Boston Marathon Bombing Research Paper

Abstract

This paper explores the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing incident and how members of the general public, through the online community Reddit, attempted to provide assistance to law enforcement through conducting their own parallel investigations. As we document through an analysis of user posts, Reddit members shared information about the investigation, searched for information that would identify the perpetrators and, in some cases, drew on their own expert knowledge to uncover clues concerning key aspects of the attack. Although it is the case that the Reddit cyber-sleuths’ did not ultimately solve this case, or provide significant assistance to the police investigation, their actions suggest the potential role the public could play within security networks.

Introduction

On 15 April 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people—including an 8-year-old boy—and injuring more than 170 others in a shocking event that captured the world’s attention. What followed was one of the largest, most sweeping investigations and manhunts in US history. The suspects were identified, and then located, as a result of one of the most coordinated, technologically sophisticated efforts by local, state and federal law enforcement. For example, the investigation employed a variety of forensic and other technologies, including surveillance video, explosive and blood pattern analysis, and helicopters with infrared cameras. The pursuit ended four days later, with one suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed during a standoff with police, and the other, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, captured in dramatic fashion.

A significant part of the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing was the convergence of police, citizens and technology playing significant roles in a real-time hunt for the perpetrators (Montgomery et al. 2013). Alongside the official investigation led by law enforcement officials was a parallel investigation conducted by a growing movement of online sleuths, often referred to as cyber-vigilantes, or ‘digilantes’. These groups, organically formed in ad hoc fashion, harness the power of collective knowledge and resources—‘crowdsourcing’ (see Howe 2006)—towards a common purpose. In the Boston Marathon case, cyber-sleuths were pooling information and resources in order to assist the police in their criminal investigation of the bombing.

While the events in Boston mark a notable example of this activity, digilantes have been playing a growing role in online and real-world investigations. For example, in 2014, outraged social media users helped Philadelphia Police identify and find suspects who brutally assaulted a gay couple by matching online Facebook profile pictures of people who checked in at the restaurant where the beating took place with surveillance video (Shaw 2014). This example shows how Internet communities can serve as ‘additional eyes and ears’ of the police in an age where demands for efficient service with increasingly fewer resources are strained by new communications and analysis technologies (Marx 2013). Despite its apparent growing value for police, citizen involvement in police investigations is not without controversy. For example, the question of whether public online assistance to police was considered a form of neighbourhood watch or a dangerous witch hunt was posed when, following the suicide of Amanda Todd’s after extensive bullying, Internet hacking group Anonymous publicly released personal information (‘doxing’) on the wrong individual suspected of harassing Todd (Davison 2012).

Analyzing patterns of public and private participation in online cyber-policing can give insight into the boundaries of active and passive security roles in the new security framework that has emerged online (Huey et al. 2013), as well as provide insights into when and where those boundaries should exist. To help flesh out this analysis, within this paper we utilize data collected from Boston Marathon bombing threads in a popular online forum to examine efforts by members of the general public to identify and locate the perpetrators. Our analysis of member posts highlights the complex and nuanced role the public sometimes seeks to play in generating online-based investigations. It also speaks to the need of law enforcement and public policy makers to recognize that the proverbial genie is out of the bottle: the Internet has created an environment in which the public can and will choose to play a role in public criminal and other investigations that capture its interest. In essence, we argue from the data that there is clearly a need for public officials to create regulatory and other strategies by which they can direct public involvement in ways that reduce the potential for harm—such as that occurs through the misidentification of individuals as ‘suspects’—while maximizing opportunities for generating useful tips, having communities serve as ‘eyes and ears’ and other activities of investigational and other use to law enforcement.

In the pages that follow, we begin by contextualizing the role of general public using the nodal governance theoretical framework, which views security as being distributed across a network of public, private and hybrid institutions. Next, we discuss the research methods employed in this study—namely, data were drawn from an extensive review of more than 20,000 comments posted by users on the online community Reddit in the days after the Boston Marathon bombings. The discussion then turns to a presentation of the results of our analysis. Most users’ posts were general comments about the event—expressing sympathy for victims and outrage at the terrorist attack—but others focused on sharing information about the attacks, such as personal videos and photographs. A smaller, but especially important number of posts aimed to support the ongoing police investigation. In these posts, users’ shared real-time information about the investigation, scoured photographs and videos in an attempt to identify suspects, and used their own expert knowledge to identify key features of the attack. Although the success of the Reddit cyber-sleuths investigation was limited (i.e. they failed to identify the bombers), the Boston Marathon attack was the first terrorist event in America in which a large swathe of the general public attempted to advance a police investigation through their own efforts. We conclude by considering both the strengths and the limitations of public involvement in this area, before offering some recommendations as to how to public officials could and should maximize the benefits of public participation, as well as reducing the potential for harm.

