Reddit, The Lynch Mob, And The Known Unknowns
One of the biggest ramifications of the Reddit crowdsourcing effort was the incorrect identification of suspects.
For all of the benign intent shown by (most) members of the Reddit community, they were still amateurs conducting a terrorism investigation in an extremely public forum. In a deleted thread on a non-terrorism investigation-related subreddit, users speculated that a missing Brown University student was a terror suspect. Someone, either trolling on Twitter or not understanding a police communication, said that student was named as the second bomber over a police scanner. That wasn’t the case. This student was named, and his family was harassed in short order. A family with a missing child was harassed by unknown internet users who thought they were doing good, all because of the crowdsourced investigation.
Benjamin Levine, the Boston man whose photograph was recycled for a controversialNew York Post cover, emailed Fast Company’s repoter Neal Ungerleider with an interesting take on things: “My pictures were used to thrust blame on people who had absolutely nothing to do with the tragedy. One notable examples of this was the New York Post’s front page on April 18. The Post asked for my permission to use my photos. Instead of asking for more information on how they intended to use them, I blindly gave them permission. This was a mistake and led to them using my pictures to suggest that a high-schooler played a part in the bombings. They did this even after he was apparently acquitted of any charges of involvement. I am so sorry for the part that I played in ruining this boys life. I want nothing more than to apologize to his face.”
“I’ve been trying hard not to judge the “sleuths” on Reddit who have been dissecting my photographs and others to try and find clues. I think that a vast majority are people just trying to help out. So many people have been trying to help out in many ways and Boston is so thankful for that.”
“Also, I’m sure some of the people who have been on Reddit were in a position similar to mine. Some were probably much closer to the bombs and are far more shaken than me. Some who didn’t take pictures may be using mine to help themselves cope. I hope that they can help at least one person in what is undoubtedly going to be a long process for many of us.”
“One thing that does worry me is that a few “sleuths” on Reddit may be using this as an opportunity to have a little fun playing detective. People deal with tragedy in different ways, and its hard to fault people for getting by in their own way, but I can’t bear to look at the threads on Reddit.”
Meanwhile, the million dollar question everyone is asking—but noone can answer at this junction—is how much actual law enforcement investigations leveraged from the crowdsourced Reddit and 4chan efforts. Were law enforcement officials scouring Reddit for leads, alternate approaches, or verification? We won’t know the answer for quite a while, but it’s hard to believe the FBI or Massachusetts State Police weren’t sneaking quick looks at either site.