Social Media's Manhunt for the Boston Bombers

Did the social-media speculation over the Boston bombings help or hurt?

"I used to think it was possible for an artist to alter the inner life of the culture," wrote Don DeLillo in his 1991 novel "Mao II." "Now bomb-makers & gunmen have taken that territory."

As this morning's police standoff unfolded in Watertown, Massachusetts, that line popped into the head of the author Tom Vanderbilt, whotweeted(to much "favoriting" from his 6,000 followers): "Not sure whether to follow Twitter or just drag the DeLillo down from the shelf."

DeLillo's theme has been contagious since bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon. As Bloomberg View's Stephen L. Carter put it:

Yes, terror is horror. Yes, terror is murder. Yes, terror is reprehensible. But it is theater, too, played out on a grand stage before an audience of tens of millions. We sit riveted in front of the television or computer screen, demanding the latest updates.

We don't need to know who did it to understand the malevolent brilliance of the staging: an attack on the audience at a sporting event where the crowd is uncontrollable. Suddenly everyone is worried about which "soft" target will be next.

The big difference between DeLillo's 1991 and Carter's 2013, of course, is the Internet. Not only is the audience emphatically larger, not only are there a seemingly infinite number of ways to become engaged, but consider, too, that the Web, being a two-way form of communication, has blurred the distinction between performer and spectator in the theater of terrorism.

The most obvious example, perhaps, has been the crowdsourcing of the investigation on sites such as4chan and Reddit, where members have been collectively poring over images of the bombing scene in search of clues to the perpetrators. This outraged the Atlantic's Alexis C. Madrigal:

Vigilantes have organized themselves on Reddit for a manhunt. They want justice served. And they're openly debating suspects on the site. They're gonna solve the case! Like real cops on television.

But they are not real cops. They are well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight of what they're doing. This is vigilantism, and it's only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline that allows this to go on. Imagine if people were standing around in Boston pointing fingers at people in photographs and (roughly) accusing them of terrorism.

The New Yorker's Matt Buchanan, however, embraced the upside of the inevitable:

It seems like there will never be another event like the Boston bombing that isn't endlessly teased apart and put back together again in this way. Thanks to the ubiquity of inexpensive, powerful digital-imaging devices creating unimaginable amounts of data, and the emergence of highly populated, highly distributed Internet communities like Reddit and 4chan, it will happen this way every single time. It will happen in full view of the Internet; it will be insanely fast; it will be messy. That process might not always produce the answers we want -- the right ones, for instance -- but it's increasingly hard to disbelieve that one day it will.

As of now, it seems, the only real breakthrough Reddit accomplished was tracking down a junior soccer club teampicture that included the alleged bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev. But such prosaic unearthings -- Dzhokar apparently got a $2,500 scholarship from the City of Cambridge; on a Russian social media site he listed his "world view" as "Islam" and his personal priority as "career and money" -- aren't useless. They are the first steps in filling out a personality profile that will help us make sense of the tragedy.

The brothers, being young, also had their own interactions with social media, one of which now seems highly significant. Mother Jones's Adam Serwer brought to light aYouTube video that seems to have been created by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed by police Friday morning.

He posted religious videos, including a video of Feiz Mohammad, a fundamentalist Australian Muslim preacher who rails against the evils of Harry Potter. Among those videos is a playlist including one dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan which is embraced by Islamic extremists -- particularly Al Qaeda.

As Serwer notes, former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan (a frequent Bloomberg View contributor) has described the importance of this prophesy to global Islamic militants in his book "The Black Banners":

Khurasan is a term for a historical region spanning northeastern and eastern Iran and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan. Because of the hadith, jihadists believe that this is the region from which they will inflict a major defeat against their enemies -- in the Islamic version of Armageddon.

Yes, it's a long way from the Russian war in Chechnya to Boylston Street in Boston. There may prove to be no connection. But we can be certain that that widely disseminated speculation about major news events is no longer the exclusive province of TV talking heads.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The discussion on Web sites, blogs and social media over the past 12 hours has already pushed forward a number of themes and observations that will be valuable in making sense of what happened at the Boston Marathon finish line. It is certainly an improvement on hours of television anchors filling dead air time with banalities.

The downside is equally obvious. For starters, the Web has brought us plenty of distractions, red herrings and apparently some fabrications. More important is the effect on what DeLillo called the inner life of culture. Strategically, the bombing has to be seen as something of a failure: Three tragic deaths won't do much for the cause that motivated the killers. Yet, as the Washington Examiner's Timothy P. Carney tweeted: "Think about the reaction they've gotten: the thousands of law enforcement; the million people on lock down. Does that mean they succeeded?"

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Toby Harshaw at

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