The Varieties of Online Policing

The evolution of police has been historically demarcated into different eras that reflect distinct changes in their core function. Kelling and Moore (2005) construct three historic eras based on police mandates and functional priorities: The political era during the mid to late 1800s, where police focused on maintaining the social order that were often political in nature, the reform era during early to mid-20th century, which sought to eradicate corruption through adherence to law enforcement and a professional demeanour, and the community era from the 1970s onward, which maintains a crime control function but seeks community support and engagement through community-driven crime prevention and problem-solving strategies. A fourth era of policing suggested by the authors can be described as the information era of policing. Driven by demands of the information age and urbanization with larger officer-citizen ratios since the 1970s, police officers have become ‘knowledge workers’ who collect and process information (Ericson and Haggerty 1997). Modern officers, for instance, access information from mobile data terminals during stops before exiting their vehicles to assess the potential risk of the encounter (Manning 2008).

Despite incorporating information technology into their case management and investigative practices, police find themselves being unable to meet growing demands for service. New forms of crime created by the Internet, varying from hacking and distributing destructive viruses to manifestations of more traditional crimes, such as identity theft and harassment (e.g. cyberbullying), have outpaced law enforcement’s ability to control crime. Thus, a series of private actors—ranging from individual citizens to large corporations—have emerged who singularly and collectively play a role in the provision of security online (Wall 2007).

To aid conceptualizing the complexities of security provision—in both the online and ‘real’ worlds—a new model of security was introduced derived from Castells’ (1996; 2010) concept of the network society, where information networks shape social structures and activities. The nodal governance theoretical framework is based on the idea of distributed security in a non-hierarchical network consisting of security actors, or ‘nodes’. In a computer network, a node is a point of connection to a network, where information can be shared or accessed. Nodal governance nodes are security actors (institutions and groups) that share assets and work collaboratively for security purposes.

Burris et al. (2005: 37–38) describe nodes as having a set of four essential characteristics: (1) mentalities, (2) technologies, (3) resources and (4) institutions, or structures in which nodes can mobilize resources, mentalities and technologies. These nodal resources are used to exert influence over a security network. Nodal influence in a security network is not equal, with some nodes exerting more influence than others. Dupont (2006: 97–104) lists the types of resources (capital) as metrics that determine the influence of a node in a network: (1) economic capital, or the monetary resources of a node, (2) political capital, or ability to mobilize governmental resources, (3) cultural capital, or ‘actionable knowledge’, (4) social capital, or social relations with other nodes and individuals, and (5) symbolic capital, or centrality of a node to represent the other nodes.

Nodes in any given network can include a variety of security actors, such as the police. Within the nodal governance model, police organizations are considered one node in a larger security network that may also include private policing organizations, hybrid public-private security firms and members of the general public. This ‘plural’ model of security democratizes once police-exclusive functions of security into shared responsibility and resources (see Wood 2006). Power within the new networked model of security is diffused to each actor, some of which may exert more power than others. Police, for instance, sometimes exert substantial power stemming from their cultural and social capital of representing the ‘moral order’ of society, and their symbolic capital related to their ability to mobilize state-sanctioned legitimate power and resources, including the use of deadly force (See Dupont 2004; 2006).

The arrangement of security nodal networks can be established or ad hoc and scalable. The London Metropolitan Police, for example, coordinated security for the 2012 London Olympics using a large-scale nodal security network that utilized public–private security partnerships and ubiquitous surveillance (Bennett and Haggerty 2011). At a smaller scale, security alliances can form between police and citizens. For example, one cornerstone of community policing, an operating philosophy still embraced by most departments in varying degrees today, is information sharing and partnerships with police and citizens.

