as part of the Office of the Police Commissioner.

When the Tsarnaev brothers turned Boylston Street into a crime scene on Marathon Day, infrastructure was in place for the department to effectively handle the situation on social media. The existing team was headed up by bureau chief Cheryl Fiandaca, with three officers responsible for the content on BPD’s various social media channels. “We staffed 24 hours,” Fiandaca told the Huffington Post. “Someone was always here. We tried to put out as much information as we possibly could without jeopardizing the investigation.” The department’s official Twitter account started publishing updates shortly after the blast:

After Dzhokar Tsarnaev was arrested, Mashable published a headline declaring that the Boston Police department has ‘schooled us all on social media.’ Fiandaca was flattered. “It was mostly instinct on my part, being a reporter for so many years, than it was any kind of skill,” she said. Fiandaca most recently worked for WCVB (Channel 5) in Boston.

In the early hours of Friday, April 19, the Boston Police changed its approach to the medium. Rather than simply post updates, it moved to counteract the false claims that were spreading across social networks. The online news ecosystem was in the midst of a misinformation disaster, with rumors gleaned from the official police scanner and from inaccurate sources on major TV networks: A missing Brown student had been identified, inaccurately, as one of the suspects, and confusion reigned over the number of suspects involved in the massive manhunt.

Following CNN’s misreporting of an arrest, the department issued its one of its first rebuttals:

Fiandaca says the turning point came when an official called her with news that a local radio station was reporting locations of officers involved in the manhunt. “These guys know not to do that. They don’t give away where officers are,” says Fiandaca, in reference to local media. “But there were hundreds of reporters from all over the country here. We wanted to let other media folks who aren’t as familiar know what’s commonplace in Boston.”

One of the most satisfying moments for the team wasn’t announcing the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but watching the effect of this tweet, sent during the early stages of the manhunt as media outlets raced to report on every detail of the massive city-wide dragnet:

The team was pleased to see the tone and speed of coverage change almost immediately, according to an officer with direct knowledge of the department’s social-media operations. He asks not to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak about department practices.

The Boston Police Department was operating in something of a fog during the manhunt. Officers didn’t know whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had planted explosives during his escape; if the suspect were following police activity on TV or Twitter, he could easily detonate any devices he had left behind. Investigators later told the U.S. House of Representatives that the explosives at the Boston Marathon had been detonated remotely with the same kind of devices that work on remote-controlled cars, confirming the officers’ suspicions.

Overall, Fiandaca is pleased with her department’s ability to shape the course of the media’s coverage. “I’m incredibly lucky to have inherited such a talented group,” she says, acknowledging the department’s history of innovation on social media. “It’s not about saying, ‘you’re wrong.’ It’s about saying: ‘Here’s the right information.’”

The officer puts it a little more bluntly: “We don’t break news. We are the news.”

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