Update: April 18, 2013 2:26 PM
Investigators in the Boston Marathon bombing have been sifting through the massive pile of digital images that were submitted from local businesses and members of the public in search of a suspect. While investigators analyze these videos and photos, a cadre of anonymous internet users have been conducting an investigation of their own. On online forums, pictures of the scene immediately before and after the attack are being collected and analyzed. Though this amateur digital sleuthing has yielded tantalizing theories of whodunnit it also has a darker side as photos are being shared identifying potentially innocent people as suspects.On Reddit, there are multiple posts soliciting and discussing photos and videos of the bombing site including one that has, as of this writing, attracted nearly 900 comments. In that thread, users identified several people they deemed suspicious. Redditors have also debunked many of their own theories in the course of their discussions.
Photo analysis is also taking place on the infamous 4chan forum — haven for memes, gory pictures, and pornography — where users are not being remotely shy about declaring people in the photos to be responsible for the attack.
“I found him,” declared one user who posted a series of photos of a bearded man with a black backpack similar to the one the FBI has linked to the Boston bombs.
Along with the bearded man, 4chan users have labeled a slew of other people as potential suspects. They are also displaying their trademark, twisted sense of humor and making memes and jokes out of many of the pictures of people they are linking to the bombing.
Reddit and 4chan are not the only places where photos of the bombing are being shared and analyzed in an effort to identify potential suspects. The white supremacist forum Stormfront and the conservative site FreeRepublic have threads discussing a photo of “alleged ‘Saudis'” at the bombing site. In total, the internet users on these four sites have identified at least seven people as suspicious and distributed pictures showing their faces.
As of now, no official information has been released about any suspect in the bombing. With the only real clue for amateur sleuths to use in their photo analysis being the black backpack referred to publicly by the FBI, which is an extremely common accessory, it is quite difficult for internet users to identify any accurate, definitive information about the case. Because of this, the identification of potential suspects and the sharing of their photos is essentially a form of online vigilante justice that could lead to troubling real-world repercussions. The FBI has not responded to a request to comment on these amateur investigation efforts.
This terror attack was the first major one on American soil in the age of social media. With new technologies for sharing photo and videos and online communities, this type of amateur, online investigation could become a common part of the aftermath of future high profile violent incidents. Welcome to the era of the crowdsourced terrorist witchhunt.