Perhaps the newest form of police–citizen collaboration is the use of social media by police. Some departments today are engaging the public through social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. The nature of these interactions, however, have reinforced the traditional model of police as knowledge brokers, in that social media serves mainly as a means of disseminating and collecting information rather than engaging in public discourse. UK police forces, for instance, have used Twitter merely to supplement current channels of communications such as public service announcements and public requests for supplemental pictures and videos to aid in their investigations (Crump 2011). However, another use of social media by police involves ‘crowdsourcing’: Distributing labour to a large group of people—over the Internet—to achieve a particular task or goal that might otherwise tie up the resources of an organization. One example of such crowdsourcing in the policing world is public monitoring of CCTV systems over the Internet, which has expanded the surveillance capabilities in the United Kingdom as more eyes are placed on identifying suspicious activities and suspects (Trottier 2014a). Another example is the Vancouver Police Department’s posting of images of individuals alleged to have participated in that city’s 2011 Stanley Cup riots through a Facebook page, where visitors were invited to report anyone they recognized (Schneider and Trottier 2011).

Although these forms of citizen engagement in online policing-related activities have attracted some researcher attention (Tapia et al. 2014; Trottier 2014b), the phenomenon of digilantism or ‘civilian online policing’ (Huey et al. 2013) has yet to generate significant interest on the part of researchers or the police. As we demonstrate in the analysis to follow, this lack of enthusiasm on the part of police agencies does not place a damper on some citizens’ desires to get involved online as ‘eyes and ears’ for the police.

Online Vigilantism and Crowdsourcing

The largely passive role by the general public in nodal policing arrangements in the terrestrial world has typically meant that when members of the public experience a problem, they contact the police with the expectation of some type of policing action. However, in the online world, law enforcement efforts have been more significantly more circumscribed as a result of a number of factors. The result has been a perceived policing deficit that has given rise to various forms of Internet vigilantism, including the creation of groups who harness the power of crowdsourcing to find wrongdoers and mete out justice. The first known large-scale vigilante effort originated in China in 2006, when members of a group known as ‘human-flesh search engine’ (renrou sousuo yinqing) tracked down a woman who was shown in a video stomping a kitten to death with her stiletto heels (Downey 2010). Within six days, the woman was fired from her job after the woman’s name, location, phone number and employer was made public by cyber sleuths who were able to track her down to a small remote province by examining the video’s background.

The human-flesh search engine example highlights the potential security capital of the public node when mobilized. In particular, it illustrates how public groups can, through countless connections across the web, draw upon a significant volume and diversity of individual knowledge and expertise to achieve their aims. The ability to physically search for information and persons through networks, and to use those same distributed resources across to interpret and apply information collected, reveals the potential strength of crowdsourcing in relation to crime and justice phenomenon.

To understand this phenomenon more accurately, it is important to also consider the cultural mentalities or ethos underlying both the development and subsequent use of the Internet. As both a social and physical space, the Internet is non-hierarchical and its users have traditionally approached it as a communitarian site governed by a largely libertarian values. In its ‘Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’, Internet rights advocate group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) founder John Barlow (1996) asserted cyberspace as independent from legal and geographic bounds, stating, ‘Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications’, adding, ‘legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us’. The power of this philosophy can be perceived in the ‘wiki’ model of information production and dissemination, which is an open-source model in which mass collaboration produces extremely creative and robust knowledge and works derived from online communities. For example, minutes following 2005 London subway ‘tube’ bombings, a Wikipedia user created an entry that detailed the event. Nearly 2,500 volunteers edited and added information to the page that day, resulting in a comprehensive account of the events with full references to news sites, demonstrating the transformative power of crowdsourcing (Tapscott and Williams 2010).

Despite the potential breadth and depth of knowledge and expertise, the public node is far from perfect. For instance, online ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous tracked down and publicly released personal information (‘doxing’) on a suspect they believed to be responsible for the sexual exploitation of 15-year-old Canadian teen Amanda Todd, who committed suicide after enduring relentless cyberbullying when a screen capture of her flashing her breasts on her webcam was spread by her harasser among her social networks (see Dean 2012). Unfortunately, in this instance, Anonymous identified the wrong person who was subjected to much harassment and threats, himself.

The successes and failures of the public node have raised some fundamental questions that this paper explores and some larger theoretical issues beyond its scope. Some of these questions include: Is digilantism is more harmful than good? What are the limits of law and law enforcement? How does digilantism conflict with issues of privacy? Do digilante activities serve to reinforce the collective community that can strengthen networks? Finally, is cyberspace a consequence-free environment for digilante groups to operate under? Our study addresses, at least in part, this growing list of issues by using empirical evidence gathered from one online community during the Boston Marathon Bombings.

