The collective energies of a lot of pissed off people were given focus on Thursday, after the FBI released photos and a video of two men – identified as Suspect #1 and #2 – who were identified as the only suspects in the horrific bombing of The Boston Marathon on Monday.
Within hours of releasing the photos, new clues to the identities of the suspects emerged on web sites like Reddit. Astute viewers flocked to the popular website Reddit.com to crowd source clues, with a special area or “subreddit,” dubbed “findbostonbombers” created to collect tips and analysis from the sea of fervent users. Their efforts paid off in short order, as contributors identified the brand of cap worn by both suspects (the white cap worn by Suspect #2 is believed to be by Ralph Lauren, while the black cap worn by Suspect #1 is believed to be a Bridgestone golf cap of a type sold at Wal-Mart) and uploading new photos taken at the site that provide a clear image of Suspect #2 walking away from the blast site, depositing the backpack in immediate proximity to 8 year old MartinWilliam Richard and a rear view of Suspect #1.
That appears to be as the FBI intended. “Somebody out there knows these individuals,” said Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office on Thursday afternoon. He urged the public to view the photos and a video montage taken from surveillance cameras on Boylston Street and to report any tips to The FBI. He also emphasized that the Bureau was confident the two were the only suspects, and discouraged leads on other individuals, and described both as “armed and dangerous.”
The flood of information was such that moderators on Reddit were left to plead with contributors to stop contributing. “We got the hats nailed down. Everyone stop posting hats!” urged one moderator.
Moderators on the site also took pains to avoid naming suspects, urging contributors to pass clues on to the FBI and promising to delete any posts or comments that identified suspects by name.
DesLauriers said Suspect No. 2 was observed planting a bomb, leaving it in place shortly before it went off, a fact that seemed to be corroborated by photos from the scene.
Other Reddit users seemed to move beyond the information released by the FBI. There was speculation over connections between the Marathon bombings and mysterious explosions in the town of Hanover in March, though no clear link to the Boston Marathon bombings is evident there.
The collective work of the online viewers, dubbed “crowdsourcing” could accelerate the the FBI’s investigation. The technique has proven useful in other, recent investigations where video or photo evidence is available. Notably, readers of the web site Gawker were instrumental in identifying a suspect in a brutal subway mugging that was captured on film in early March. In April, 2011, The FBI opened a 12 year old murder case, releasing a cryptic note found in the pocket of the victim.
Given the amount of photos and live video of the Boston Marathon bombing, online activists began crowdsourcing almost immediately. But the practice raises concerns about vigilante justice or hasty identification of innocent civilians. The informal group 4Chan set up a project to spot possible suspects, though its worth noting that none of the suspicious individuals identified in the photos turned out to be actual suspects. That, in turn, gave birth to a subreddit devoted to clearing the names of those incorrectly identified as suspects by earlier crowd-sourcing efforts.