At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, federal officials released new photos and video of two men they described as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. “We consider them armed and dangerous,” said FBI special agent in charge Richard DesLauriers.
Now begins what might be the most intense act of crowdsourcing in history. Within moments of the FBI press conference, a user on Reddit had posted what looked to be the style of baseball cap worn by one of the suspects. Another posted what appears to be a photo he took before the bombing that happens to contain a tiny glimpse of one of the suspects.
Even before the FBI’s request, the bombing was being dissected in massive detail online. As first responders were still on the scene of the Boylston Street attack on Monday, Internet amateurs were rushing to collect images and data about the attack, with the goal of harnessing their vast numbers to help police zero in on the culprit.
To an untrained eye, some of their findings looked compelling. Combing through countless images, users on the popular social site Reddit singled out more than a dozen arguably suspicious looking people: Doesn’t the guy in a blue robe have a backpack like the one seen in an FBI photo? Why is the guy in a white cap looking in a different direction that everyone else? Hundreds of commenters weighed in on the possible origins of the pressure-cooker bombs used in the attacks; some scoured eBay for recent purchases of the devices. More analyzed crime-scene photos of possible bomb components.
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But what some people derisively call Internet vigilantism can also have a dark side. The photos released by the FBI today do not seem to match the individuals who drew the most interest on Reddit, including an innocent local high school student who wound up on the front page of the New York Post yesterday. The teen, Salah Barhoun, told ABC News that “it’s the worst feeling that I can possibly feel … I’m only 17.”
Perhaps with that episode in mind, DesLauriers implored the public to focus only on the FBI’s photos. “The images should be the only ones that the public use to assist us,” he said, warning that others distract from the investigation.
The impulse to help solve a crime is a noble one. It also reflects some basic impulses of human nature. Many of these armchair sleuths are enjoying something that is part disaster porn, part CSI. It’s the digital equivalent of diagnosing the cause of a car crash while rubbernecking, mixing outrage and sympathy with our innate desire to gawk.
“I’m sure there are some people who think they are really looking to make a significant contribution, but I think for a lot of people it is a way to help deal with the situation,” said Reddit general manager Erik Martin. “[They] feel at least we are doing something, even if it is not really going to lead anywhere. At least they are helping make sense of this thing, doing something.”
Often that looks like reckless finger-pointing. On Reddit and the anonymous imageboard 4chan, one “suspect” after another emerged. Users rushed to link suspicious faces to names — often by sharing them on Facebook with captions like “help find the Boston Marathon Bomber.”
To its credit, Reddit quickly worked to correct the Barhoun error, banning anyone who posted his information on the site. And the site’s moderators have posted a ban against posting personal information about individuals seen in the photos. “We do not condone vigilante justice,” the site’s moderators announced. “[K]eep in mind that most or all of the ‘suspects’ being discussed are, in all likelihood, innocent people.”
Reddit took off as a hub for amateur investigations after the Aurora, Colo., movie-theater shooting last year. Eighteen-year-old Morgan Jones launched a running time line of the police response — and identified nearly every Internet reference to the alleged shooter, James Holmes. A similar frenzy followed the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, with Reddit, along with a host of mainstream news sites misidentifying the shooter Adam Lanza as his brother Ryan, posting his photo and name across the Web.
In contrast to Twitter, where hoaxes and misinformation can live on through viral repetition, Reddit is self-policing, thanks to a simple up-and-down voting system among its users. On Wednesday, the top thread in the “Find Boston Bomber” area of the site, known as a Subreddit, was titled “Does anyone remember Richard Jewell?” — a reference to the man misidentified as the culprit of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing.
That doesn’t mean a crowdsourced investigation can’t be useful. And if Reddit is able to provide the FBI with valuable information, it could change the future of major crime investigations forever.
— With reporting by Elizabeth Dias