Live streaming police scanners and mainlining Twitter during the Boston manhunt

boston manhunt police scanners twitter

Against my better judgment and in full contempt of recommendations by experts, I sleep with an iPhone on my pillow. My final act before begrudgingly snapping shut my eyelids is scanning Twitter. It pains me to admit this fact, because I’m straining to think of anyone whose opinion I cherish dearly enough to deserve being the last thing my brain registers before REM sleep, but my nocturnal Tweet tour is a compulsion. It is motivated, I think, by a ridiculous paranoia that something dire and immediate will transpired during the ten minutes it takes me to brush my teeth and grab a cup of water. Last night my breaking news FOMO was justified.

When pandemonium erupted in my home state late Thursday night, it was Twitter that alerted me. A full hour before CNN broke the story, #MIT and #Watertown were trending. I have heard the Boston news affiliate, WBZ-TV, bravely and precisely covered the breaking story last night, but in my Brooklyn bedroom, I had no clear access to their coverage. Twitter anchored me.

Following the tweets subcategorized under #watertown, I attempted to keep up with the swelling chatter. I was alerted by the hactivist group Anonymous (who yesterday raised $54,688 on Indiegogo to launch an independent news site) that the Police Scanner in Watertown could be streamed. Over the course of thirty minutes, I watched the number of those listening go from around 20,000 to well over 50,000. Similar scanner streaming sites crashed from unanticipated traffic. For the next hour I tried to process the raw information.

Already an MIT Patrol Officer, now identified as Sean Collier, had been killed in the line of duty. The consensus on Twitter, largely based on what officers were saying on the scanner, was that two suspects were involved. One had been shot and transported to Beth Israel Hospital. We now know this man was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a 26 year old referred to as Suspect No. 1 from the marathon attacks. We know he died of his wounds. We know his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev escaped, potentially in the same vehicle they had previously hijacked – leaving the car’s owner abandoned at a gas station. We know he was a subject of one of the most intense manhunts in recent history.

This is not a news outlet: we are eavesdropping on the info-injected internal communication of men and women literally under fire.

But this clarity has came, as often it does, with daylight. In the pre-dawn hours Friday, as I listened to crackling police radios, it was difficult to assemble a clear narrative. Tweets, largely based on the same scanner I was listening to, reported a suspect on the run. It was clear that explosives were present, and that the police on the ground were very nervous about them. Initially, I read the explosives were in the form of undetonated grenades. Later they seemed to be in the form of improvised devices. The FBI was present. At one point, an officer asked what was “probably a stupid question” but was there any chance cellphones could detonate the devices? It’s possible, he was told, and police on the ground were ordered to power-off their phones.

Twitter continued to react with astonishing speed – tens of thousands of ears listened to the scanner, with highlights being tweet-transcribed in 140-character segments. But the crowd-sourced platform was, at aggregate, jittery – and occasionally hysterical. The night’s most chilling moment came when a confirmation that Children’s Hospital had been “locked down” was misunderstood (by both officers and tweeters) as shots had been fired at Children’s Hospital. Panicked tweets, the correctly fearful venting this new possible horror across the platform. #Watertown. #MIT. #Scanner. All voices pooled under trending hashtags, impossible to separate rumor from opinion from reports more firmly grounded in truth. Quickly, a clarification over the radio: “there have been no shots fired at Children’s Hospital.” A live realization: the officers on the ground are subject to the same misunderstanding and foggy information. This is not a news outlet: we are eavesdropping on the info-injected internal communication of men and women literally under fire. There is no fact checker; it has not yet been analyzed.

The internet has been very quick to pat itself on the back this morning. This is not without just cause. The self-satisfaction comes on the heels of the major news networks and newspapers being rightfully crucified for spotty reporting of the Boston Marathon tragedy. The national news networks were unforgivably slow last night. Twitter, unquestionably, has changed the model for how breaking news is ingested. But a legion of civilians crowd-source-scrutinizing police scanners is not complete journalism. Twitter is a mob, well-intentioned and clever, but a mob – all shouting at once to be heard. During moments of weight, it is exceptionally difficult to filter the voices that matter from those simply echoing the words and pathos of the body as a whole.

I am grateful that we live in a world where I can live-stream a police scanner, that I can hear an event, gruesome and bleak though it may be, transpire. Rarely before have I been offered such intimate and obvious evidence of bravery among the officers and agents present. I suspect there will be a heightened demand for access to scanners during breaking news events. But last night also made clear the pitfalls of these new sources – they offer unfiltered data, subject to the bedlam of an active crime scene and the instant-evaluation of officers.

We demand news – we want it instant, we want it precise, and we want it unbiased. The horrors of Boston and the coverage that followed have proclaimed, with piercing lucidity, that our traditional media has much room to improve. It has also underlined the utility of sites like Twitter and of scanner streaming services. But ultimately, we all encounter the hard reality of chaos, and in chaos, you cannot know truth. Even for those on the ground, what was objectively happening was veiled. The internet is wise, but can also be arrogant and frantic. Sometimes all you can do is learn what you can, acknowledge what you can’t, and pray that the good guys make it through the night.

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