Social Media and the Boston Marathon Bombings: A Case Study

By: , Posted on: June 4, 2015

Social Media BPD

As we reach the final stretch of the capital trial of the Boston Marathon bomber, we present this case study on social media that was originally published in the author’s book Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World:

Case Study: BPD and Social Media

At 2:49 PM on April 15, 2013 two bombs exploded near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon killing three people and injuring 264.  The first reports about the about the terrorist attack were spread through Twitter and Facebook.

At 2:59 PM the Boston Globe tweeted:

“BREAKING NEWS: Two powerful explosions detonated in quick succession right next to the Boston Marathon finish line this afternoon.”

Minutes later, the Boston Police Department confirmed the explosion in a tweet. And in a separate tweet soon after reported:

“22 injured. 2 dead #tweetfromthebeat via @CherylFiandaca

According to Topsy, a Twitter analytics company, at around 4:10 p.m. there were more than 300,000 mentions on Twitter of “Boston explosions.” (Stern, 2013) In a second wave of social media, details about the event spread. Media that included photos of blood covering the ground and a six-second Vine video of the actual explosion was circulated, deepening people’s sense of what had happened.  Around 4:30 p.m., there were more than 700,000 mentions on Twitter of the “Boston Marathon.”  (Stern, 2013)

Even though television was the most widely-used source of information about the bombing and its aftermath, it was social media that shaped the story and the response.  While 80% of Americans followed the story on TV according to the Pew Research Center, about half (49%) say they kept up with news and information online or on a mobile device and a quarter of Americans got information about the explosions and the hunt for the bombers on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Young Americans in particular kept up-to-date through social media. Slightly more than half (56%) of an 18-to-29 year subgroup polled by Pew got bombing-related news through social networking sites. (Pew Research Center, 2013).

The Boston bombings and the manhunt that followed became the backdrop for the world to witness the transformation – for good and for bad — in news gathering and distribution, and in disaster management and crises communications caused by social media platforms and technology.  The Boston Marathon bombings were a watershed, a moment that marked forever the changed role of social media and the fully participatory public in breaking news events and coverage.  The New York Times wrote: It is America’s first fully interactive national tragedy of the social media age.” (Kakutani, 2013)

From marathon runners giving their accounts on Facebook, to law enforcement officials using Twitter to give real-time updates and asking for help identifying and capturing the suspects, to the Boston Globe converting its homepage to a live blog that pulled in Tweets from Boston authorities, news outlets and ordinary citizens – social media showed itself to be an indispensible tool with a unique role to play and contribution to make in response to a terrorist attack.   Boston also provided a cautionary tale when some journalists and members of the public opted to value speed over accuracy, using social media to spread incorrect, unverified information, causing a “misinformation disaster.”  (Ulanoff, 2013)

And finally, it was during the bombings the Boston Police Department set a new standard for government communications during a disaster– using social media to inform, correct inaccurate information, to lead and listen to the public conversation.  Mashable — an online media company that focuses on innovation and technology — declared that during the crisis, the Boston Police department “schooled us all on social media,” (Bar-Tur, 2013) and asserted that “BPD’s presence online helps reinvent the whole notion of community policing for the 21st century.” (Bar-Tur, 2013)

How Social Media was used during the Boston Marathon Bombings

From the moment the two bombs went off on Boylston Street near the end of the Boston Marathon until the eventual capture of the surviving suspect, social media played a unique and complementary role in providing immediate access to the most up-to-date information and as a platform that made it possible for the public to be actively involved in the story as fully participating partners in the identification and hunt for the suspected terrorists.

According to Sean Mussenden, a professor of digital journalism at the University of Maryland, this is the new normal for investigations.  “It’s also the present, the modern media landscape in which we live.  The audience is a huge active participant in these sorts of stories.”(Presuitti, 2013)

Breaking News/Real Time updates

Both the FBI and Boston PD used Twitter to reach out to the public to inform them of what was going and what to do. The public found out in real time what was going on as soon as law enforcement did. They were given updates throughout the event.  News conferences were tweeted out and shared on Facebook as they occurred.

One of the Boston police officers responsible for the social media content put it more succinctly: “We don’t break news. We are the news.”

According to Jason Fry writing for, the website of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school that owns The Tampa Bay Times, the biggest change in breaking disaster news coverage is that news gathering and reporting is now done in real time – in front of readers and viewers.  “Instead of waiting for a carefully crafted report on the news or a front page, readers are now in the ‘fog of war’ with the participants and reporters and officials and everybody else…given readers’ hunger for news on such days, news organizations can’t remain silent about reports until they’ve been verified with officials and subjected to the organization’s own system of scrutiny. The chaos of breaking news is no longer something out of which coverage arises — it’s the coverage itself.” (Fry, 2013)

According to Fry, the Boston Globe’s News coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing benefited from a marriage of “boots on the ground” and an “eye in the sky.” (Fry, 2013) The Boston Globe’s had boots on the ground — quite literally, since the newspaper had reporters and photographers at the finish line very near the site of the two bombs.

