Between New Year’s Day and April 16 at 10:43 p.m., 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sent 210 tweets, not counting retweets or tweets written in a foreign language. Altogether he wrote 2,608 words on the microblogging site, for an average tweet length of 12.4 words, excluding hashtags, usernames, time stamps and other information included in the standard message of 140 characters or less on Twitter..
He used 734 different words on Twitter during this span and, of those 734 words, 169 were used two or more times. A word cloud of words Tsarnaev used three or more times, in which the words used most often are written in larger type, would look like this:
Given what we now know about Tsarnaev – that he and his older brother allegedly Tamerlan planted two bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 280 people and, four days later, shot and killed a campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the eye is drawn to certain words in the visualization, regardless of how big they appear: evil, hate, kids, kill, life and struggle, among others.
But the most telling word on the list may be “yu,” which he used 12 times in place of you. The only word he used more often was “people,” which he wrote 13 times on Twitter. That amounted to 0.46% of all words written, which a study of Twitter usage released last year suggested was indicative of a high level of Agreeableness, one of two of the big five personality traits which can be ascertained by analyzing word choice on microblogging sites like Twitter.
You Are What You Like (Sort Of)
Details of the bombers’ identities emerged in the hours after the FBI released video and photos of Tsarnaev brothers on Thursday, April 18. By the next morning, Tamerlan had been killed in a shootout with police and a massive manhunt was underway for Dzhokhar. People in Boston and surrounding cities – close to a million of whom had been ordered to “shelter in place” – headed to social media sites to learn what they could about the Tsarnaevs.
In the days that followed, people took posts Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had made on his Twitter account in and out of context, looking for clues and an answer to the unanswerable question: why? And while some tweets are telling and others were shocking, most only deepened the mystery, portraying the life of a very average college student who liked girls, cars, video games, smoking pot and playing soccer. Meanwhile, a popular narrative that slowly emerged was that Dzhokhar had been influenced and even brainwashed by his older brother Tamerlan, who had become more radical in his religious views.
In short order, posts on social media were used to supplant interviews with friends and family and create a body of evidence suggesting they were a classic criminal dyad, where one half – usually the older, more charismatic and influential person – uses the admiration of the younger half to make them an accomplice. Think of the Columbine killers, the D.C. snipers and Bonnie and Clyde and you have the classic model for a criminal dyad.
But there is something else in play here: psychologists and marketers have long known that what we volunteer on social media sites is more often a reflection of our future self: the person we want to be someday, and the person we hope others will think we are in the meantime. Right now I may say I “like” running, even though it’s been awhile since I have run consistently. I may say I “like” the Pixies and Morphine and HuskerDu, bands that will give me alternative nineties cred within my age group, but I’m unlikely to fess up to an inability to pass an Allanis Morrisette song when it comes on the radio.
Indeed, in March, a study of Facebook likes found that liking a series of seemingly unrelated things on Facebook could reveal information that we may want to keep private. Male homosexuality could be predicted with 88% accuracy among Facebook users, and, similarly, likes could be used to predict race, political views, emotional stability and drug and alcohol use. Liking “curly fries” and “The Colbert Report” were a string predictor of high intelligence; liking the brands Sephora and Harley Davidson usually meant the opposite was true.
You Are What You Tweet
If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had a Facebook profile, he has the privacy settings jacked to a point where no one has found it, so we’re not sure what he liked on Facebook and what that may or may not say about him (news broke Monday that he deleted an Instagram account less than two weeks before the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15). But an earlier study published last year in the Journal of Research In Personality found that word choice on Twitter can predict Agreeableness and Neuroticism, two of the so-called Big Five personality traits (the others, Extraversion, Conscientiousness and Openness, were hard to identify from twitter word choice).
The use of the second-person pronouns, like you (or in Tsarnaev’s Twitter-speak, “yu”) was strongly correlated towards high levels of self-reported agreeableness. While some of the traits associated with agreeable people ( kind, sympathetic, cooperative, warm and considerate) match up with he disbelieving friends who were interviewed in the days following his arrest, there are some other troubling in the narrative now being painted of the brothers’ dyad (two characteristics - trust and compliance – suggest the kind of qualities one would need to fall under the influence of an older brother).
Of course, some qualifiers need to be put onto this: first, the Twitter study was not nearly as exhaustive as the Facebook study, nor did it take into account variations for non-native English speakers like Tsarnaev. The other factor – one that is becoming increasingly frustrating for people trying to study social media in an academic sense – is that social media changes so quickly and use differs among different age groups. That means any study is a snapshot of the findings at any given time, but not necessarily a look at how things are now.
The important take away is that the idea of future self is almost always a factor when we look at self-reported information on social media, and all of those details are just clues – not accurate sketches of who a person is. If we were to solely draw our opinion of Tsarnaev based on info posted to social media, then he is nothing more than
a college student who liked soccer, basketball and wrestling. He was a Muslim, posting a familiar Arabic greeting that means “peace unto you” on his Twitter profile, but he struggled with the tenets of the religion that bar drug and alcohol use (on Twitter he made frequent references to smoking marijuana and declared himself the beer pong champion of his hometown).
He was fixated on his career and money, but he also showed a softer side, posting photos and tweets about his cat. He liked girls (“Gain knowledge, get women, acquire currency,” one tweet read) and he liked whip cream on his waffles. He loved cars and when he posted song lyrics on social media – as many people his age do as a way of expressing how he was feeling – he favored hip hop, with special emphasis on Jay-Z and Eminem. He liked watching “Game of Thrones,” but felt it was too early to say the show was better than “Breaking Bad” or “Dexter.”