Crowdsourcing the Boston Marathon Bomber

Elise Amendola/AP

Do online vigilantes help or hinder an investigation?

What does it take to catch the Boston Marathon bomber?

number of news outlets have reported that a suspect has been identified in Monday's Boston Marathon bombing and they say the break came in the form of department store surveillance footage, assisted by a Boston television station, according to CNN.

It doesn’t, at this point, seem to be the work of the crowd, which, through user-generated sites like Reddit and 4chan, analyzed hundreds of photos in the aftermath of Monday's bombing and traded theories about who within them appeared suspicious, based on the backpacks they are wearing, the direction they are facing, or just a more general feeling ("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).  

Users were partly answering a call put out by the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, Richard DesLauriers. DesLauriers asked the public to alert the FBI to any individuals who expressed a desire to target a marathon or were interested in researching how to create an explosive device; if they saw someone carrying a heavy, dark bag around the time of the blasts; and if they heard explosions (possible test runs) in remote areas before Monday. "Cooperation from the community will play a crucial role in this investigation," he said.

Asking the public for help identifying the country's most dangerous criminals is not a new practice. 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

The difference with the Reddit and 4chan crowd-sourcing is that the flow of information is not limited to the individual with information and the feds who receive the tip. Speculation is now published widely, for all to see—a dangerous idea, writes The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal. "They are not real cops. They are well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight of what they're doing," he said. "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."

Reddit users discussed this problem. “I didn't create this subreddit to post any personal information, and we in no way condone any vigilante justice. If any personal information is posted that can identify someone it will be immediately deleted,” wrote user oops777, who is identified as a moderator of the findbostonbombers subreddit.

“The worst-case scenario here is that we waste our time, the best is that we send something to the FBI that they missed. If somebody looks suspicious, it's sent to the FBI, we don't try to find anything out other than their movements,” oops777 said.

Speculation on the website centered on a number of men seen carrying backpacks near the site of the explosion. The users conduct their own analysis of the photos. “We need someone with a backpack and dumbells [sic] (ranging 20-50 lbs) and try to replicate blue robe guy's stance," one user said. ("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). Some said it was suspicious that the bag was slung over his forearm, rather than on his back. Others pointed out that is common in crowds, to prevent pickpocketing. 

"Who knows really," writes user thugl1fe.