In the most crowdsourced terror investigation on American soil, we have come a long way this week in the neverending game of amateur investigation on social media: the bags and the backpacks, the smoke and the batteries, the CNN "arrest" disaster and the Reddit photo sleuthing and the Post "Bag Men" turned very bad and borderline racist. Now, as the manhunt continues for a 19-year-old introduced to the world in bits and pieces on Friday, it's only fitting that Twitter feeds both apparently real and very fake have emerged, along with a page on Russia's equivalent of Facebook, and millions of Google searches. Here are the few — if ominous — things we've learned about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and ourselves, from the big social media reveal of a man who was, it seems minutes ago, just a stranger.
What We Learned About Ourselves: People Are Jerks
And we don't just mean the "losers" and "small stunted individuals" that are Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan. In the very moments after the name Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, plenty of fake Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts popped up — some even made "jokes" about killing cops. Publications like The Boston Globe, one of the most reliable sources of information in a shaken city this week, found themselves duped into thinking a fake Twitter account belonged to Tsarnaev. As to what drives people to impersonate suspected killers (Adam Lanza and James Holmes, too), we have no answer. But it got so bad that the Boston Police Department had to tell people on social media to stop interfering with their investigation:
Boston Police to Twitter: Stop making up fake Twitter accounts, stop tweeting scanner details, stop telling people where we are.— MyFOX8 FOX8 WGHP (@myfox8) April 19, 2013
All this after Boston Police, in the police scanner live-tweeting insanity of early Friday morning, had told people social media to... stop interfering with their investigation:
#MediaAlert: WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 19, 2013
Did we mention that the FBI, on Thursday night, had told people on social media to... stop interfering with their investigation?
Other photos should not be deemed credible and they unnecessarily divert the public’s attention in the wrong direction and create undue work for vital law enforcement resources.
At least this guy, in the face of conspiracy theories taking foot, had the good conscience to sit on the URL for BostonMarathonConspiracy.com, which currently reads only the following:
Here's What We Learned About Djohar Tsarnaev: Bits and Scary Pieces
You can read our thorough accounting of the teenager on the lam right here, but a few questions key pullouts are worth knowing in this still uncertain phase of the manhunt:
His Facebook-Style Account Listed His 'World View' as Islam
Vkontakte (or VK) is something of a Russian equivalent to Facebook, with some 200 million users. And according to Buzzfeed's Chris Geidner, this is Tsarnaev's account. The dates of Tsarnaev's schooling, birth, and time spent in Boston seem to match up from what multiple reports suggested all day Friday. And, yes, it says his "World view" is Islam, but no matter what the anti-Muslim crowd tells you, let's keep in mind that how you identify yourself on Facebook (or VK) doesn't necessarily mean that you are what you say you are. A commenter on our bio of Tsarnaev, claimed to be friends with him and wrote that Tsarnaev did not practice the tenets of Islam:
His views on Islam were far from normal. I am the president of the Muslim Student Association here at UMassD and I approached him several times to join our group and learn and partake. He didn't want to join, nor be associated with us. We played soccer together weekly and I knew him fairly well. If there's one thing I can assure you it's that this kid was NOT a Muslim. He did drugs, he drank alcohol, he didn't want to help us when we were carrying out humanitarian relief efforts... he knew nothing of Islam.
Tsarnaev's father has said his sons aren't religious. Though, again, this is a father who thought his son was a second-year medical student at the age of 19.
He Tweeted That He Would 'Die Young'
The @J_tsar account was, according to classmates who spoke with BroBible, Gawker, Buzzfeed, the one Tsarnaev really used. It's still out there with messages that aren't that easy to (over)read into, but, according to Google cache data, there's a tweet from almost a year ago to the day, in Russian, that translates to "I will die young." Foreshadowing? A teenager trying to be cool? Both? Like we said, everyone's been overthinking a lot this week — take from this what you will:
Two Days Ago, He Tweeted That He Was Pretty Relaxed
The Night After the Bombing, He Told People to 'Stay Safe'
The Day of the Bombing, He Talked About a Victim
A cover-up? Who knows. The young man at the center of the man hunt was on social media, like many young men with less evil minds. And his online activity will provide real investigators with a few more details in a fuller picture of a criminal, like it does with every criminal investigation of this size. Essentially, these gristly bits of Tsarnaev's social media life are part of him — pockets of a life he chose to reveal to the faceless Internet. And though he was in control of what he shared, he won't be in control of how he's remembered. Stay tuned here to find out how the next chapter unfolds in real life.