The Social Fog: Sorting through the endless Boston Marathon data, together and alone

At around 2:55 p.m. on Monday outside Hotel Commonwealth, a young man looked up from his phone and said to a friend: “Two bums are blocking the race.’’ His friend asked him what he was talking about. “I don’t know. He just called and said that there were two bums at the finish line, I guess they were laying down and asking for money or something. Sounded like it was disrupting the race.’’

That overheard dis-information would be the first in a long stream I heard on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, but with dropping or non-existent cell phone reception, being closer to the explosions often meant knowing less than those across the country. As it turns out, as time passes, new reports continue to mix facts, misinformation, and hoaxes.


The cause of cellular outages themselves were misreported: The Associated Press reported that a law enforcement official stated “cellphone service has been shut down in the Boston area to prevent any potential remote detonations of explosives.’’

But as the Globe’s Michael B. Farrell reported today, the cellular dropoff was unintentional, caused by overwhelming loads and not an intentional anti-terror tactic.

The back and forth is likely to continue.

As the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings ramps up, investigators are asking for all the photos, video, and information the public can find. Users of Reddit, 4Chan, and others have already taken it upon themselves to crowdsource the investigation: Reddit’s /r/findbostonbombers/ forum already has almost 800 members and has highlighted suspicious persons and objects through collected photographs and videos.

But the top voted item on that page is currently a reminder and a warning: It notes the case of Richard Jewell, the police officer and Olympic Security guard falsely accused of planting a bomb in 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

As the Boston Globe’s Damon Kiesow noted on Twitter, social investigations can be a great tool if their limitations and dangers are kept in mind:

In 2011, after the Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots, the police actually set up an official crowdsourcing site to help identify rioters and looters, keeping statistics about rioters charged, tips received, and more.


And social-media hubs are not the only tool for investigative analysis at the public’s fingertips. Cambridge data analytics start-up Recorded Future combs through public social media mentions and news reports to spotlight trends, and one user has already used it to highlight pressure cooker bomb mentions over the past three years from around the world.

Andy Carvin, a senior strategist at NPR’s social media desk, has previously offered advice for verifying social media information:

Context: “The most import thing to do is look for context,’’ he wrote on Reddit. “Is there something visible in the background that can be IDed, like a building or other landmark? If people are speaking, what kind of accents do they have? If there are weapons involved, what kinds are they? Does the timestamp of the video match the weather forecast, or the location of the sun and shadows?’’

Filter: Learn what sources deserve and have earned your trust, and focus on them.

Red Flags: “Are they uploading new footage with new timetamps [sic] or geotagging? Do they clumsily throw around words like “BREAKING’’ or “CONFIRMED’’ in all caps, in every tweet?,’’ Carvin wrote. “Are they followed by people I know, who I can ask to vouch for them? And so on.’’

When in doubt, be slow to publicly claim breakthroughs or indicate someone is or should be a suspect, and quick to share it with authorities: The Boston Police Department’s tip line is 1-800-494-TIPS, the task force tip line is 617-223-6610. You can also email

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