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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.

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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


 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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Are you kidding me? When you can’t tell, the Web can be a dangerous place to joke
context internets chilling effect jokes couts internet gone wrong

Those words were posted to Facebook by 18-year-old Justin Carter in early 2013, two months after the hideous massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Another Facebook users scolded Carter for his provocative post. Someone from Canada reported him to police.
Today, the Austin, Texas, teen – a regular kid, according to his family, a fan of League of Legends and Minecraft, a harmless dork, not a murderer – may spend the next 10 years in jail for those words – words that were meant as a joke. A bad joke. A mean, hurtful joke. A joke I cannot imagine evoking laughter from a single person. But a joke all the same.
When a joke is taken seriously, the wannabe comedian often comes across as a complete tool.
"I thought as soon as the police talk to him, they will see it was a joke and let him go,” Jennifer, Justin’s mother, recently told the Dallas Observer. “If anything, it would be a misdemeanor. I thought if they talked to him, they would realize it was just his sarcastic sense of humor."
The case of Justin Carter is but one of a million examples of law enforcement mistaking an online joke for real-life intent to cause harm. There’s the case of Paul Chambers, a British accountant who was convicted (then un-convicted) for joking on Twitter about blowing up an airport. There’s the story of New York comic Joe Lipari, revealed in an episode of This American Life, who in 2009 lashed out after a time-wasting debacle at an Apple Store by posting this paraphrased Fight Club quote to his Facebook page: “Joe Lipari might walk into an Apple store on Fifth Avenue with an Armalite AR-10 gas-powered semi-automatic weapon and pump round after round into one of those smug, fruity little concierges.” Soon after the post went up, a SWAT team knocked on Lipari’s door.
It is the job of police to take potentially serious matters seriously, of course. Assuming violent, off-color remarks on Facebook are said in jest, and are therefore not worth investigating, could potentially put others in danger. It serves society’s best interests to treat anything that sounds like a threat as such. But there is another factor at play here: The Internet is a place where jokes die. Because of this, I fear it is having a chilling effect on a precious form of free speech and human interaction.
The reason why jokes – jokes made not by known comedians or satirists but regular Janes and Joes – play poorly online is simple: Unserious comments and photos often lack the context necessary for us to understand them as jokes. Instead, we take this content at face value. And when a joke is taken seriously, the wannabe comedian often comes across as a complete tool. We deride the posters as half-wits. We mock their foolishness, and virtually high-five each other for our intellectual superiority. We turn them into the joke.
Take this photo, for example:

Ask average Internet commenters who this kid is, and they’ll tell you he’s a sad mouth-breather who wants to look cool. They say he’s fat and worthless – he doesn’t even know what marijuana plants look like! What a dumbass. But what if this kid knew what he was doing – what if he knew that he was posing like a "gangster" with a plastic houseplant as if it were marijuana? What if it was meant as a joke? (What if most photos like this are a joke?) Never in a million years would we give this kid the benefit of the doubt. So we crap on him, over and over and over.
Examples of this are found across the Web. But websites like the Cheezburger Network’s Fail Blog, 9Gag, and Reddit’s CringePics community may be the worst offenders – platforms inadvertently devoted to bullying others into never again trying to be funny. 
Sites like these are the reason I never take post silly photos of my family or myself online. They are the reason I keep most of my jokes offline. Those who know me might instantly recognize a comment or photo as a joke. But all it takes is for some random “friend” or follower to screenshot a comment for my joke to come back to haunt me for the rest of my life.
Hoards of strangers may make fun of you, and potentially ruin your good name online.
I am certainly not the only one who takes this approach. According to a 2013 study of 3.9 million Facebook users by Facebook software engineering intern Sauvik Das, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon, and Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, some 71 percent of users self-censor themselves on the social network. Of course, not all of these hastily deleted or edited status updates were jokes, but it seems safe to assume that some were.
So, at worst, off-handed comments can potentially land you in jail, or get you fired. Hoards of strangers may make fun of you, and potentially ruin your good name online. At best, the Internet’s chilling effect on jokes provides us with one of the best examples of the effects surveillance can have on free speech. Knowing that some joke you make on Facebook or Twitter might be read completely out of context can likely cause people to limit what they share online.
For many of you, this may seem perfectly harmless – perhaps even the way it should be. But for me, automatically assuming other people are horrible or dumb reflects ill on us, and it reduces the richness of our online lives. So next time you’re about to comment on how stupid someone is, at least take a second to consider that they might be in on the joke.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock/carol.anne

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Internet free speech: We’re doing it wrong

When you ask the kind of geeks who sit around pondering the value of our connected digital world what makes the Internet so great, one answer always pops up: Openness and free speech. Just look at how much access we have to the world’s information, they say. Look at how free speech has thrived and spread throughout most of the globe. The Arab Spring! Occupy Wall Street! “Breaking Bad” episode recaps! And I agree, all those are great examples of the way the Internet has made life better for countless people. But there is a sad fact about our newfound ability to disseminate whatever we want, anytime we want: We just aren’t very good at it. 
The most poignant recent example of this comes from the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy, who took a deep dive into the Web’s role in the case of Steubenville, Ohio, football players, two of whom were found guilty earlier this year of raping an intoxicated teenage girl from West Virginia.
Our collective online behavior in cases like Steubenville and Boston could eventually have negative effects on the amazing gift of broad free speech online.

Levy’s excellent reporting will undoubtedly evoke sickening outrage at those who were responsible for violating a young girl. But it does something else, too: It shows just what happens when we, the couched commentators of the Web, try to take matters into our own hands – often acting on bad information. 
This excerpt from the long-read piece highlights the problem:
In trying to determine what happened in Steubenville, the police and the public began with the same information, gathered from the same online sources: ugly tweets, the Instagram photograph, and a deeply disturbing video. But while the police commandeered phones, interviewed witnesses, and collected physical evidence from the crime scene, readers online relied on collaborative deduction. The story they produced felt archetypally right. The “hacktivists” of Anonymous were modern-day Peter Parkers—computer nerds who put on a costume and were transformed into superhero vigilantes. The girl from West Virginia stood in for every one of the world’s female victims: nameless, faceless, stripped of identity or agency. And there was a satisfying villain. Teen-age boys who play football in Steubenville—among many other places—are aggrandized and often do end up with a sense of thuggish entitlement.
In versions of the story that spread online, the girl was lured to the party and then drugged. While she was delirious, she was transported in the trunk of a car, and then a gang of football players raped her over and over again and urinated on her body while her peers watched, transfixed. The town, desperate to protect its young princes, contrived to cover up the crime. If not for Goddard’s intercession, the police would have happily let everyone go. None of that is true.
That’s right – none of that is true. And yet, in the real-time frenzy of Twitter, Facebook, and blog comment sections, we have a culture in which the nitty-gritty truth does not matter, as long as the overall narrative of any given story is right. And from that flimsy platform, we spring forward with threatening or derogatory words directed at whomever we believe are the villains.
This blind beast of online fury reared its ugly head in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Reddit and Twitter users mistakenly identified Sunil Tripathi, a Boston-area college student who had been missing for a month, as one of the possible terrorists.
Law enforcement authorities quickly cleared Tripathi’s name. But, as The New York Times recently reported, it was not nearly quick enough to spare the Tripathi family from the wrath of the Web. Not long after the bombing, Sunli Tripathi’s body was pulled from a river. 
In the real-time frenzy of Twitter, Facebook, and blog comment sections, we have a culture in which the nitty-gritty truth does not matter, as long as the overall narrative of any given story is right.

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