Experts Say Social Media Has Changed How People Identify With High-Profile Suspects

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has supporters who have been sending him money while he's locked away in Fort Devens.


Since Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was identified, arrested, and ultimately imprisoned, for allegedly setting off explosives along the marathon route with his older brother, Tamerlan, countless conspiracy websites, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages claiming his innocence have sprouted up online.

People have even gone as far as setting up a bank account for the suspect—and depositing money into the account for him on a regular basis.

Experts say this behavior, which includes fan websites created by young girls fawning over the long-haired, baby-faced bombing suspect, is being expressed like never before. “Convicted offenders get a lot of fan letters, proposals for marriage, and support—there is nothing unique about that. But the Internet is letting this be done in new ways, and so has social media,” says Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who has been a consultant and expert witness for numerous high-profile criminal cases in the United States, including Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrea Yates. “I think this might be happening more than we have seen in the past.”

Dietz says the way the Tsarnaev brothers have been “marketed,” as well as their “fashionable look for today,” may be part of the reason for the websites, tweets, and crushes that younger girls have developed on 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar. Based on the fact that Dzhokhar is completely inaccessible, locked away at Fort Devens with little to no chance of ever being released, Dietz says, is what drives the desire to develop those feelings. He says people who admit to having romantic inclinations toward Dzhokhar attach themselves to him because it is fairly safe to do so. “Because someone who is unapproachable to them, in this instance because he is in custody, he poses no threat. It’s a safe direction for holding a crush. To have a crush on a classmate is to risk rejection or intimacy. To have a crush on the alleged bomber, there is no risk the teen perceives … it’s harmless social activity by the immature. It would be no different if they had a crush on an Avatar [character],” he says. “Thinking the person looks cute is a big part of why someone would get on the bandwagon or to save the wounded bird.”

As for those who send Dzhokhar money, as he indicated in a recent phone call with his mother as reported by Channel 4 news, Dietz says the “wounded bird” theory still applies. In the taped phone conversation, Dzhokhar tells his parents that he is eating well, walking around, and that people set up an account for him and made deposits. His mother, similarly, tells her son that the family has received $8,000 in donations from supporters around the world.

Dietz says this behavior can be attributed to a few things, most of which are “less harmless” than a fleeting schoolgirl crush. “There are needy people that want to help anyone else who is in need and put their emotional energy and even time and money into the effort to save them,” he says.

But for “C,” who asked that her full name not be used, it’s not about Dzhokhar’s looks, and it’s not about saving him—it’s about his “innocence.”

“I sympathize with [Dzhokhar] because I truly from the bottom of my heart believe he is innocent,” says the 19-year-old, who also runs a Twitter account associated with the “Free Jahar” movement. “I don’t believe [Dzhokhar] or his brother Tamerlan planted those [bombs] near the finish line at the marathon.”

She says she has donated money to causes to support Dzhokhar financially, printed fliers and posted them in her neighborhood, and talks regularly with others on Twitter who share similar views. “When I tweet about [Dzhokhar], it is never a crushing thing. I don’t have a crush on him or support him for his looks, I support him because I believe he is innocent. I’m a supporter, not a fan girl,” she says. “I really don’t care how people perceive me for supporting [Dzhokhar]. My parents always told me this phrase; ‘always stand up for what you believe is right, even if it means standing alone.’ That is exactly what I am doing, standing up for what I believe, which is that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan are innocent. And I will never give up or stop fighting for them.”

She says her sentiments are based on a “lack” of evidence connecting the Tsarnaev brothers to the attack, which, in Dietz’s opinion, can be classified as “ignorance.”

“There is nothing wrong with the presumption of innocence, but to deny evidence when it’s in front of them is another matter,” Dietz says. What’s most alarming in these cases, he says, is that people are willing to put extra effort into defending criminals and to support them financially when people are in need “a stone’s throw” away. “But the effort and time and money is wasted on an accused criminal,” he says.