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Crowdsourced or Mobsourced: Did Reddit help or harm the Boston bombing investigation?

Boston Marathon bombing suspects

Update (7:15am ET): Wow. In the hours since publication of this article, the case of the Boston Marathon bombing has changed dramatically. Around 10pm ET Thursday night, two men robbed a 7-Eleven in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At 10:48pm, an unidentified campus police officer at MIT was shot and killed. The men then carjacked a Mercedes SUV, and a manhunt began.

The men, it turns out, were the two FBI suspects of the Boston Marathon attack – brothers from the Russian region of Chechnya. They had been living in the U.S. for at least a year. Update (4pm ET): While police originally suspected that the men allegedly behind the Boston Marathon attack had robbed a 7-Eleven, they have now stated that the suspects – brothers, originally from the Russian region of Chechnya, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2002 – were not part of the robbery, according to local CBS affiliate WBZ.That said, the pair did steal a Mercedes SUV, and the timeframe of the events remains the same.

Police quickly tracked down the SUV. The suspects threw bombs at pursuing police officers – grenades, perhaps – and a intense firefight took place. An MBTA transit police officer was shot. Here is amateur video of the gunfight:

One of the men, “suspect #1″ (the guy in the black hat on the day of the marathon attack), was shot and reportedly sustained injuries from an explosive. He was pronounced dead at Beth Israel hospital at about 1:35am. CBS reports that he was 20-years-old. Later reports identify him as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The other suspect, identified by the Associated Press as 19-year-old “Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaevd,” survived and is currently on the run.  His Vkontakte (Russia’s Facebook) profile, which was last accessed around 6pm Thursday, shows his first name spelled “Djohar”:

Boston Bomber Facebook Djohar1Djohar2

 The entire city of Boston and the surrounding areas are on lockdown, as the manhunt continues. 

Final update: Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaevd is in custody. He was captured Friday evening just before 8:45pm ET, after Watertown, Mass., homeowners discovered him, injured and bloody, hiding out in the winterized boat in their back yard. 

See the original article below:

We all want to know who did it – what sick people would plant bombs that ultimately stole the lives of two innocent adults and an 8-year-old boy; that blasted 176 Boston Marathon spectators and runners into gurneys and hospital beds. We need to put a face to evil.

The faces of evil may have arrived. At a press conference in Boston on Thursday, the FBI released surveillance camera video and photos of two men believed to be behind the devastating Marathon bombing. Neither man has yet been identified, and the FBI is asking the public for their help.

Which brings us to Reddit. Soon after Monday’s attack, Reddit users created the FindBostonBombers subreddit, a community dedicated to tracking down suspects. The subreddit, which now has about 5,000 members, quickly became the go-to spot on the Web for amateur sleuths to tirelessly share details about the bombing, collect and “analyze” photos from the marathon, build lists of possible suspects, and discuss a wild flurry of theories about the attack.

We now know that virtually the entire crowdsourced investigating on FindBostonBombers prior to Thursday’s FBI press conference was wrong – dangerously wrong.

The comment threads were frustratingly speculative, filled with numbing ignorance and enough racial profiling to make your stomach turn. Worse, FindBostonBombers users repeatedly pinpointed – with photos – a slew of innocent people as possible “suspects,” despite the community moderators’ instructions to “not post personal information.” At best, this irresponsible (but good-intentioned) musing put innocent people – people who just survived a bombing – through the rigamarole of being question by the FBI; at worst, it put them at risk of a vigilante attack.

FindBostonBombers became the source of real-time conspiracy theorizing – the kind of festering force that inadvertently added even more battered innocent lives to this tragedy’s count.

FindBostonBombers’ speculation insanity eventually leaked all the way to the front page of the New York Post, in a disgusting article that showed a photo of two men said to be “potential suspects” – a photo that previously appeared on the subreddit and image message board 4chan. Both men were later cleared by authorities. (But still, they had to be cleared thanks to online speculation.)

In short, FindBostonBombers became the source of real-time conspiracy theorizing – the kind of festering force that added even more battered innocent lives to this tragedy’s count. It is for this reason that commentators, like The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, lambasted the Reddit community for its baseless “vigilantism.”

“Investigating these bombings is just not a job for ‘the crowd,’ even if technology makes such collaboration possible,” wrote Madrigal on Wednesday. “Even if we were to admit that Reddit was ‘more efficient’ in processing the influx of media around the bombing, which would be a completely baseless speculation/stretch/defense, it still wouldn’t make sense to create a lawless space in which self-appointed citizens decide which other citizens have committed crimes.”

This is also likely the reason FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers said on Thursday that “the only photos that should be relied upon are the ones you see here today” – a comment could easily have been directed specifically at the FindBostonBombers community.

Boston bombers 2

Immediately after the FBI released its photos and video of the young-looking male suspects – both of whom were wearing hats – a FindBostonBombers moderator announced that “the only photographs that are allowed to be posted in this subreddit are images that may contain the FBI’s two suspects – all others will be deleted.” Minutes later, the subreddit’s members had identified the hats of both suspects. Another user posted a personal photo that appears to show one of the two FBI suspects. That photo was sent to the FBI, the user said.

Adding another twist to the Reddit crowdsourcing tale, user “MagicCan” posted on the WorldNews subreddit that she or he may know the identities of the suspects. “Oh my gosh…. I’ve seen both of these men,” wrote MagicCan. “I work at a motel 6 in Massachusetts. I think saw them yesterday checking in. How do I give this information to the FBI?” Another user believes one of the men many have been a “regular” customer.

So now we are left with a question: Is Reddit’s amateur, crowdsourced investigation helping or hurting the process of justice?

If anyone from Reddit successfully identifies the suspects, and that becomes public knowledge, the general consensus to this question will probably be yes. We will whitewash our concerns for innocent people’s safety by pointing to the success of the crowdsourcing efforts. “Reddit solves Boston Marathon bombing” headlines will litter the Web. Redditors will pat themselves on the back.

While I welcome anything that helps bring whoever did this to justice, I can’t help but hope that whomever provides the FBI with that fateful information has never heard of Reddit, let alone the FindBostonBombers community. The last thing we need is for this kind of amateur, public investigation to become the norm in times of turmoil – and that’s exactly what will happen if FindBostonBombers ultimately prevails in its quest.

Alas, that may be hoping for too much. Just as tragedy is inevitable, so too is the human need to find answers in the face of disaster. For the foreseeable future, that need will likely manifest itself in an endless stream of online speculation and dubiously annotated photos. But perhaps FindBostonBombers and other groups of amateur sleuths will learn a valuable lesson from this week’s events: When it doubt, stay calm and let the professionals handle the dirty work.

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