Method of Inquiry

Threaded discussion analysis was chosen as an appropriate measure of sentiments and collective action following the Boston Marathon bombing based on previous studies of communications within online groups (Malesky and Ennis 2011; Van Hout and Bingham 2013a; 2013b; Huey et al. 2013). During the Boston Marathon bombing, users of the popular online community Reddit created a number of Boston Marathon themed posts, titled ‘Boston Marathon Explosions: Live Update Thread #_’ (labelled 1–21) to discuss the event in real time. A main series of 20 continuous discussion threads were created as the unofficial forum for the site from the time of the bombing on 15 April 2013 to the capture of the suspects on 20 April 2013. Note that the researchers excluded thread 21 from coding, which was created after the official capture of the suspects and contained mainly congratulatory comments.

When each thread was determined to be too large by site moderators, the thread would be locked for further comments and a user would create a continuation of the thread (i.e., the next numbered thread from 1–21). In each thread, anonymous users made thousands of comments, ranging in nature from general opinions of the event to in-depth analysis of the bombings. A substantial amount of ‘popular comments’ were automatically opened by the site for viewing without clicking for further comments. Top comments were voted on by community members, who can indicate whether a comment is good or bad by clicking on an up-arrow or a down-arrow. The threads contained an average of 1,034 popular comments (excluding responses to these comments) and, in total, the researchers examined and coded over 20,000 anonymous user comments.

Two researchers independently coded the popular comments in each thread using a thematic analysis approach, and then cross-checked the coding for accuracy. Themes in user posts were initially identified through open coding, creating a total of 20 thematic categories. These categories included: ‘support for victims’, ‘investigation-related information’ and ‘media criticism,’ among others. These themes were solidified, and appropriate sub-themes identified and linked, through a second, more focused coding. The results were then analyzed in both qualitative format and using descriptive statistics. As our focus in this paper is on the role that the public played in trying to assist police in identifying and locating suspects, for this paper we draw primarily on our analysis of the theme of ‘investigation-related information’.

Overview of Results

Reddit-threaded discussion data revealed several main categories in which users participated in the online discussions. First, the vast majority of participants simply used the forums as a means of self-expression. Second, participants sought to share and distribute news and other information, including a small number of Boston residents that provided real-time information from the scene. Third, some users offered direct or indirect assistance, such as offering to drive others to another location or offering up spare bedrooms to stranded visitors or family members of victims. Fourth, a group of users discussed topics directly related to the ongoing investigation, which included efforts at analyzing available information in order to identify and assist law enforcement in apprehending the suspects.

Table 1 shows the majority of comments (94.0 per cent) were general comments about the event. These ranged from outrage at the terrorist act to words of sympathy for the victims. A smaller number of individuals (3.7 per cent) asked general questions, such as for updates or facts about the event, or sought specific information, such as how to locate a specific marathon participant.

Table 1

Nature of comments

Nature of discussion N
General comment 14,539 94.0 
General question 572 3.7 
Criticism of mainstream media 262 1.7 
Seeking specific information 85 0.5 
Racist commenta14 0.001 
Total 15,472 100 
Nature of discussion N
General comment 14,539 94.0 
General question 572 3.7 
Criticism of mainstream media 262 1.7 
Seeking specific information 85 0.5 
Racist commenta14 0.001 
Total 15,472 100 

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A noteworthy number of forum participants (1.7 per cent) criticized mainstream television news coverage, often while lauding the speed and accuracy of the Internet as a source of information. On the contrary, mainstream news outlets were strongly criticized for sensationalism and inaccuracy of information. For example, one community member typical of the message board sentiment as indicated by 163 ‘likes’ by community members, expressed,

On this note, don’t listen to a word the NY Post says in regard to these explosions. Not that you should anyways. They have been sensationalizing and implicating racial connections where there are simply none known yet. (i.e. ‘A 20 YO [year old] Saudi national is currently being detained in a hospital as a suspect’. This is bullshit, police have called them out on it).

