Reddit’s bomber search: witch hunt fail or successful online manhunt?



The events of the past week in the Boston area have the makings of a Hollywood movie. Bombings, shootouts and suspects on the run. But any movie made about the events of the past week should include Reddit. The site, which dubs itself the “front page of the internet” has been a focal point as people come to grips with what has happened.

What happened at the MIT shooting? “Suspect #1 is dead, Suspect #2 is on the run, we have an MBTA officer who was seriously wounded and is in surgery right now, we have an MIT security officer who has been killed,” Gov. of Watertown, Deval Patrick, is quoted by CTV News as saying. Then again, if you’d been watching this thread on Reddit you probably already knew that. Maybe even before Patrick did.

Before that, the platform singled out suspects based on stacks of photos that were crowdsourced online via, most notably, sites like Imgur and 4Chan. This came after the FBI and Boston Police Department asked the community to share photos and videos of the Boston Marathon in order to create data required for the investigation of the two bombs that went off on Tuesday.

When the FBI started posting wanted posters online, Reddit jumped on the bandwagon. What followed was a massive online manhunt. Some dub it a witch hunt by pointing out how some racist and stereotypical motivations ended up in creating what TIME called, ‘internet vigilantism.’ Did the online community find the bomber suspects before the police?

Yes and no. Reddit commenters “singled out more than a dozen arguably suspicious looking people.” For example, falsely accused 17-year-old Sala Barhoum wound up with her face featuring on the front page of the New York Post as a suspect. Some though, like TIME author Elizabeth Diaz, have gone as far as to say that “many of these armchair sleuths are enjoying something that is part disaster porn, part CSI. It’s the digital equivalent of diagnosing the cause of a car crash while rubbernecking, mixing outrage and sympathy with our innate desire to gawk.”

Although Reddit did act after law enforcement asked for data from the community, some will say that they took it too far when suspects started being profiled. There’s a thin line between assisting the FBI via enabling crowdsourcing and taking matters into your own hands via internet vigilantism. Did Reddit, or other online communities, further the investigation? If so, where does this leave law enforcement or ‘internet vigilantism?’

Does its live reporting of action on police scanners means that it is the future of news? Well, that’s unlikely. It might well be something that mainstream news sites latch onto (in fact some news sites had already cottoned onto and were exploiting the streaming of police scanner traffic) and adapt. This is not, however, a revolutionary new way of doing things and most likely doesn’t represent the changing of any guard.



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.