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Social Media: Big Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombing

Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the importance of social media as a policing tool, in particular Twitter and Facebook, soon became apparent.

At 2:49 p.m. on April 15, 2013, at the height of Boston’s annual Marathon, two bombs exploded near the finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others. What followed was an extraordinary manhunt, which included a shelter-in-place request from the governor that virtually shut down the city, along with the use of social media by law enforcement as a key communications tool to keep the media and frightened citizens accurately informed about what was going on.

Within 10 minutes of the bombing, Boston Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Edward Davis told his department to start using social media and to let people know what had occurred. The importance of social media as a policing tool, in particular Twitter and Facebook, soon became apparent. Misinformation, spread by professional media outlets and social media itself, was quickly corrected by the BPD. It didn’t take long for the media to realize that the most accurate information about the bombing was coming from the official BPD Twitter account.

“The Boston Police Department was outstanding and it was so simple and effective,” said Lt. Zachary Perron, public information officer for the Palo Alto, Calif., Police Department. “They became the news source during the crisis. It was a watershed moment for law enforcement and social media.

Perron should know. He is in charge of the department’s social media program in a Silicon Valley city where just about everybody uses social media and news is covered by four daily newspapers. What began as part-time work is now a full-time position for Perron. His job, as well as for other police officers in charge of social media, is to direct public relations through the various channels — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube — but to do it in a real-time manner and with a much broader constituency. No longer do press releases just go out to the established media; they are available to anyone in the community who follows the Palo Alto police via social media.

Social media has three sets of characteristics with key implications for law enforcement, according to a Harvard Kennedy School research report, Social Media and Police Leadership. 

The first is the scope of social media, which continues to grow. Perron said his department’s social media outlets have thousands of followers compared to the handful of traditional media outlets that were interested in press releases issued by the Palo Alto PD. 

The second characteristic is structure. Social media lets police have two-way conversations with the community. Palo Alto routinely receives messages from citizens via social media, including anonymous tips. Perron also conducts “virtual ride-alongs,” live-tweeting during an entire shift from an officer’s patrol car. “It gives the public a great view of what we do and a better understanding of what’s going on.” Ultimately social media provides law enforcement a level of transparency it couldn’t attain otherwise. When done correctly, the benefits are immeasurable, said Perron.

The third characteristic is tone. When the police use social media, they are having a conversation with their community; it’s informal and quite distinct from traditional press releases. “We try to use a voice and tone that is cultivated and professional, but also human and sometimes humorous,” Perron said. Corporate marketing campaigns have struggled to adopt that kind of human and humorous tone. But beat cops have a lot of practice talking directly to the community in an informal manner. For that reason, they have probably been more successful than other government agencies at engaging the public via social media.

Besides using social media as a two-way communications tool with the public and media, police also use Twitter and Facebook in investigations. Four out of five law enforcement agencies say they use social media for investigations, according to a 2012 survey by LexisNexis Risk Solutions.

The most common uses include: evidence collection — people are more than willing to brag about their actions on social media sites; location of suspects — one investigator “friended” a suspect and was able to track his location; criminal network investigation — again, people are prone to talking about their actions on social media sites, giving the police a window into their activities. The New York City Police Department found that 72 percent of its social networking use was by its detective bureau, investigating crime patterns and suspects, according to a 2013 report by the Police Executive Research Forum and the U.S. Department of Justice’s COPS program.

But using social media has its challenges too. There’s the cultural shift from a one-way form of communication with the public and media to one that is clearly two way now. Social media also can amplify, even distort information as it gets passed along. In addition, police departments must set policies as to who controls the information. In Palo Alto, Boston and elsewhere, social media content is centralized. But other agencies let individual police officers communicate through their own Twitter accounts. 

For someone like Perron, who knows how hard it can be to manage social media, the problem is one of who monitors social media accounts when an officer is off duty? “Twitter is going 24 by 7. What happens if there’s an emergency and no one responds?” he asked.

Go back to the full Digital Communities report