Boston Bombing Manhunt: Twitter Found the Boston Shooters Before CNN


Editor's Note: This story has been edited. Last night, someone on the Boston Police scanner released two names as the suspects, including that of a missing person. Writing last night, the author wrote this story and mentioned that name as a suspect, based on that unofficial report. He woke up this morning to see he was wrong. The author apologizes to Sunil's family and continue to hope for his safe return. Read Ben's follow up piece here.

Last night's violence in Boston demonstrated the superiority of social media over traditional media. Twitter had the story at Watertown long before traditional media.

I was scrolling through Twitter around 11:30 p.m. when I read about the MIT shooting. I read through the tweets in horror, feeling the pain of Boston and searching for updates from my friends at MIT. (One should feel pain, but refuse to be terrorized.) At 12:46 a.m., I saw this tweet from Wesley Lowery, a Boston Globe political reporter who was on scene at MIT: 

That very minute, I saw a tweet from Seth Mnookin, an MIT professor and reporter (my Twitter is on PST but I've translated the times in the story elsewhere to EST for consistency with the news on the ground):

Within a few minutes, Seth reported there had been explosions, and I committed to following the story for the night. I tuned into the Boston police scanner online (from across the country) and found others tweeting from the scene. I also found resources such as this Google map with notable locations of the night marked and explained.

People tweeting from the scene didn't just include published authors and reporters: several journalism students contributed, as did the political director for Russel Simmons, along with a man stuck inside his home in Watertown. Along with photos of the police and the suspect, the Watertown resident even tweeted a photo of a bullet that passed through his wall and chair!

The on-scene tweeters were quickly gathered into this list by a social media expert in California. Throughout the night, their tweets were a model for live reporting: quick, cautious, detailed. Most declined to identify the race of the suspects or link Watertown with MIT or the marathon bombing until those facts became clear. 

What really stood out about the live updates on Twitter, however, was that they were all that was available for a long time. Too long.

Network news did not arrive on scene until nearly an hour after Twitter had broken the story. Local news split the difference. People started making jokes like this one:

PolicyMic tweeted about the explosions almost a half an hour before CNN!

This isn't just about PolicyMic pride: Last night, Twitter served Watertown residents who needed information on the violence in their neighborhood far better than traditional news. Watertown residents learned from Twitter that they needed to stay inside and refuse to open doors for anyone but uniformed police before network news arrived.

Of course, several of the first people on scene were traditional reporters. But they did not update their traditional media websites. Instead, they turned to Twitter because it was faster and they could communicate with others.

Social media's success is even more shocking given the context of the mainstream media's extreme failures earlier in the week with the bombing of the Boston Marathon. The morning of the bombing, CNN reported that multiple law enforcement sources had confirmed there was an arrest before a suspect had even been identified. The New York Post reported a Saudi was being held as a suspect and on Thursday they ran a cover falsely identifying two men as suspects:


Ironically, the men had already been identified and cleared on Reddit.

The Boston bombing and the violence in Watertown are tragic above all else. I thank the heroes in and out of law enforcement who helped bring justice to those responsible.  However, these events are also significant because they show we are living in a social media world.

Social media is not perfect, and traditional media has its virtues. Reddit initially jumped to similar conclusions as the post regarding those two men, and misinformation about arrests spread on twitter just as fast as on CNN. Traditional media does a better job collecting information and packaging it neatly, and they take higher-quality videos and photographs.

Still, thanks to social media users' ability to communicate with other users, arrive on the scene, and update instantly, it has proved superior for breaking news overall.