But they also needed an eye in the sky — someone charged with gathering information from social media, deciding what’s credible and what’s not, and presenting it to readers  “That meant incorporating what other journalists are seeing, hearing things and tweeting, keeping up with government officials, hospital spokespeople and others sources who now release information directly to the public, without funneling it through the media and staying abreast of what the public is reporting on social media.” (Fry, 2013)

Situational Awareness

As soon as the bombs exploded, Marathon participants and spectators turned to cell phones and social media to share photos and observations from the site – and to let worried friends and family members know their condition and whereabouts.

Bruce Mendelsohn, a marketer who was attending a party just above the site of the first explosion, tweeted and uploaded photos from the bombing.  According to Fry, “Mendelsohn is the kind of witness reporters hope to find but rarely do — a former Army medic with an eye for detail and the ability to assess spectators’ injuries and what might have caused them.” (Fry, 2013)

Mendelson’s tweets:

Bruce Mendelsohn @brm90

“I did see gruesome wounds and smelled cordite. My educated guess is that this was two bombs, detonated at ground level”

Bruce Mendelsohn @brm90

“Wounds commensurate with a ground-level detonation. I saw the wounds–mostly lower extremities.”

To help friends and families learn the fate of Marathon runners and spectators, Boston PD tweeted a number that family members looking for information related to injured individuals could call. (Between the lines, 2013)

But heavy cell phone use caused slow and delayed service. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency sent a tweet telling people to try to use text messaging instead:

“If you are trying to reach friends or family and can’t get through via phone, try texting instead (less bandwidth).” (Thompson, 2013)

Google set up its Person Finder website in shortly after the twin bombings to make it easier to find and communicate with loved ones. The site allows users to enter the name of a person they are looking for or update information about someone who was there:

Associated Press, 2013.
Associated Press, 2013.

By the afternoon of April 16, information about some 5,400 people had been entered into the database. (Weiss, 2013)

Law enforcement officials and other Boston institutions used social media to keep each other informed in real time.  When the Boston PD tweeted about a third incident that occurred at JFK library, they reported they were unsure if it was related or not to the two bombings.  The JFK Library updated the Boston PD on Twitter: “The fire in the building is out. Appears to have started in the mechanical room. All staff and visitors are safe and accounted for.” (Between the lines, 2013)

Help Identify the Suspects and Capture the Surviving Suspect

The two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were identified, corners and captured through the grand scale dissemination and collection of information, photos and videos through social media.  Twitter, Facebook and Internet websites all are credited with the effort. (Presuitti, 2013) In the end, it was the public’s connections to each other and to technology that broke the case.

“Today we are enlisting the public’s help in identifying the two suspects,” said FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers.  The photos released by the FBI of Suspect 1 and Suspect 2, as they were known at the time, were instantaneously tweeted and re-tweeted, Facebooked and Facebook shared. “Thousands of marathon spectators flipped through their cell phone photos and videos – to see if they could match the suspects later identified as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” according to the Voice of America News. (Presuitti, 2013)

According to the New York Times, “The Boston Marathon bombings quickly turned into an Internet mystery that sent a horde of amateur sleuths surging onto the Web in a search for clues to the suspects’ identity…”  (Katutani, 2013)

Boston PD used Twitter to provide a Task force tip line number so people could call in if they had any tips on the case. (Between the lines, 2013)

A gunfight in Watertown Massachusetts left one of the suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev dead; his brother Dzhokhar was injured, but escaped. A manhunt commenced and thousands of police officers searched Watertown. The FBI and Boston PD released several images of the subject of their manhunt on social media:

Police Converge Mass

tsarnaev 2

and tweeted and posted a license plate linked to the suspect:

tsarnaev license plate
Between the lines, 2013.

In the end, it was not a printed news release, phone calls or a news conference that announced the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  It came in two tweets posted by the Boston Police Department:

“Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.”

 “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.”

Keep People and Law Enforcement Officials Safe

Terrorism experts said that social media helped people in Boston and beyond determine their next steps after hearing about the explosions.

“Authorities have recognized that one the first places people go in events like this is to social media,” said Bill Braniff, Executive Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism…”We know from crisis communication research that people typically search for corroborating information before they take a corrective action—their TV tells them there’s a tornado brewing and they talk to relatives and neighbors. And now they look at Twitter.” (Gilgoff, 2013)

The Boston PD used Twitter to instruct the people of Boston on how to best remain safe and used Twitter and Facebook to tell the residents of Watertown to stay indoors and not answer the door unless they were instructed by a police officer to do so. (Between the lines, 2013)

Social media was also used to keep law enforcement officials safe – after reporters and the public began tweeting from police scanner reports – giving away the location of officers involved in the manhunt.  Cheryl Fiandaca – head of the Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Public Information, the agency responsible for managing their social media accounts, said local media, “know not to do that. They don’t give away where officers are. 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.”  (Keller, 2013) The police department sent the following alerts:

#MediaAlert: WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.

