Reddit's Boston Marathon Crowdsourcing: Digital Witch Hunt or Law Enforcement Aid?

A group of the social news site's users are trying to pinpoint suspects. Are they helping or harming the case?

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Within minutes of two bombs exploding at the Boston Marathon Monday, hundreds of on-the-scene photos were uploaded and shared across Twitter and other social media sites. Now users of the social news site Reddit are combing through this digital tome to see if they can pinpoint evidence that could help law enforcement identify a suspect.

[FBI: No Arrest Made in Boston Bombing]

The Findbostonbombers subreddit began after Reddit user oops777 (who asked that his real name not be used) created it as a way to direct all of the photographic sleuthing that was already occurring on Reddit into a single thread. "People were already speculating on suspicious people in the crowds," he wrote in a Skype interview. "So I decided to create a subreddit where everyone could post their theories and discuss potential suspects ... The worst case scenario is we waste our time, but the best is that we find something the FBI missed - which is why all suspicious information that isn't ruled out is sent to the FBI."

Since the subreddit launched late Tuesday, hundreds of posts and thousands of photos have been uploaded, with users vigorously debating subtle clues and potential suspects. Those who look suspicious have been given nicknames – Blue Robe Guy, Khakis and Heavy Bag Guy, White Hat Guy ­– and their guilt or innocence is argued over in the comment sections of the posts. And no detail is too small to pick over.

"I don't really know running shoes ... but I guess these are not the kind of shoes you can just walk into a store and buy," wrote one user. "Point being, if these guys went out and bought things to blend in at a sporty event, they would have been unlikely to pick up these shoes, unless [their] 'friend' just happens to also be a serious runner."

[PHOTOS: Carnage and Grief in Boston]

But is this the kind of internet crowdsourcing that will actually help law enforcement, or is it simply a digital witch hunt? As Will Oremus wrote in Slate, "the Boston bombing warrants a lot more caution than a case that seems well-suited for Encyclopedia Brown ... You should be very, very careful about picking and choosing who you think might have killed three people and wounded many more, based on where they were standing and if they were carrying a backpack or not."

The Reddit user U.S. News interviewed thinks this criticism is "unfair."

"The media are the ones perpetuating the witch hunt by spreading the images we're posting, then blaming us for posting them in our small subreddit," he said. "In our subreddit we have strict rules and do everything we can to make people have the right mindset about what we're trying to achieve, when a news outlet posts the pictures we created of potential suspects, they're increasing the chance that somebody looks for personal information. Our goal is purely to report things to the FBI."

[SEE: History of U.S. Bombings, Failed Attempts]

A list of rules posted by the moderators includes warnings like "DO NOT POST ANY PERSONAL INFORMATION" and "any racism will not be tolerated." One of Findbostonbombers's moderators noted in a comment thread that the subreddit is "getting [a lot] of negative media attention and I think it's for the concern that we're creating villains from random bystanders. We have to be responsible."

A Reddit user named Rob Wormald, who uploaded photos into Photosynth, a software program that would allow users to organize photos in order to reconstruct the scene, says that while Reddit may not be able to determine the identity of the bombers, it's unlikely to do any real harm. "At the end of the day, probably the tools we're using are not even close to what law enforcement are using," he explains. "I don't have any misconception that we're going to be solving a bunch of crimes, but the main point is you have a thousand eyeballs looking at the same thing as everybody else. As long as something like Reddit doesn't overload what the law enforcement processes are, then I think it's a good thing."

What about the FBI? Has it responded to any of the clues forwarded to it by the Reddit community?