Officials Weren’t Happy with the Crowd-Sourced Terrorist Hunting

Officials complain that the internet's search for Boston Marathon suspects complicated their investigation.

Reddit users enthusiastically circled potential bombers. Via Reddit

Reddit users enthusiastically circled potential bombers. Via Reddit

In the wake of the near week-long search for those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, the practice of crowd-sourced terrorist hunting is getting some pretty poor reviews.

When the internet forum Reddit started a section where people could dissect images of the marathon crowds looking for suspects, the moderator defended the idea, saying, “it’s been proven that a crowd of thousands can do things like this much quicker and better … I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day.”

Those “very few, smart investigators,” namely, the FBI, disagreed. The problem with crowd-sourcing is that it necessarily plays out in public, so anyone even considered by the crowd instantly becomes a potential suspect. The Washington Post reported Sunday that authorities released photos of the two bombing suspects on Thursday in response to the public efforts by private citizens to solve the case:

In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social media complicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.

Indeed, the wisdom of the crowd seemed to generate more noise than solid investigative work. Reddit users enthusiastically drew circles around many a backpack-wielding crowd member. The New York Post put an innocent Revere high school student on its cover with the line “Bag Men.” In the hours before the names of the actual suspects were released, Twitter declared Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown student, as well as another unknown guy by the name of Mike Mulugeta as the FBI’s two suspects, as The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal documented.

As The New York Times’s Nick Bilton argues, crowd-sourcing isn’t a universally useless tactic. “When the correct information is released by the trained authorities, like the Boston Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, people can do their best to ensure that it is circulated through the crowd and seen by as many people as possible,” he writes. The FBI released its images on Thursday, and quickly began receiving tips with the names of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the actual suspects.

Even so, in retrospect, going public remained a complicated decision. Police Commissioner Ed Davis admitted to the Post that the release may have spurred the two brothers to make a run for it, one that ended up resulting in a lot more violence and paralyzed the city for a day:

“We may have forced their hands by releasing the videos,” he said. But he said that was nonetheless the right move: “I truly believe they were planning more attacks, based on the evidence we saw at Watertown. I think that by forcing their hand, we saved a much larger loss of life. . . .These individuals were bent on murder and mayhem.”

One can’t ever prove that counterfactual, so we’ll have to hope that the way it played out was the most peaceful of possible paths. As for the question of whether the crowd will prove wiser and faster than professional investigators, the answer seems to be: not always, but they will prove a bit more reckless.

Update: Reddit’s General Manager Erik Martin wrote a thoughtful blog post apologizing for some of the more witch hunt-like activities that went on and pondering the best uses for Reddit in these kinds of events.