Internet detectives

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Internet community came together via sites such as Twitter, 4chan and Reddit to scour video recordings and pictures to try to aid investigators in finding the identity of the bombers. They searched for suspicious people in the videos taken before and immediately after the bombs went off. They magnified pictures to try to find people with backpacks that matched the description of the backpacks the FBI believed held the bombs. One Internet user believed he had reconstructed the scene using pictures to the degree that he knew where one of the bombs went off within an error of two meters.

Though their hearts certainly were in the right place in trying to aid investigators, the masses of the Internet also made some errors that diverted attention from finding the real culprits. Misinformation, misunderstandings and bad interpretations of visual evidence lead to several witch hunts of innocent bystanders. A student missing from Brown University and a 17-year-old boy were both fingered as

Computers are more than just for games and Facebook. Graphic by Kate McHugh.
Computers are more than just for games and Facebook. Graphic by Kate McHugh.

possible suspects by the Internet community. They were both subjected to harassment via the Internet, to the point where the 17-year-old boy is still afraid to leave his home.

There are certainly  benefits to having thousands of eyes pouring over these pictures and videos; evidence might slip by even highly trained investigators and then be picked up by amateurs. I can also understand the temptation to jump in and try to help the FBI and other investigators to solve a crime of this magnitude. However, without these amateur Sherlock Holmes-es having all the details that the real investigators do, it’s very easy for speculative stories and false suspects to emerge and divert attention from solving the crime.

It’s easy to sit behind a keyboard and think that someone looks guilty or acts suspiciously. In this day and age it’s relatively easy to find a group of people who also agree with you. What crosses the line is when these people try to take justice into their own hands and harass these “suspects” based on circumstantial evidence. I think it should be left to law enforcement officers to decide if the evidence is of enough weight to require further follow up.

I believe there’s a time and place to crowd-source police work like this. However, to do it effectively requires a large amount of oversight and some sort of direction by the police. To make it a more effective effort, release the videos and say we are looking for a person who meets this description. Give them an objective to fulfill; don’t make it a free for all.