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Authorities in Boston bombing helped, hindered by social media

Boston Police have asked for help via Twitter in tracking down the remaining bombing suspect, while also telling tweeps not to give too much away.

The Boston Police Department has taken to Twitter to help locate the bombing suspects.
Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

Authorities pursuing a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing have a love-hate relationship with social media. After initially asking for help via Twitter, law enforcement later requested that social-media users be a little more conscientious about the kind of information shared (or fabricated) on social networks.

In the immediate aftermath of the dual blasts that killed three and injured dozens near the marathon finish line on Monday, law enforcement turned to the public via Twitter and other platforms for help crowdsourcing leads. On Thursday, the FBI released video footage of two young men carrying backpacks near the finish line of the marathon before the blasts, asking the public again for help in identifying the suspects.

Then, as photos and videos of the suspects were circulating on Facebook, Reddit, and other sites, more news broke overnight. You can find far more detail on the latest developments at our sister site, but briefly, there was a convenience store holdup, the fatal shooting of an MIT officer, and a high-speed pursuit through a Boston suburb. It soon became clear that the individuals involved in these events were in fact the two suspects in the images released by the FBI.

Identified as brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, the elder brother was reported to have been killed overnight while Dzhokhar escaped, leading to a citywide lockdown and manhunt. Friday morning, the Boston Police Department tweeted the above photo of the younger brother, as well as this rendering of a license plate authorities were searching for (the car was later found unoccupied):


But authorities also found that Twitter could be a nuisance as well as a tool in the process of pursuing the suspect.

As fake Twitter accounts using the name of the suspect popped up Friday and other tweeps began sharing updates of the pursuit gleaned from police scanners, the department tweeted this stern order:

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

Around the same time, streams of Boston Police scanners available online through services like TuneIn became unavailable. I've been unable to access the streams all morning, and other users on Reddit and other forums also report the streams suddenly going offline Friday morning.