Written in Ink

How Reddit Affected the Boston PD and FBI Investigations

The Washington Post, my old hometown paper, has, editorially, turned into a massive pile of stench, and last time I saw a weekday copy it was about 8 pages long in its entirety. But, to be fair, their reporting on the timelines of the Boston bombing is killing it. They had a great story yesterday about the brothers's attempted getaway, and online now they have a long, exhaustive account of the police investigation from moments after the bombs first went off. For example, I didn't know that the 7-11 robbery had nothing to do with the Tsarnaevs, except that while police were reviewing security tape in conjunction with the robbery they realized the brothers had been in that same store shortly before the robber arrived.

But this caught my eye, too. I said early on that the worst thing that could happen would be for reddit to identify the right people before the cops did. Not because there's anything wrong with citizens helping identify crooks, but because if they got it right this time then it would be katie bar the door next time, when they'd be convinced of their infallibility, and then the odds would be 100% that they'd make a grievous error the second time around. As bad as it might've been this time, we can at least hope people learned a lesson (not the NY Post, obviously, but I said 'people'), and maybe they'll be more cautious next time — whatever 'next time' means. I think redditors's hearts were in the right place. But the road to disaster is paved with well-placed hearts, and maybe they learned that this week, too.

Anyway, this WaPost story has this to say about reddit and the Boston PD. Definitely recommend reading the whole article at the Post's site.


[Boston Police Commissioner] Davis had learned of the central importance of video from a police commander in London after the public transit bombings there in 2005, when the city’s extensive system of surveillance cameras led to identification of four suspects within five days of the attacks, after examination of hundreds of hours of video.

Eight years later, the social media revolution meant that the FBI and Boston authorities were under intense pressure to move even faster, because thousands of amateur sleuths were mimicking the official investigation, inspecting digital images of the crowd on Boylston Street and making their own often wildly irresponsible conclusions about who might be the bombers.

On an investigative forum of Reddit.com, since removed from the site, users compiled thousands of photos, studied them for suspicious backpacks and sent their favorite theories spinning out into the wider Internet.

“Find people carrying black bags,” wrote the Reddit forum’s unnamed moderator. “If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.”


The moderator defended this strategy by arguing that “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.”

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.

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