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Boston Bombing: How Reddit, Twitter and the Internet Helped and Hurt the Manhunt

Boston Bombing Suspects Crowd - H 2013

Earnest intentions and trouble-making trolls have combined to add a new, often-frustrating element to the search for those responsible for the massacre.

Crime fighting has entered the 21st century.

As the FBI and Boston Police Department worked feverishly to identify and then track down suspects that might be responsible for Monday's Marathon bombing, the established and professional forces -- along with the mainstream media -- were often following the lead of the unruly and untrained sleuths of the internet. Call it Vigilantism 2.0, a new era of crowdsourcing investigations that has exploded, whether the traditional participants like it or not.

Shortly after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, which has claimed three lives and nearly 200 injuries, the hive community of Reddit launched into a concerted effort to identify who might be responsible for the destruction.

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It's a collaborative group that posts any and all new nuggets of information, subjecting it all -- photos, fractional identifiers, rumors and purported first-hand accounts -- to intense (if still often uneducated) vetting, discrediting that which doesn't hold up and moving on to the next thing. It quickly launched the subsection labeled "/FindBostonBombers," rifling through potential suspects, casting many now-proven-innocent bystanders as suspicious simply because they happen to have been in photos at the scene of the explosion.

Think of it as watching an amateur FBI work through a plexiglass window. While news outlets debate internally before reporting, Reddit's process is transparent, leading to a difficult relationship with the outside world grasping for any information.

The site's work was latched onto by many in the mainstream media, which ran many of its own now-discredited reports and photos; In particular, CNN reported on arrests that didn't happen and suspects that were deemed innocent, and the NY Post ran a now very-maligned front page photo of two dark skinned men and implied that they were suspects.

As the "suspects" that Reddit zeroed in on were proven innocent (including Sunil Tripathi, a missing 22-year old student at Brown University), though, the site owned up to its responsibility. Whether its members like it or not, their work was being cited by major publications, and every time they fingered an ultimately-innocent bystander, there was the chance they were ruining a life. Ground rules were set, with requirements that those they had examined and ultimately vindicated be clearly marked as such in old threads.

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"I will be the first to admit my guilt. I f---ed up Reddit!" one user wrote, with another offering a stern condemnation of co-Redditors. "Some of this 'f---ing up' is morally reprehensible and needs to stop. Even if it means closing some subreddits or enforcing the deletion of some comments."

But the site also has proven useful, with one user that had been at the scene uploading a photo he took amid the mayhem; it turned out to have a glimpse of the man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the police are trying to catch. Other photos' authenticity were questioned by the New York Times, but it some have since been verified. The site has continued to break down many of the other photos released of the suspect -- another, his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a shootout late last night.

Other Redditors wrote that they knew the suspect, or that he was a friend of a friend. It's impossible to know who was telling the truth, and who was lying, but any and all scraps of information about him was being posted in various threads, compiled from users on the site as well as other news organizations that had found relatives and friends online.

The earnest -- if flawed -- efforts of Redditors provide a contrast with the online troublemakers that have in many ways thrown confusion onto the police investigation. On Friday morning, amid the live broadcasts from Watertown, Mass., where the suspect was believed to be staying, a Twitter account purported to belong to the suspect's brother began posting hysterical threats to police. It earned a multitude of retweets -- and then was picked up by a police scanner, which added authenticity to the handle.

Once the scanner broadcast the threats, journalists listening to the scanner tweeted about them, creating a credibility-building feedback loop. It was ultimately determined that the account was a fake, with many reports corrected or scrubbed to reflect the blur of fiction and reality that happens so easily when the internet and police are talking past each other about the same topic.