In Boston manhunt, online detectives flourish

SEATTLE (AP) — The intensive manhunt 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 laptops and desk chairs filled with regular folks.

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, caught in the virtual manhunt were people who were wrongly accused or placed under suspicion by crowdsourcing. It showed the damage that digital investigators can cause and raised a relevant 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 something in the middle, perhaps something new — the law-enforcement equivalent of citizen journalism.

As authorities asked the public for help, 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.

"I'm seeing a lot of confusion and misinformation from news sites about where each bomb was detonated. After combing through the photos I've seen, I believe I've been able to make a solid case as to their exact location, where 'exact' in this case has an error margin of about 2 meters," user "gdhdshdhd" said.

Eventually, efforts and pictures posted in the sub-section dubbed "r/findbostonbombers" and elsewhere on Reddit were picked up by news organizations with more readers, 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.

That assumption proved wrong — and there was a cost.

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, "Rather Confused," 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.

The president 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," Barack 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.

Other police departments have faced similar situations. In the Seattle area, journalists and members of the public were asked to stop tweeting as authorities looked for a man who killed four police officers in 2009. In Los Angeles, authorities had the same request as they looked for rogue ex-police officer Christopher Dorner earlier this year.

"It's completely human nature, it's to be expected that people are going to take events and try to apply meaning," said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, spokesman for Seattle's police.

The Seattle Police Department has fully embraced Twitter and blogs, using both frequently. Whitcomb said the department disseminated as much information as it could, such as pictures, on two recent cases in which there were armed suspects on the loose that sparked brief citywide manhunts.

"We also want to make sure we are having a voice in the conversation," Whitcomb said. "We want people to go to us first and cover the information we're putting out. If we can get that done, it's a win."

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

Loading...
  • What not to buy on Amazon
    What not to buy on Amazon

    Many of us assume Amazon has the best prices on everything, but there are some thing that can be found cheaper elsewhere.

  • Convicted cop killer told to stop coaching youth baseball
    Convicted cop killer told to stop coaching youth baseball

    In 1988, John Matthews, an off-duty Chicago-area police officer, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by a group of young men. One of those men, Dean Chavez, served 11 years in prison for his role in the death.

  • Temporary ceasefire in Tripoli, 75 bodies found in Benghazi

    By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Ayman Al-Warfalli BENGHAZI/TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Rival Libyan militias fighting for control of Tripoli's airport agreed to a temporary ceasefire on Wednesday to allow firefighters to try to control a huge blaze at a fuel depot hit by a rocket. Meanwhile in Libya's second city, Benghazi, at least 75 bodies, mostly soldiers, were found after two days of fighting in which Islamist fighters and allied militiamen overran an army base. The past two weeks of fighting have been the worst since the civil war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, prompting Western governments to follow the United States and the United Nations in pulling their diplomats out of the North African country.

  • Satanists Use Hobby Lobby Decision to Play Devil's Advocate
    Satanists Use Hobby Lobby Decision to Play Devil's Advocate

    The Satanic Temple Is Planning to Fight Informed Consent Abortion Laws

  • Record low July temperatures in southern U.S., Alabama at 49 degrees

    By David Beasley ATLANTA (Reuters) - Record-breaking low temperatures across the southern United States on Wednesday made July feel more like October, with the mercury dipping to 49 degrees Fahrenheit in Alabama. In Atlanta, the low was 59 degrees, breaking the previous record of 61 degrees set in 1936, according to the National Weather Service. The normal low for Atlanta is about 71 degrees, the National Weather Service said. “It was a pretty chilly morning, very pleasant out,” said Jessica Fieux, an Atlanta-based National Weather Service meteorologist.

  • Suing Obama: GOP-led House gives the go-ahead
    Suing Obama: GOP-led House gives the go-ahead

    A sharply divided House approved a Republican plan Wednesday to launch a campaign-season lawsuit against President Barack Obama, accusing him of exceeding the bounds of his constitutional authority. Obama and other Democrats derided the effort as a stunt aimed at tossing political red meat to conservative voters.

  • US slams Gaza strike, 'crazy' Israeli attacks on Kerry
    US slams Gaza strike, 'crazy' Israeli attacks on Kerry

    Amid the escalating death toll in Gaza, US officials finally sharpened their tone Wednesday condemning an attack on a UN school as patience with "crazy" Israeli criticism of would-be-peacemaker John Kerry snapped. "Obviously nothing justifies the killing of innocent civilians seeking shelter in a UN facility," deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged, in some of the toughest US comments since the start of the 23-day fighting in the Gaza Strip. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also condemned "those responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza" and warned of rising fears that thousands of Palestinians who have been told by Israel to leave their homes increasingly had nowhere to go in the blockaded narrow coastal strip. Relations between Israel and its staunch ally the United States have plunged in recent days after Kerry returned from a mission to the Middle East to try to broker a ceasefire between the Israelis and Hamas militants.

  • 2014 Winners of the “Fattest” Fast Food Chains
    2014 Winners of the “Fattest” Fast Food Chains

    Of the many fast food chains in this country, the Cheesecake Factory stands out for selling dishes with the most calories and the highest concentrations of sodium, saturated fat and sugar, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit health-advocacy group. “The Cheesecake Factory may have reformulated a few dishes in response to being named a ‘winner’ of Xtreme Eating Awards in years past,” noted CSPI in a press release Wednesday. Keep in mind that the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion estimates a daily caloric need of 2,600 for a moderately active man between the ages of 26 and 45, while a moderately active woman between the ages of 26 and 50 needs roughly 2,000 calories a day to maintain a current weight. The chain’s Bruléed French Toast, which consists of a plate of custard-soaked bread topped with powdered sugar and served with maple-butter syrup and bacon, would require a person to swim laps for seven hours to burn off its head-spinning 2,780 calories, CSPI noted.

Follow Yahoo! News