What You Need to Know About Reddit, the FBI and the Boston Marathon Suspects

Catherine Hollander
National Journal

Note: This post has been updated to reflect developments in the case.

Now that the FBI has released images and video of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing and asked for the public to help the question is whether crowdsourcing can generate more information about the pair--and bring whoever was behind the bombing to justice.

So far crowdsourcing has generated plenty of false leads on user-generated sites like Reddit and 4chan. There, users analyzed photos being posted before the FBI released its photos on Thursday afternoon. Would-be sleuths traded theories about who appeared suspicious, based on the backpacks they are wearing, the direction they are facing, and just a general cybervibe ("I just feel like if you had to pick one person who really stands out of all pictures taken, this guy takes the cake and it's not even close," said one user).  

After the FBI released its images, a moderator of the Reddit site dedicated to identifying suspects—the so-called "findbostonbombers" subreddit—oops777 posted an announcement: "At this point in time the only photographs that are allowed to be posted in this subreddit are images that may contain the FBI's two suspects - all others will be deleted." 

There's a case for narrowing the focus on Reddit. The FBI discouraged the analysis or dissemination of other pictures. And speculation on the website had centered on any number of men seen carrying backpacks near the blast site but little attention was paid to duo flagged by the feds. "Blue robe guy," a middle-aged man wearing a blue jacket and photographed with a backpack dangling off his forearm, has a whole thread dedicated to him.  "I'd like to take a moment to commend all the redditors here for their hard work the last couple of day 'identifying' seemingly every human in the vicinity except the actual 2 real suspects. In the process freaking out many of the innocent people labelled as such. fantastic work all around, FBI agents!" sniffed one user.

Following the release of video and pictures of the two persons of interest, there's a debate on Reddit over whether moderators should delete all the photographs identifying individuals other than those identified by the FBI. Some say they should remain up in the spirit of free speech and the possibility that they contain useful clues about the suspects that were identified. And given the FBI's fumbles in other famous cases, that may not be the worst idea.

It's clear already that the site will continue to crowdsource its own investigation. Just minutes after the FBI released the images, one user posted a photo of what he or she believed to be one of the suspects just before the bombing, matching it to a golf hat the website's users had also identified the suspect as wearing.

None of this is entirely new. Law enforcement officials have long turned to the crowd for assistance identifying suspects and criminals. In 1950, the FBI launched its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in conjunction with the media. According to the agency, 154 of the 498 fugitives on the list since its inception have been located “as a direct result of citizen cooperation.” America’s Most Wanted, a television program featuring criminals on the run, has assisted in 1,149 captures since it began in 1988, host and producer John Walsh told The New York Times in 2011

But the stakes are higher in the digital age. Tips aren't just shared with law enforcement officers; they're shared with the crowd. The New York Post published a front-page photograph on Thursday of two individuals seen in the crowd who were the source of much of Reddit's speculation—and who are not the same as the ones identified later in the day by the FBI. "They are not real cops," The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal wrote of the site's users on Wednesday. "They are well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight of what they're doing. This is vigilantism, and it's only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline that allows this to go on."

The FBI chastized the mainstream media in a release on Wednesday, citing "unintended consequences" of getting it wrong during this stage in the investigation. And given all the now now infamous false reports about a suspect being in custody or looking a certain way. We'll find out if the media's chastened and we'll also discover if citizens with keyboards can do any better.