Reddit, the website that styles itself the Internet’s front page, apologized yesterday to the people hurt by its overhasty attempts to capture the Boston bombers last week.
Administrators are publically regretting the “online witch hunts” caused by overeager armchair investigators across the Internet. In this, clearly, lies a cautionary tale.
Reddit general manager Erik Martin admitted in a blog post that “dangerous speculation” incorrectly pinned the blame for last week’s terrorist attack on missing Brown University college student Sunil Tripathi (among others, actually). Tripathi disappeared more than a month ago, and the speculation added additional trauma to the distress already experienced by his family.
Social media definitely had a role to play in shedding light on the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. However, the picture is a mixed one. Social media provide masses of shared information and with lightning speed, but its weakness is the limited human capacity to process it correctly. For that you have to have tools and training.
The two perpetrators, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were social media hounds. Tamerlan, who was killed during Friday’s police chase, had his own YouTube channel, which he opened after his six-month trip to Russia and Chechnya last year. Tamerlan was a bodybuilder who authored his own photo montage of his bodybuilding life and also increasingly shared online his growing Islamist convictions. Both brothers had Facebook pages, and Dzhokhar was avid on Twitter.
Bombing suspect number two, Dzhokhar, tweeted cryptic messages throughout the day on April 15 and in the days to follow.
Because of social media’s culture of confession and self-expression, we have more access to the thinking and lives of these two men than is the case with most criminal minds. Their access to jihadist websites will surely also be a factor as well as their ability to lift bomb-making instructions off these websites. Would that it had been enough for law enforcement to stop them in their tracks before the Boston bombs went off.
Once tragedy had hit Boston, the amount of visual evidence gathered by the FBI and law enforcement from spectators and participants in the Boston Marathon was massive. Department store and restaurant surveillance video provided key images of the two men walking down Boylston Street with their backpacks, but cell phone photos and thousands of digital camera images from the event became part of the FBI investigation from the start.
During the first day, the FBI’s website was deluged with 300,000 hits from people offering information. The investigation was on steroids from the get-go. By Wednesday, clear images of the suspects were all over the news and the Internet.
At the same time, though, volunteer websites that jumped in to try to help solve the crime got it wrong more than they got it right. Sites such as Reddit, 4Chan, and Twitter compiled slideshows of suspicious characters with backpacks and baseball caps, of which needless to say there were many at an event with 23,000 runners, as pointed out by The Washington Times.
When it comes to a real-time crime investigation, there is clearly no substitute for the professionals.