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.
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That assumption proved wrong — and there was a cost.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Learning from the Boston Marathon bombings
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The missing student's family, besieged with ugly comments, temporarily took down a Facebook page asking for help finding him. A few hours later, the online detectives said sorry — in the words of one moderator, for "any part we may have had in relaying what has turned out to be faulty information." Several Reddit users who posted on r/findbostonbombers did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
President Barack Obama seemed to acknowledge this Friday night, speaking after the second suspect was captured. "In this age of instant reporting, tweets and blogs, there's a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions," Obama said. "But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it's important we do this right."
The rush to informal sleuthing began Monday soon after the smoke clear as pictures and videos from the marathon began to circulate on the Internet. Salah Eddin Barhoum, a 17-year-old track star who was a spectator at Monday's race, had his picture posted all over the Internet and ended up on the cover of the New York Post. He told The Associated Press on Thursday that he is now afraid to leave his house.
Some of the amateur police work didn't sit well with the professionals. Boston's police department, for example, has a very active Twitter account with more than 220,000 followers, but the onslaught of misinformation proved to be too much. At one point, Boston police asked people to stop tweeting information from their scanner traffic.
While Reddit and 4Chan have been around for several years, their prominence has grown of late. More and more news organizations have learned to use them to mine information. For Hosein, sub-sections on Reddit have become something like local newspapers, except it's the users providing the content.
"Citizens think they almost have an obligation to rise up to do the work," he said.
Hosein says that the FBI's call for help was no different than a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster from the 1800's — albeit with much more amplification and distribution. But he feels that after this week's saga, people will eventually learn to exercise caution.
"There's a sense that we're learning collectively quickly, that we actually have to take on some of the sourcing rules that journalists have had in the past," Hosein said. "I've seen more restraint like, 'Wait guys, hold on, there's gotta be more confirmation.' I know we're learning. I don't think it's going to be repeated."
Manuel Valdes can be reached at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes