Boston Bombing: Can Redditors Track Down the Boston Bomber?

After an event like the “Boston Bombing,” people are understandably left dazed and confused. When such a violent, disruptive act comes out of nowhere, we are desperate to regain some semblance of reason and order. “Who committed this?” and “What was their motive?” are perhaps the two questions we want are most eager to have answered.

Just as naturally as it is to look for explanations after such an event, it is natural to look to authority figures to provide answers. This is for good reason: it is the authorities who are charged with preventing such attacks and with tracking down, apprehending, and punishing those responsible. In addition to this instrumental trait, many people look to the authorities as a sort of “community leader” figure(s), that is, the “wise men/women” or, alternatively, as a kind of parental figure. In any case, it is thought that the authorities are the ones who have the most useful knowledge, or at least the best means of gaining the relevant knowledge.

But the age of the Internet is an age of decentralization, in culture, politics, and of course, information, among other things. In this age, the limits of knowledge inherent in centralized authorities and organizations is highlighted. Disparate but connected individuals can locate and share tacit and local information much faster than officials with chains of command, procedures, and so on. Such an approach has already proved successful: the “Reddit Bureau of Investigation,” a subthread on the popular social news site, has already a missing girl in Utaha lost memory card full of personal photos, and “organized pitbull fights in Macedonia.” Even the notorious hacking group Anonymous recently confirmed the identities of two out of four young men accused of raping a Novia Scotia teen, after the authorities’ official investigation.

The latest notable instance of this is Reddit user’s claim that they will be able, or at least can help, to identify the culprit(s) behind the bombings. Users of the popular social news site have responded to police’s calls to the public to report any suspicious activity they may have seen. A subreddit called “findbostonbombers” in particular plays host to reports, discussions, and theories on who may be behind the attack. Redditors are currently focused on two middle-aged men standing in the crowd where the bomb exploded. Reasons for suspicion of at least one of the men include his tight grip on a bag, attempts to look “nonchalant,” and even a hunch: “(he) ‘fits the profile of the kind of person I think did this.’” Both men were suspected due to their possession of backpacks with stripes, perhaps similar — or the same — as the backpack containing the bomb.

If this evidence seems shaky, be heartened by the fact that one of the highest rated threads in the subreddit warns of making another Richard Jewell mistake; Jewell was an innocent man originally thought to be responsible for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996. Furthermore, there are repeated explanations that the efforts are not meant to, nor should, become “witch hunts,” and there is even a thread called an “innocent hunt” which seeks to “clear” people with bags who might otherwise be suspected.

Anyone who has spent as little as an hour on the internet knows all too well how poor some people’s thinking skills and judgment can be, and given this, some wariness over redditor’s findings and theories. That said, the more eyes and discussions focused on identifying the culprit, the better. Decentralized knowledge sharing dramatically increases the likelihood that important information will be discovered and shared. Theories that are weak are likely to be winnowed out both by the authorities’ knowledge and expertise as well as the “wisdom of the crowd.”

The identity of the Boston bomber remains unclear for now, but what we can be certain of is the continued, if not increased practice of everyday citizens looking for and sharing information regarding crime. Indeed, the “democratization” of crime awareness, prevention, and investigation ought to be viewed as a positive development, as it erodes the wall of authority that oftentimes alienates citizens and allows room for abuse.