If you want to think about what the future of the Internet of Things (IoT) will look like, walk along Boston’s 400-year-old streets.
Inside Reddit’s user community, an enthusiastic amateur forensics subculture grew exponentially once the subreddit was formed. When Fast Company reported on the subreddit’s existence at the beginning of the week, it had approximately 870 subscribers; more than 9,000 Redddit users now patronize the site. The hunt for the Boston bombers on Reddit appears to have been the Internet’s largest crowdsourced crime-solving exercise to date—regardless of law enforcement’s feelings about it.
Despite the presence of racist and anti-right wing trolls, Reddit users did find a number of important clues. Sleuths on Reddit identified the hat worn by one of the bombers; the same thread also featured the highest resolution pictures of one of the bombing suspects to date—which was flagged by Reddit users as potential evidence.
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.
While Reddit’s thousands of amateur sleuths got a lot of things right, they also got a lot of things wrong. Earlier in this article, we referred to a “Blue Robe Guy” who Redditors speculated was connected to the terrorist attack.
Like many other threads posted on the subreddit, the discussion of Blue Robe Guy was removed from the site. The subreddit’s creator, a 23-year-old professional poker player from England calling himself Oops777, told Buzzfeed’s John Herrman that the worst case scenario was “we waste our time,” but more than a dozen other potential suspects were flagged by Redditors. These posts were then taken offline in an attempt to eliminate confusion among users. With that said, Reddit users were crowdsourcing a violent attack and tentatively photo identifying suspected terrorists on a public forum accessible by anyone. As we all know, no one on the Internet ever jumps to conclusions or ever acts impulsively.
The only problem is that Reddit users weren’t the only ones jumping the gun. Mainstream media institutions were just as bad; the New York Post famously put a picture on their front page of two men they implied were suspects; the two men were not suspects and just happened to be spectators of Middle Eastern descent. CNN mistakenly claimed a suspect was in custody when there wasn’t one. Sometimes established institutions jump to the same hasty conclusions as the crowdsourced mobs of the Internet.
When the New York Post published a front page cover featuring two innocent men they implied were the Boston terrorists, it was a journalism fail. Although the Post said the photos were being distributed by “law enforcement authorities,” they were obtained through a distinctly 2013 brand of social and digital media.
The photo was taken by Benjamin Levine, a 24-year-old Bostonian whose office atMarlo Marketing & Communications overlooked one of the bomb sites. His firm was hosting a marathon party and he was taking photographs when the bomb went off. Levine sent several pictures to Deadspin and wrote a first-hand account after the terror attack; he told Fast Company that his firm encouraged employees to blog as a therapeutic exercise.
Levine sent photographs to the Federal Bureau of Investigation shortly after law enforcement requested photos and videos from bystanders. Shortly after the photos went up on Deadspin, they became the subject of fevered speculation on Reddit and 4chan, which also hosted a crowdsourced crimesolving effort. Major newspapers then reached out to Levine asking for permission to republish his photograph. When Levine saw a cropped and enhanced version of his photograph on the cover of the Post, he was mortified.
“I was outraged at the stupidity,” Levine said in a telephone conversation. “I asked them to use (the picture) respectfully and it wasn’t at all, even though I knew of the Post's reputation.”
When Levine’s photographs jumped from Deadspin to the larger internet, he was taken aback but understood the impulses behind crowdsourced anti-terrorism forensics. “I had anger—honestly, people deal with things in different ways,” Levine said. “I try not to be angry at people on Reddit, but it seems like people enjoy playing detective for the day, and it gives them an escape—it has been a struggle for me not to judge.”
Worthwhile read here by Neal Ungerleider, on how Reddit became a hub for the crowdsourced Boston Marathon terror investigation.
A glowing message of support, from New York to Boston.
NY <3 B
“Outside of Silicon Valley, I am not sure there is a better innovation ecosystem in the world.”
Most city buses are now equipped with GPS, allowing for this beautiful rendering of Boston’s bus routes and speed. Read more.