Should we be crowdsourcing the investigation of the Boston Marathon bomber?

Authorities are hoping for helpful leads from those who were in the crowd, while internet sleuths are taking the investigation into their own hands

Crime scene investigators inspect a rooftop on April 18, above the site of the bombing on Boylston Street.
(Image credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

The thousands of people streaming through Boylston Street at the time of the Boston Marathon bombings have, in the words of Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis, made it "the most complicated crime scene" in the department's history. Still, while crowds might have made this investigation difficult, they might also be the key to solving it.

On Thursday, authorities plan to release clear video images of two suspects carrying black bags at the explosion site, according to The Boston Globe. The hope is that someone out there will recognize one or both of the men or have additional footage of them.

The FBI is glad, in this case, that we're obsessed with our smartphones — more specifically, with documenting every moment of our lives on Instagram and using video. They would, however, rather that we send the evidence to them instead of trying to crack the case on our own.

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Don't tell that to Reddit. The newly created subreddit /r/findbostonbombers is already chock-full of amateur sleuths poring over photos looking to find the people responsible for the Boston bombings. From the start, the subreddit preaches caution, with disclaimers that it does "not support any form of vigilante justice" and "to equate discussion with an unambiguous implication of guilt is presumptive and hyperbolic."

In an internet vacuum, the /r/findbostonbombers subreddit is a mostly harmless rabbit hole of marked photos and amateur conjecture. The problem starts when theories go viral or are adopted by the media, something that responsible redditors are very cognizant of. One post titled "Popped up on my facebook newsfeed.. This can't happen" decries the fact that a photo dissected on Reddit was starting to go viral on Facebook — something that can have very real consequences (see: Lanza, Ryan).

Still, as Slate's Will Oremus points out, even "labeling people as 'suspicious' based on the scantest evidence can do real damage." Police in the initial stages of an investigation don't publicize every lead for a reason — a scared and angry public often doesn't hold to the "innocent until proven guilty" standard of justice.

Despite Reddit's warnings against unfounded accusations, the very existence of the /r/findbostonbombers is problematic, writes The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal:

Investigating these bombings is just not a job for 'the crowd,' even if technology makes such collaboration possible. 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... We have a legal system for a reason. [The Atlantic]

Reddit, for its part, seems to have higher standards than the New York Post. "BAG MEN" reads a headline over a picture of two men who people following the Reddit group eventually concluded were innocent. Gawker identified one as a Moroccan-American high school track runner who works at Subway — and who is not a suspect. The New York Post claims that authorities were circulating photos of the pair as "persons of interest," which, most likely, they also did with photos of many other people who were seen at the finish line during the bombings.

Crowdsourcing may very well play a role if and when the individual(s) who are behind the bombings are caught. Let's just hope innocent people's reputations aren't damaged in the process.

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