#MediaAlert: WARNING – Do Not Compromise Officer Safety/Tactics by Broadcasting Live Video of Officers While Approaching Search Locations

This “polite scolding” to those tweeting information from police scanners was retweeted more than 20,000 times, higher than any other tweet at that time. (Bar-Tur, 2013)

University of Maryland Digital Journalism professor Sean Mussenden noted that “Journalists know not to tweet out police scanner – the public does not. Even cub reporters know you do not just write what’s on the scanner.”  Boston proved it is “Dangerous to put speed over accuracy – especially in terrorist attack or a storm situation – it’s essential to take time to be accurate.” (Mussenden, 2013)

Correct Misinformation

Twitter was used aggressively to correct misinformation.  The demand for constant updates, that fact that instant access to information is available through the smart phone led to the tweeting, posting, sharing and broadcasting of inaccurate information during the event.  The tension between speed versus accuracy led to the communication of unverified information.

After CNN and the Associated Press wrongly reported that the suspects were in custody, others picked up the news. Social media did the rest. “No one wants to be the second source to share this information, so thousands on social media, mostly Twitter, began sharing the news. It took almost an hour and a half for CNN to reverse its earlier report. The FBI even put out a statement begging the media to “exercise caution.”  (Ulanoff, 2013)

The social media site Reddit acknowledged its role in helping to disseminate false information, saying, “Some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation.”  Reddit also apologized to the family of missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who was misidentified on social media as a bombing suspect. (Petrucca, 2013)

According to Fiandaca, the woman behind the Boston Police Department’s Twitter account, “Twitter served as a great way to correct misinformation. We enhanced our reputation by putting out reliable and accurate information.” (Solomonmccown&, 2013).

The Boston Police moved to counteract the false claims that were spreading across social networks.  For example, on April 17, when, according to Businessweek, “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,” (Keller, 2013) and the Boston PD tweeted:

“Despite reports to the contrary there has not been an arrest in the Marathon attack.”

The department’s tweet clarifying that there was no arrest shortly after the bombings saw more than 11,000 retweets. “By the end of the dramatic affair even the media was on board, as local reporters waited on a Boston Police tweet before officially announcing the capture of the elusive suspect.” (Bar-Tur, 2013)

Ultimately, one of the lessons journalists learned from their coverage of Boston Marathon bombings is that “being right is better than being first.”  Globe local news editor Jen Peter, reflecting on media coverage of the bombings, noted that “on a normal day, being beaten on a scoop would be ‘unpalatable’ to her. But during high-pressure situations like the bombing and the events in Watertown, the Globe saw more outlets getting more negative feedback for spreading incorrect information than positive feedback for a scoop. Peter made the decision to ‘verify, verify, verify,’ even if the Globe didn’t get it first” (Solomonmccown&, 2013)

Offer Community Support, Resources and Sympathy

Social media has the ability to create a sense of community during and after disasters.  People used social media to offer strangers lodging, food or a hot shower when roads and hotels were closed. People also offered prayers and sympathy for the racers and the people of Boston. The hashtag #prayforboston trended on Twitter and Topsy reported that from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. more than 75,000 tweets mentioned “Pray for Boston.” People also shared photos of Boston on Instagram with the hashtag #prayforboston. (Stern, 2013)  Others started to find out how they could give in different ways, including donating blood.  (Stern, 2013)

“People were sharing as a community and grieving online. Social media brought people together. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago,” according to Adam Gaffin, editor of Universal Hub, a community news and information site for the Boston area.”  (Solomonmccown&, 2013)

A Boston Globe social media editor Adrienne Lavidor-Berman was impressed that many more people read the positive stories of people helping each other than stories about the bombers. (Solomonmccown&, 2013)

Boston Police Department: The Social Media Infrastructure and Community Relationship Were Built Long Before the Bombings

After Dzhokar Tsarnaev was arrested, Mashable — an online media company that focuses on innovation and technology — declared that the Boston Police department has “schooled us all on social media… the Boston PD’s presence online helps reinvent the whole notion of community policing for the 21st century.” (Bar-Tur, 2013)

According to Businessweek, “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. What is unusual is how adroitly the officials in charge of responding to the Boston tragedy took advantage of social media…” (Keller, 2013)

Noting that “true engagement does not arise in a time of crisis, but through preparation well ahead of the crisis,” Mashable reported that “Even before the BPD’s follower count spiked this week, from 40,000 to more than 300,000, the department boasted more Twitter followers than most of the area’s local media.” (Bar-Tur, 2013)

