I was a New Yorker once, but Boston’s been home for the past three decades. “Never prouder to be a Bostonian,” I tweeted the night the second Marathon bombing suspect was captured.
I didn’t mention it at the time, but I’m also proud of the wannabe crime solvers who popped up on the social-news websites Reddit and 4Chan.
In the wake of the bombings, a self-appointed virtual army debated the accuracy of camera time stamps and meta-data, posted tens of thousands of comments, annotated images with red hand-drawn circles and yellow arrows, pointed out backpacks that later seemed to disappear. They noted concealed bulky objects and backpack fabric that seemed to match a shredded post-blast remnant. They also zeroed in on individuals who turned out not to be connected to the bombing.
If Reddit did in fact force the FBI’s hand, it deserves credit for reminding law enforcement officials of a history lesson they tend to forget: They need the public’s help.
Officials reportedly released photos of suspects one and two partly to “limit the damage” being done to those wrongly targeted in the news media and on the Internet, but I say law enforcement was driven, as it often is, to exert its own power and retain its own brand of control. If Reddit did in fact force the FBI’s hand, it deserves credit for reminding law enforcement officials of a history lesson they tend to forget: They need the public’s help.
Next year, Simon & Schuster will release my new nonfiction book about amateur sleuths who use the Internet to match missing persons with unidentified human remains. To me, these volunteers — like those on Reddit — jump in to fill a perceived void, adding their eyeballs and deductive abilities to cases that sometimes stymie law enforcement. Unlike most of us, they’re acting instead of reacting.
Dozens of investigators were enlisted in the search for the Marathon bombers, but in the kinds of cold cases I’ve been delving into, law enforcement simply doesn’t have the manpower or the inclination to track down every possible lead. As amateur sleuths rack up successes in matching unidentified remains with missing people, many in law enforcement are abandoning their tired mantra of “public involvement will compromise our investigation” and are even, on occasion, seeking out web sleuths’ help.
Police can’t work in a vacuum, a former Forth Worth cop tells me. He’s thinking of the time a citizen saved his life by tipping him off to a thug’s concealed knife. Law enforcement has erred in the past by balking at sharing information: “BTK” killer Dennis Rader’s murderous spree in Kansas spanned more than a decade because detectives chose not to reveal details that would have alerted residents there was a serial killer in their midst.
Yes, some clue-sleuthing Redditors posted hateful remarks, calling anyone with brown skin an evil terrorist. True, the hand-drawn balloons and arrows looked like something out of an NFL playbook. The amateur sleuths pursued plenty of red herrings and invented elaborate scenarios based on little more than clothing. But in the panic of the first days after April 15, there was every reason to speculate about who or where the bombers were, or if they planned to strike again.
What set apart Reddit’s anxiety-driven brand of speculation was that it took place in full public view, instead of over beers in a bar, over Scotch in a corporate conference room, or over coffee in a newsroom — places where people have long freely tossed around ideas ranging from the laughable to the offensive to the brilliant. In the Reddit case though, comments that typically would have — and should have — disappeared into the ether, hung around for all to see and dissect.
Yet some of the volunteer army’s finds were dead-on. Within hours of the FBI’s having released images of the two suspects, a Reddit user posted an apparently as-yet-unseen photo of suspect two a few paces from the crowd, looking like he was out for a stroll on Boylston Street as a man in an MIT sweatshirt vaulted away and a woman in a pink shirt looked fearful. “Send that to the FBI,” somebody urged. Maybe the photo helped the investigation. Maybe it didn’t. But as a Reddit user posted in the (now closed) findbostonbombers thread, “I think people are here because it gives them some semblance of control over a tragedy that they otherwise have no influence over.”
But in the panic of the first days after April 15, there was every reason to speculate about who or where the bombers were, or if they planned to strike again.
Reddit has beaten itself up about its mistakes as much as anyone. But the Reddit detractors remind me of that insufferable kid in the fifth grade who always hung back when his classmates’ hands shot up in the air. When nobody ended up guessing the teacher’s point, he’d gloat, having saved himself from falling short of brilliance. He never seemed to realize that, by not participating, he’d missed out.
In the future, Reddit will likely emphasize its strengths — its ability to engage eyes and minds quickly (eyes and minds, by the way, still being superior to technology when it comes to identifying human faces) — and beef up self-imposed controls to boost accountability. As one user reflected, “it would have just taken a few early posts and some stronger moderation to prevent those witch hunts from happening… A couple voices of reason will do a lot to calm down an overly excited userbase.” An actively engaged userbase that law enforcement needs to embrace, not shun.
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