Today, the moment a suspect's name is published in relation to a major crime, media outlets and news consumers alike begin to search for what digital trace this person may have left, often hoping to be the first to discover some morsel of information that could offer some insight into the whys and hows of a story.
But as the race to be first lurches forward, a trend unfolds: The fake online account.
While the rise of social media makes this particular phenomena new, the impulse behind it definitely isn't. History is littered with false confessions that have been coerced or, more curiously, stem from insanity, a pathological obsession with a particular case, or an insatiable need for attention and infamy. The Black Dahlia murder, the Lindbergh baby, the mysterious slaying of JonBenet Ramsey... all high-profile, sensational cases that made their major players famous (or infamous) as an enthralled public looked on. And all were cases that inspired dozens, or even hundreds, of false confessions.
In cases of voluntary false confessions, while some might confess out of a deep desire to be a part of that circus, psychology experts believe that other factors could be at play, including "guilt over past transgressions," an "inability to distinguish fact from fiction," or a desire to "help or protect the real criminal." In cases of internalized false confessions, suspects -- whether because of stress or guilt or empathy -- become convinced of their own culpability.
Any number of these impulses can also be at play in a person's decision to emulate a suspect online. As of this post's publishing, there are 14 Twitter accounts using Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's name and photo as their own (up from 8 when I first began writing this post). All are trying to either emulate him or to discuss the search for him.
In many cases, the users seem empathetic, painting the 19-year-old suspect as misunderstood and persecuted. The account @dzhokhartsarnae, for instance, tweets that "#ImSoTiredOf hearing people butcher my name. Come on everyone, sound it out." While @DzhokaTsarnaev writes "i innocent." A user posting under the name @DzhokharTsarna1 writes that, "i just turned 19 and i would not go out and kill people when i could rather party and have fun with my life."
Another account, @DzhokarTsarnaev, elected to take a high-brow approach, quoting Shakespeare in its bio ("The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.").
Some of these accounts have chosen to interact directly with authorities. @Dzhokhar_A, for example, tweeted "Do not approach" to the Boston Police Department's official account. Other obvious instances of trolling include an account, @RealDzhokhar, that writes "I would love to run in the Boston Marathon!" and "You will never find me."
At a time when it is easier than ever to find your own platform and broadcast your thoughts and experiences to the world, voices are being given to the infamous by anonymous or semi-anonymous, nobodies. It's a similar phenomenon to the online fandoms surrounding murderers both convicted and suspected, including the likes of ex-LAPD offer Christopher Dorner and Aurora shooter James Holmes. You get to be part of the story. You get to give a voice to the face on your screen. You get to be something approaching -- but far more comfortable and easier to obtain than -- fame. And, now, you get to be the story itself.