A very small number of individuals (0.001 per cent) made racist comments, usually by linking the terror suspects to Muslim or Middle Eastern ethnicities. These comments were quickly deleted by forum moderators or buried by forum users, who were quick to sanction the statement as being ignorant. Note that deleted racial comments were indicated by replies to the comment that sanctioned the comment for being racist. These comments are user-reported to forum moderators and administrators. This process shows the self-regulating nature of message boards and is not altogether surprising. Indeed, research has shown that people tend to distance themselves from those who do not align with their moral beliefs (Skitka et al. 2005), and self-policing has been observed elsewhere in online communities (e.g. see Wall and Williams 2007 study of Second Life and other virtual communities).

The public node of Reddit users acted as a real-time information hub (see Table 2). Of discussion posts involving the sharing of information, a large number of users submitted news links from traditional news outlets (29.8 per cent), such as large television networks and newspapers, prompting many to forgo watching television news and, instead, obtain information from the board directly. Many users also listened to police scanners and emergency broadcast channels (19.1 per cent) and were thus able to provide information to members of the online community before news outlets reported the same information. In addition, a smaller number of community members present in Boston submitted photos (16.0 per cent) and videos (3.2 per cent) taken themselves.

Table 2

Discussions related to information shared combined threads

Type of information N
Boston users’ news 162 4.4 
Photos 592 16.0 
Videos 120 3.2 
Direct news link 1,104 29.8 
Secondary news link 1,023 27.6 
Hearsay news/police radio 708 19.1 
Total 3,709 100 
Type of information N
Boston users’ news 162 4.4 
Photos 592 16.0 
Videos 120 3.2 
Direct news link 1,104 29.8 
Secondary news link 1,023 27.6 
Hearsay news/police radio 708 19.1 
Total 3,709 100 

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Public Security Assets

An analysis of the threaded discussions reveals unique security assets held by the public. The distributed and open nature of public forums, such as Reddit, attract individuals from a variety of professional backgrounds and interests. Whereas most law enforcement must cultivate and develop its expertise from within its ranks to tailor to emergent crimes, such as cybercrime (see Nhan 2010), or rely on small specialized sub-units within federal agencies economic and white-collar crimes, such as the FBI and IRS (see Friedrichs 2010), members of public forums are professionals in a wide range of fields, which include IT professionals and accountants. In fact, Reddit’s site contains sub-forums dedicated to specific interests that range from financing and computer security to religion and politics.

We see this wide variety of skills and expertise put to use during the Boston Marathon bombing investigation on the Reddit forums. In one post, a member claiming to have a background in military forensics gives detailed information on explosives and explosives investigations, stating:

There are dozens of different ways to make explosives, and they all involve specific and well known chemical mixtures. You can perform a range of tests from the size and severity of the blast and burn marks on materials, to chemical traces on the ground, right through to chemical traces on the shrapnel. It’s also very common for home made [sic] devices to explode in an incomplete or inefficient fashion, leaving traces behind. You are also quite likely to find evidence of the detonating device. How this is made and triggered (it can even have finger prints on it) is a huge clue.

The member goes on to explain the investigative steps and methods in great detail in relation to the explosives used in Boston. Similarly, another forum member claiming to have a professional background in explosives states:

From the couple of reports I’ve read about what remnants were recovered, I think the devices were possibly crude DTMF (dual tone multi frequency) triggered devices. Without seeing the top of the circuit board that was pictured in the Daily Mail pic dump, I can’t be sure. Anyways, this would lead me to believe that the devices were RCIEDs (Remote Controlled Improvised Explosive Devices), rather than a device that was triggered by a mechanical/electrical/chemical timer…Source: my field of work involves devices like this. I’ve seen a lot of them.

Underscoring the variety of expertise on the forums, other members in unrelated fields found themselves to be useful during the unofficial investigation. One forum member who is a radio-controlled (RC) car enthusiast was able to help identify the triggering mechanism used in the bombing. He stated, ‘I am an RC modeller and one of the chips in the photos looks similar to ones use for RC cars. Shared my ideas here: [link to sub-reddit forum]’. More remotely, a member working for a tire distributor found himself useful when trying to identify the suspect with the hat worn by one of the bombing suspects. He responded to a picture by stating:

Hmm I work for a Tire Distributor and you get this hat for free for completing their Bridgestone ‘procert’ testing. I actually have one in the mail on the way right now. I’m sure there’s other places you can buy them but I just thought I’d throw that out there.

