I strongly believe that social media can play a really important role in our lives if we intend. We all know about the Boston Marathon bombings that happened in April 2013. Here is a story highlighting how Redditors did their best to identify the bombers and its outcome.
Even before the FBI first put out a plea to the public for any information regarding the Boston Marathon bombings, Reddit was already pouring over images from users who were there, and from other sources on the internet.
Within a day after the bombings took place, a subReddit had appeared that acted as a repository for every scrap of information available about the bombings, including pictures, videos, and eyewitness accounts.
There were people from all walks of life attempting to decode the pictures to find the bomber. Some people who had clearly at some point taken online law enforcement courses focused more on profiling the person who they believed was responsible.
Within hours, strange pictures started showing up on the board that did hold some tantalizing clues to the possible identity of the bomber. If you were paying close enough attention, you could see that some people did have the same style of backpack that was photographed ripped to shreds after the bombs had exploded.
One particular picture caught the eye of many Redditors since the style of backpack featured in the picture matched seemingly perfectly to one of the backpacks used in the bombings. The man in question had an uncanny resemblance to the Unabomber, with a thick gray beard, and seemed to be almost staring right into the camera when the shot was taken, while everyone else was watching the race. This seemed to fit the profile that the people had developed.
Another false lead formed around the possibility that a man who had been reported as missing for a few weeks was involved in the bombings. The theory wasn’t given much thought, however, the man’s name was heard on a police scanner, seemingly reinforcing the fact that it may have been him.
Yet another false lead turned up the name of a man who was completely innocent, and went to the police to clear his name after learning that people were submitting his information to the FBI en masse.
The major break in the case may have accidentally come from Reddit, since the FBI chose to release pictures of the men who they thought were responsible to keep internet vigilantes from causing any more damage. When you look at the pictures of the two men involved, it quickly became obvious that most speculators had been wrong.
After taking a second look at the subReddit where the information was stored, nobody had even mentioned the two men, and in fact, there were only a few pictures with them in it. Upon seeing they were wrong, the subReddit was deleted in order to prevent any more damage.
It’s almost commendable the way that internet sloths seemed to dive in head first to do anything that they could to help identify those who were responsible for the bombings. Mostly though, it was irresponsible and became a witch-hunt pointing the finger at a handful of people who were completely innocent and were in fact victims of the tragedy.
Without chalking this up as one huge failure, it would seem the Redditors may want to take a couple deep breathes in the unfortunate chance that something like this happens again. The extra eyes and skills of many of these internet sloths should be welcomed in times like these, but to immediately point fingers with little to go on besides speculation is a bit careless.