If you thought the New York Post's "Bag Men" outing was bad, the most crowdsourced terror investigation in American history transformed from Internet sleuthing of FBI photos on Thursday night into a lynch mob — from Reddit to a police scanner to social media and beyond — that led to the outing of even more innocent people as would-be suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Indeed, the chaotic overnight scene in Watertown, Massachusetts — before one actual suspect was killed and before the ongoing manhunt for the other shut down Boston — was just the latest in a series of false reports naming suspects in a terror investigation, with their foundations in Internet sleuthing. The r/findbostonbombers subreddit was a flurry activity on Thursday night, tracking down a photo not released by the FBI that appeared to be a clearer picture of the man now known as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But there was an irresponsible chase in the works, too, trying to put a name to the face of the man in the white hat, until this morning only known by his FBI description, Suspect 2: "I think i found suspect 2..." asked one Reddit thread; "Is missing student Sunil Tripathi Marathon Bomber #2?" asked another. The amateur investigators from the site — having served as a kind of unofficial proving ground for theories that made their way to the mainstream media, jumping on the clear photo, despite the Post story that had also spread on Reddit — were tying the FBI photos to a 22-year-old Brown student and this ABC News report about his having gone missing last month. There was pushback, even on Reddit — "Leave the missing guy alone" — but it was too late; the trolls on Reddit had fed an army of all-nighter trolls in the media.