He was urged by forum members to immediately report his findings to the FBI. Although these members cannot be verified in terms of their expertise and only represent a small number of individuals (n = 16) in our data, information shared can be a valued security asset not only a technical standpoint, but from the diversity of the expertise, as shown by the proclaimed professional tire distributor.

The overall power of a nodal security network to respond to crime online or in the real world is often limited by inter-nodal frictions stemming from political and cultural incompatibilities. In principle, law enforcement and the general public share similar views as to what constitute desirable outcomes for reprehensible crimes, such as the Boston Marathon bombing. Law enforcement’s symbolic capital, in the form of its centrality and leadership in the network, and political capital, derived from its ability to government resources, are complementary to the public node’s cultural capital, exemplified in its expertise in a broad subject matter, and its social capital, related to the expansive subnetworks of connected individuals participating worldwide. Again, in principle, these forms of capital create a very broad and deep reservoir of actionable knowledge. However, the Boston example shows separate, parallel investigations being conducted by both nodes, with no information reciprocated by law enforcement and little direction given to the public. The unidirectional flow of information duplicates resource output and undermines more robust collaborative efforts.

Public–police inter-nodal relational limitations can be explained by the long history of police–citizen mistrust developed through police professionalism. Manning (2005: 195) characterized the mentality of the occupational subculture as a ‘siege mentality’, with postulates that include (1) People cannot be trusted; they are dangerous; (2) You must make people respect you; and (3) Everyone hates a cop. Van Maanen (1978) further illustrates this point by describing police perceptions of the public as oscillating between ‘know nothings’, ‘suspicious persons’ and ‘assholes’. These negative mentalities towards the public are compounded by potential legal issues of co-opting the public for active assistance. For instance, Huey et al. (2013) found that many police organizations refused the help of well-intentioned online groups actively aiding officers in identifying and apprehending sexual offenders.

Cyber-sleuthing: Civilian Investigations Online

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, many Reddit users assumed the unofficial role of cyber-sleuth by acting as participants in the ongoing law enforcement investigation. These civilian investigators worked to compliment the official investigation and manhunt by serving as an extra set of ‘eyes and ears’ for law enforcement. Combing through hundreds of pictures and videos, when a Reddit user identified information that may be pertinent to the FBI or Boston Police Department, he or she was encouraged to report it to law enforcement. At the same time, forum users discouraged other members from becoming too actively involved in the investigation, such as by actively pursuing suspects.

As shown in Table 3, in the days after the bombing nearly 1,500 threads were created to share information related to the ongoing investigation (89.3 per cent of all investigation-related threads). Many other threads (4.2 per cent) were devoted to sharing information about the suspected bombers. Most often, these posts attempted to identify the suspects from photographs of the crown and blast area. Participants in these threads often drew attention to suspicious persons in the photographs whom users believed may have been implicated in the bombings. For many community members, this meant perusing photographs and videos for potential suspects in order to find and piece together information that law enforcement may have missed, indicative of the underutilization of the public node’s social and cultural capital. In one such typical post, one member commented:

Table 3

Discussions related to investigation

Nature of discussion N
Investigation related 1,439 89.3 
Suspect information 67 4.2 
Technical information 0.04 
Expert knowledge 16 1.0 
Law enforcement link 84 5.2 
Total 1,612 100 
Nature of discussion N
Investigation related 1,439 89.3 
Suspect information 67 4.2 
Technical information 0.04 
Expert knowledge 16 1.0 
Law enforcement link 84 5.2 
Total 1,612 100 

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What seems really interesting to me is they are on the move away from where the first bomb was placed. Notice the Bright orange jacketed guy it the very top corner, against the barrier. He is cut off from the edge in the first photo but using him as reference you can see most of the people around him stay in the same location (Red hood, White hood, white cap2). In the next picture white cap and shiny blue are 35–40 people down from orange jacket and moving out of the enclosed space, towards the second blast location. Orange and most people around him seem to remain near the Netherlands flag … Looking at an aftermath photo, it seems like the bomb was place right in this very location, near the brick cobblestone stripe. It is as if he placed it down right after this pic was taken!

Similarly, forum members conducted a virtual crime scene investigation by combing through the details of many photos of the blast posted on the Internet. For example, in one typical post, a member states,

There is a lot more debris on the ground in the second photo, its also hard to tell from so far away. Remember, different angles give different depths to objects, so that burn mark may be further to the right in the second picture.

