April 20, 2013

In Boston manhunt, online detectives flourished

Manuel Valdes / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Salah Eddin Barhoum, 17, sits in his apartment in Revere, Mass., on Thursday with one of the trophies he won in an athletic competition, and the bag he was carrying on Monday near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The high school student, of Moroccan descent, said he is scared to go outside after he was portrayed on the Internet and on the front page of the New York Post as connected to the deadly Boston Marathon bombings.

AP

This image made on Friday from a post on the imgur.com online image hosting service by user "gdhdshdhd" shows graphic analysis overlaid on photographs of the site where one of two explosives were detonated at the finish line of Monday's Boston Marathon. "After combing through the photos I've seen, I believe I've been able to make a solid case as to their exact location, where 'exact' in this case has an error margin of about 2-meters," user "gdhdshdhd" said.

AP

For complete coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt, click here.

The rush to informal sleuthing began Monday soon after the smoke clear as pictures and videos from the marathon began to circulate on the Internet. Salah Eddin Barhoum, a 17-year-old track star who was a spectator at Monday's race, had his picture posted all over the Internet and ended up on the cover of the New York Post. He told The Associated Press on Thursday that he is now afraid to leave his house.

Some of the amateur police work didn't sit well with the professionals. Boston's police department, for example, has a very active Twitter account with more than 220,000 followers, but the onslaught of misinformation proved to be too much. At one point, Boston police asked people to stop tweeting information from their scanner traffic.

Other police departments have faced similar situations. In the Seattle area, journalists and members of the public were asked to stop tweeting as authorities looked for a man who killed four police officers in 2009. In Los Angeles, authorities had the same request as they looked for rogue ex-police officer Christopher Dorner earlier this year.

"It's completely human nature, it's to be expected that people are going to take events and try to apply meaning," said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, spokesman for Seattle's police.

The Seattle Police Department has fully embraced Twitter and blogs, using both frequently. Whitcomb said the department disseminated as much information as it could, such as pictures, on two recent cases in which there were armed suspects on the loose that sparked brief citywide manhunts.

"We also want to make sure we are having a voice in the conversation," Whitcomb said. "We want people to go to us first and cover the information we're putting out. If we can get that done, it's a win."

While Reddit and 4Chan have been around for several years, their prominence has grown of late. More and more news organizations have learned to use them to mine information. For Hosein, sub-sections on Reddit have become something like local newspapers, except it's the users providing the content.

"Citizens think they almost have an obligation to rise up to do the work," he said.

Hosein says that the FBI's call for help was no different than a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster from the 1800's — albeit with much more amplification and distribution. But he feels that after this week's saga, people will eventually learn to exercise caution.

"There's a sense that we're learning collectively quickly, that we actually have to take on some of the sourcing rules that journalists have had in the past," Hosein said. "I've seen more restraint like, 'Wait guys, hold on, there's gotta be more confirmation.' I know we're learning. I don't think it's going to be repeated."

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