During last week’s frenzied pursuit of suspects after the Boston Marathon bombings, we commented on the danger of attempting to crowdsource a criminal investigation. After Friday’s arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, new information on how law enforcement located the suspect has shed light on the process. Despite good intentions, intelligence analysis of this type is a poor fit for untrained amateurs. From the Washington Post:
[T]he social media revolution meant that the FBI and Boston authorities were under intense pressure to move even faster, because thousands of amateur sleuths were mimicking the official investigation, inspecting digital images of the crowd on Boylston Street and making their own often wildly irresponsible conclusions about who might be the bombers.
On an investigative forum of Reddit.com, since removed from the site, users compiled thousands of photos, studied them for suspicious backpacks and sent their favorite theories spinning out into the wider Internet.
“Find people carrying black bags,” wrote the Reddit forum’s unnamed moderator. “If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.”
The moderator defended this strategy by arguing that “it’s been proven that a crowd of thousands can do things like this much quicker and better. . . . I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day.”
In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social mediacomplicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.
Fortunately, the suspect was apprehended and critiques of Reddit’s investigative techniques were swift and emphatic. But this could have easily gone much worse. This experience provides an example of where the wisdom of the crowd can be anything but wise.