Cops to Boston Bombing Crowdsourcers: Please Don’t Try This at Home
Required reading for today is a detailed report from the Washington Post about the way the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were identified and caught. It’s gripping, compelling stuff.
It is also a rebuke to the Internet’s amateur investigators — and to media outlets who encouraged them by passing along their speculation to the wider world.
The Post story spends quite a bit of time relaying this message from law enforcement officials: It’s great that you want to pitch in, but you’re probably going to do more harm than good. When we want your help, we’ll ask for it.
If you’re a true believer in Reddit Exceptionalism, and/or that crowds are always wiser than the pros, or that you simply can’t stop people from talking about things on the Internet, so best to talk about them yourself, you can probably find something to feel good about in today’s story. Likely along the lines of “Hey! We had an effect on the investigation!”
But the law enforcement sources the Post talked to sure don’t seem too feel great about that effect. The biggest impact seems to be that FBI officials released images of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev before they might have wanted to, because they were afraid someone else would, first — or that people would keep misidentifying innocent people as suspects.
From the Post:
● Investigators didn’t want to risk having news outlets put out the Tsarnaevs’ images first, which might have made them the object of a wave of popular sympathy for wrongly suspected people, as had happened with two high school runners from the Boston area whose photos were published on the front page of the New York Post under the headline “Bag Men.” At the news conference, FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers sternly asked the public to view only its pictures or risk creating “undue work for vital law enforcement resources.”
● Investigators were concerned that if they didn’t assert control over the release of the Tsarnaevs’ photos, their manhunt would become a chaotic free-for-all, with news media cars and helicopters, as well as online vigilante detectives, competing with police in the chase to find the suspects. By stressing that all information had to flow to 911 and official investigators, the FBI hoped to cut off that freelance sleuthing and attend to public safety even as they searched for the brothers.
Want to couch this in some to-be-sures? Okay.
* Maybe it’s possible that someone, somewhere, on the Internet did have more impact on the case than the Post’s sources are letting on. After all, this is still a very early draft of history, cobbled together just hours after the event. Things get more nuanced over time, and sometimes they play out much differently.
* Similarly, it’s easy to assume that there’s some institutional bias in the Post’s story. If amateurs did have a more significant role in the case, the pros might not be excited to talk about it — for the same reason lots of professional reporters aren’t excited to acknowledge their diminished authority in the Web age.
And, in any case, I assume that none of this will prevent some Redditors or other would-be Sherlocks from trying the same thing the next time around. But maybe it will make the rest of us just a little bit less likely to share their efforts with our friends or readers.