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Boston bombings: Can crowdsourcing work in a case like this?

As authorities searched for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing case, online amateurs used social media and other sites to crowdsource the investigation. But like citizen journalism, 'citizen law-enforcement' has its downsides.

By Manuel ValdesAssociated Press / April 20, 2013

Police officers guard the entrance to Franklin street where there was an active crime scene search for the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, Friday, in Watertown, Mass. While police and FBI spent the week searching for the marathon bombing suspects, online vigilantes used social media and crowdsourcing to try to crack the case.

Matt Rourke/AP

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The hunt for the bombers behind the deadly Boston Marathon attacks didn't take place only on the streets with professional police officers and SWAT teams. In an era of digital interactivity, it also unfolded around the country from the desks of ordinary people.

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Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4Chan, smartphones and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detective as police searched for men who turned out to be suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, ethnic Chechen brothers who had immigrated from southern Russia years ago.

But as amateur online sleuths began identifying possible culprits, people were wrongly accused or placed under suspicion by crowdsourcing. It showed the damage that digital investigators can cause and posed a question: In the social-media generation, what does law enforcement unleash when, by implication, it deputizes the public for help?

"The FBI kind of opened the door," said Hanson R. Hosein, director of the University of Washington Master of Communication in Digital Media program. "It was almost like it was put up as challenge to them, and they rose to it. ... They can be either really helpful or mob rule."

The bombings have been the highest-profile case in which the public has joined an active investigation, using ever-evolving crowd-sourcing tools, showing the pitfalls and benefits of new technology. It's certainly not vigilantism, but it's not standard policing, either. It's perhaps something new — the law-enforcement equivalent of citizen journalism.

Reddit users began piecing together clues in the pictures and videos. They pointed out men who were wearing backpacks standing in the crowd. They looked at the straps of backpacks to compare with the one thought to have carried the bomb. They analyzed the bombs' blasts and people's gazes. In one particular photo thread, posted on imgur.com shortly after the bombing, a user attempted to pinpoint exactly where the bomb was placed.

Eventually, efforts and pictures posted in the sub-section dubbed "r/findbostonbombers" and elsewhere on Reddit were picked up by news organizations, giving it greater exposure.

Another wave of detective work happened after the FBI released pictures and videos of the Tsarnaev brothers and as initial reports of a shooting at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Thursday night. While listening to the police scanner, Reddit and Twitter users thought they had heard the name of a Brown University student missing since March, and one user posted a news story about his disappearance.

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