Social media sometimes gets a bad rap as the scourge of modern society, but in Philadelphia this week, police are hopeful that it may lead to a significant break in a case involving a brutal hate crime attack.
In the wake of a Sept. 11 incident in which police say two men were beaten by a group of assailants who first "made disparaging remarks about their sexual orientation," authorities on Tuesday released surveillance video of a group of men and women they say matched descriptions of the attackers.
Twitter users quickly attempted to zero in and identify the individuals in the video.
The victims, who are 27 and 28, were hit in the head and chest and suffered multiple fractures and cuts to their faces. One of the men underwent surgery to have his jaw wired shut.
Shortly after the surveillance video circulated on Twitter, a photograph of what some believe is the same group — this time seated together at a restaurant — surfaced online. (The photo has not been confirmed to be a match to the individuals in the video released by police, and the investigation remains ongoing.)
Greg Bennett, who posted the tweet sharing the picture, later said he received the restaurant photo from “a friend of a friend of a friend” and hoped it would help catch anyone who might be involved.
That led another Twitter user, FanSince09, to circulate the photo, which sparked a reaction from his thousands of followers, including Philadelphia Eagles guard Evan Mathis, who shared the post and helped it "explode" on the Internet.
Several other followers responded by identifying the Italian restaurant where the group was seated.
Twitter user @FanSince09, who did not want his real name published for fear it would put his job in jeopardy, then used Facebook Graph Search to conduct a cross-check: He managed to identify many of the people in the photo who had “checked in” at the restaurant, either individually through their Facebook profile, or through the tags used in the photograph.
FanSince09 then sent those names to a contact of his in the Philadelphia Police Department.
Philadelphia police detective Joseph Murray acknowledged the role social media has played in the case through a series of tweets, but he warned the investigation continues and no arrests have been made.
According to a statement released by police, the suspects in the case involved roughly a dozen "white male and females all in their early 20′s, 'clean cut' and well dressed." They made "disparaging remarks" about the victims' sexual orientation before holding down and then beating the victims.
Philadelphia police confirmed to NBC News it began receiving tips through social media — including the group photo taken at the restaurant — right after local news outlets began playing the surveillance video. Police emphasized that not everyone in the picture was considered a suspect. The investigation, which includes interviews with several individuals, continued Thursday.
Bennett, the person who originally posted the restaurant photo, issued a statement late Wednesday: “My thoughts are with the victims, and I hope any reward offered for helping find their attackers goes toward their medical expenses and recovery.”
FanSince09, who normally tweets about sports (he brags on his profile about being "voted #1 Eagles fan on Twitter"), said he has helped local police with other cases, although most of them are far less severe than assaults.
"If this was a purse snatching, I don't think you would have seen this kind of response," he said. "But because it was so violent ... it really outraged people."
FanSince09 said he started Tuesday with 6,000 Twitter followers and gained nearly 4,000 within a 24-hour period, mainly because of people who wanted to help track down the attackers. He said he's glad to see a positive story about the role social media can potentially play.
“Look, no arrests have been made yet so I need to be careful, but I feel pretty good about what’s been provided,” he said.
“This really touched a lot of people because it was such a heinous crime that we’re not used to having in our city,” he said. “I’m lucky that in Philadelphia, Twitter has a very good and accepting group of people. Nobody wants this to be happening here. This has really fueled a lot of people to do good work on this and really help."