Boston suspect’s Twitter account shows how quickly private life can turn public


A look at the Twitter network of Dzokhar Tsarnaev. (Courtesy of Digg/Courtesy of Digg)
April 25, 2013

One emotion seems to have rippled through Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Twitter network as the news broke that the 19-year-old was suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings: disbelief.

“He was my friend,” reads one tweet, followed by a frowning emoticon.

“I want to hear his side of the story... I need to,” wrote another.

An analysis of the bombing suspect’s Twitter account, was released Thursday by betaworks chief scientist Gilad Lotan and posted at digg.com. It shows the ruminations of an ordinary 19-year-old and then the growing shock, confusion and pain of his friends and supporters. In particular, the report outlines how Tsarnaev’s friends had to deal with the torrent of messages from strangers and media outlets that flooded into their own account feeds.

The messages attributed to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the account, @j_tsar, are generally typical of a young college student, with passing comments on the NCAA championship game, references to smoking marijuana and conversations with friends about HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” His feed showed that Tsarnaev followed a few accounts that focused on his Islamic faith, with daily religious quotes or affirmations, but none that appear to promote the same radical Islamist views that investigators say motivated the bombings.

The majority of Tsarnaev’s network included friends from high school and his hometown of Cambridge. For many of them, the sudden attention proved too much.

About 28 percent of the suspect’s friends in the network had locked down their Twitter accounts a week after the bombings, while 10 percent deleted them completely, according to the report. The friends that Tsarnaev made while at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, the report said, were more likely to limit access to their accounts.

Tsarnaev’s high school friends were more likely to defend him. Many said that they didn’t understand how he could have done something so terrible. Others grew angry at a growing number of messages that threatened Tsarnaev’s life while authorities were searching for him and the city of Boston was on lockdown.

“You gon just flat out demand for his murder without knowing the ENTIRE story,” wrote one friend. “That’s Justice? If it was your friend, would you be demanding....”

The report also gives details about the growing Twitter campaign to “Free Jahar,” the name Tsarnaev uses with friends, which was spearheaded by Troy Crossley, one of Tsarnaev’s Twitter followers.

Finally, the report outlines how people unaffiliated with Tsarnaev were pulled into the media whirlwind, most notably Mufti Ismail Menk, a Muslim scholar in Zimbabwe, who was threatened simply because Tsarnaev retweeted one of his messages without his knowledge.

“In a networked environment, the potential for visibility exists,” Lotan noted in his conclusion. “But visibility comes with consequences.”

Related stories:

Boston Marathon bombings: Suspects’ mother speaks out

CIA pushed to add Boston bomber to terror watch list

AP: NYC Mayor says Boston suspects said NYC was next, intended to set off explosives in Times Square

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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