In the hunt for evidence in relation to the events at this year’s Boston Marathon, law enforcement is using a tool that the American mainstream may not have thought about until recently. And it may be a permanent tool in the forensic kits of police departments everywhere.
YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts are being sorted, skimmed and searched, all to find small clues that could lead to the arrest and prosecution of involved groups or individuals. It has also become a source of information for people anywhere in the world that want to keep pace with the ongoing events.
“We see social media being used by law enforcement in all different capacities,” International Association of Chiefs of Police professional Nancy Kolb said during an interview with the New York Times. “Each year we see an exponential growth in how law enforcement is using social media and the cases that they’re applying social media to.”
Just after the two explosions, Boston police sent out a tweet.
“Boston Police looking for video of the finish line,” the tweet said. “BPD asking for tips,” said a later tweet, with the hashtag “tweetfromthebeat.”
Police departments across the nation began using social media just a few years ago, primarily to find evidence in cases of violence, vandalism and efforts made recent headlines during an effort to dissolve a network of Southern California house parties.
“There has to be hundreds or thousands of photographs or videos or observations that were made down at that finish line yesterday,” Massachusetts State Police Superintendent Timothy Alben said during a press conference Monday. “And they’re sitting out there amongst everyone that’s watching out there. And I would encourage you to bring in anything. You might not think it’s significant. But it might have some value to this investigation.”
Within five hours of the first blast, there were already hundreds of videos posted on YouTube and the first picture was tweeted within a minute of the two explosions. YouTube has a page solely dedicated to the attack in its “spotlight” section. The service provides updated coverage of the event, all Internet based.
Not long after media outlets began reporting the explosions, Google had set up a people finder service, where users could source out information about people they knew, or submit information. The service even became a source for media outlets.
Facebook has not provided a service directly correlated to the events, but offers a “graph search,” making it easier to find friends in Boston. One simple update can also alert thousands of people to an individual’s status of health and wellbeing. All with a few keystrokes.
While many blame social media on dissolved relationships, and certain U.S. Senators use it to send out pictures of their genitalia, it has also changed the landscape of American reaction to disasters.
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