The department’s Twitter account was created in 2009 and was first used to publish public safety instructions during the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The department’s expanded its social-media presence onto Facebook, YouTube video-streaming site UStream. These social media accounts are handled by the Bureau of Public Information, with three officers responsible for the content. (Keller, 2013)

When the Marathon bombings occurred, the “infrastructure was in place for the department to effectively handle the situation on social media.” (Keller, 2013) Bureau chief Cheryl Fiandaca explained “We staffed 24 hours. Someone was always here. We tried to put out as much information as we possibly could without jeopardizing the investigation.” (Keller, 2013)

In the end, the Boston PD was credited with accomplishing “what no police department has done before: led conversation with citizens in a time of crisis.  They also listened, a step that is more remarkable than it sounds for many large organizations, let alone law enforcement. They used Twitter to track and correct the misinformation that media outlets spread.”  (Bar-Tur, 2013)

One of the Boston police officers responsible for the social media content put it more succinctly: “We don’t break news. We are the news.” (Keller, 2013)

About the Authors

george haddowGeorge Haddow currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at the Homeland Security Studies Program and the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. Prior to joining Tulane University, Mr. Haddow served as an Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at The George Washington University, Washington, DC.

He is a co-author of several university textbooks including, Introduction to Homeland Security (5th Edition), Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World (2nd Edition) and Introduction to Emergency Management (5th Edition). Prior to joining The George Washington University, Mr. Haddow was appointed to serve by President Bill Clinton for eight years in the Office of the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the White House Liaison and the Deputy Chief of Staff. He also served as the Interim Director of FEMA’s Office of Public Affairs during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Y2K. He is a founding partner of Bullock and Haddow LLC, a disaster management consulting firm.

Kim HaddowKim Haddow is the president of Haddow Communications in New Orleans – a company specializing in strategic media planning, messaging, and developing research-driven media content, branding and advertising materials for non-profits. Clients have included: the Rockefeller Family Fund, Sierra Club, Make It Right Foundation, U.S. State Department, Public Campaign, and the Trust for America’s Health. Haddow also worked for eight years at Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns (GMMB), a Washington, DC- based media consulting firm, advising political campaigns and non-profits. Haddow began her career at WWL-AM in New Orleans where she managed the news department.

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  1. Associated Press ( 2013).  Daily Mail. “As cellphones fail, desperate people search for their loved ones after the Boston Marathon bombings using Google’s ‘person finder.’” April 15, 2013
  2. Bar-Tur,Yael (2013). Mashable. “Boston Police Schooled Us All on Schooled Us All on Social Media.” April 22, 2013
  3. Between the lines (2013). “How Social Media was used during the Boston Marathon bombings.” May 4, 2013.
  4. Fry, Jason (2013). “Boston explosions a reminder how breaking news reporting is changing.” April, 16, 2013
  5. Gilgoff, Dan and Lee, Jane J. (2013). National Geographic News. “Social Media Shapes Boston Bombings Response.” April 15, 2013
  6. Kakutani, Michiko (2013). New York Times. “Unraveling Boston Suspects’ Online Lives, Link by Link.” April 23, 2013
  7. Keller, Jared (2013).  Bloomberg Businessweek Technology. “How Boston Police Won the Twitter Wars During the Marathon Bomber Hunt.” April 26, 2013.
  8. Mussenden, Sean (2013).  Interviewed by Kim Haddow, June 27, 2013.
  9. Petrecca, Laura (2013). USA Today. “After bombings, social media informs (and misinforms). April 23,2013
  10. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (2013).”Most Expect ‘Occasional Acts of Terrorism’ in the Future.”April 23, 2013
  11. Presuitti, Carolyn (2013). Voice of America News. “Multi, Social Media Play Huge Role in Solving Boston Bombings.” April 26, 2013
  12. SolomonMcCown& (2013). “Role of (Social) Media in Boston Marathon Bombings.” May, 24, 2013
  13. Stern, Johanna (2013) .ABC News Technology Review. “Boston Marathon Bombing: The Waves of Social Media Reaction.” April 16, 2013
  14. Thompson, Cadie (2013). CNBC. “Social Media Played Critical Role in Boston Marathon Response.” April 16, 2013
  15. Ulanoff, Lance (2013). Mashable. “Boston Bombings: Truth, Justice and the Wild West of Social Media.” April 18, 2013
  16. Weiss, Todd R (2013). eWeek. “Google Activates Person Finder in Aftermath of Boston Marathon Bombings.” April 16, 2013


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4 thoughts on “Social Media and the Boston Marathon Bombings: A Case Study

  1. Great point, Woody. However, it was thru the help of redditors and people posting images of the crime and aftermath online that they were able to piece together events of the bombing and hone in on location and suspects.

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