Edit: Actually, if you zoom in, it almost looks like some sort of light-weight debris caught in the tree fluttering at the exact moment of the picture being taken. I’m probably wrong, but it just caught my eye.

Oftentimes, when ‘relevant’ information was identified, community members reported it to the police.


Discovery

Responding to terror (again): A study of the Boston Marathon bombing

Media exposure to prior tragedies may sensitize people to new disasters


May 21, 2015

The city of Boston endured one of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in April 2013, when two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. While emergency workers responded to the chaos and law enforcement agencies began a manhunt for the perpetrators, Americans fixed their attention to television screens, Internet news sites and forums, and Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

In doing so, some of those people may have been raising their acute stress levels, with a corresponding increase in symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, a sense of emotional numbness, or re-experiencing their trauma. Such responses, exhibited shortly after exposure to a trauma, have been linked with long-term negative health effects.

A trio of researchers in psychology and social behavior and nursing science at the University of California (UC), Irvine--supported by the Social Psychology Program in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate--released a paper last year finding that for some individuals, intense exposure to the Boston marathon bombing through media coverage could be associated with more stress symptoms than those who had direct exposure to the attack. Their latest research article, published this month, finds that the likelihood of those symptoms developing also increases with multiple exposures to prior trauma.

In other words, the more hours you spend following disasters and tragedies in the media, the more sensitized you may become.

"Media-based exposure to these large, collective traumas--these community disasters--can have cumulative effects on people," said Dana Rose Garfin, one of the paper's authors. "More prior indirect exposures are associated with higher stress responses following subsequent traumatic events."

Garfin, E. Alison Holman and Roxane Cohen Silver used survey results from residents of metropolitan Boston and New York City collected within weeks of the Marathon bombing to examine the relationship between how they responded to the attack and their media-based exposure to three previous traumatic events: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

"We were able to specifically explore the accumulation of exposure to collective disasters," Silver said. "We looked at three different, collective events to which people on the East Coast--and in particular New York and Boston--have been exposed."

The researchers looked at levels of acute stress in Boston and New York residents within a month after the marathon bombing. The Boston residents were much closer to that act of terrorism, but the researchers did not find that proximity necessarily correlated with higher stress levels. According to their report, New Yorkers already had somewhat heightened stress levels, due to their exposure to Superstorm Sandy, 9/11 and the Sandy Hook shooting, making their responses to the Marathon bombing comparable to those of Bostonians.

These findings do not imply that merely reading one article or watching a single program about a community trauma will necessarily increase stress. The research team's first paper found that acute stress symptoms increased as the number of hours per day of bombing-related media exposure in the week following the bombing increased. People who reported three or more hours per day of media exposure reported higher stress symptoms than those who reported less than one hour per day, and individuals who reported six or more hours a day reported the highest levels of symptoms.

Their latest paper also notes that the effects of cumulative indirect trauma exposure aren't universal.

"There's variability in how this happens," Holman said. "And that's another research question that has to be addressed--to understand what leads to those differences, why some people have sensitivities and others don't."

There are other limits on the findings. The data were correlational--they showed a relationship between increased media exposure to traumatic events and the development of stress symptoms, but they don't provide a direct causal link. Still, based on the evidence the researchers have reviewed thus far, coupled with the findings from a similar study they conducted about exposure to media after the 9/11 attacks, the team members have recommendations for news consumers.

"My recommendation is to turn off the TV and not expose yourself too much through social media or other media sources," Holman said. "Find out what you need to know from the news, but don't overexpose yourself."

Garfin emphasized that overexposure is the key factor.

"I wouldn't say don't stay informed or tune out the news," she said. "It's the repeated exposure to things, which probably isn't giving you new information. We're not saying turn off the TV totally. Stay informed, then go on with your daily life."

The researchers are likely to yield much more in the way of results on the topic. The latest paper represents the first wave of data collection they performed. There are four more following. Their next article, they said, will examine how specific types of media--such as television or social media--are associated with acute stress levels.

-- Robert J. Margetta, (703) 292-8070 rmargett@nsf.gov




Investigators
Dana Rose Garfin
Ellen Holman
Roxane Silver

Related Institutions/Organizations
University of California-Irvine

Related Awards
#1342637 RAPID: Responding to Terror (Again): A National Study of the Boston Marathon Bombings

Total Grants
$178,643


Police set up barriers at Copley Square just moments after the Boston Marathon bombing.

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