Earlier today, I spotted a seemingly semi-facetious comment on Facebook — that if 4Chan and Reddit got on the Boston bombing footage, a perp would be “doxxed” within hours. And while that’s certainly not the case, it seems the clever users of both sites indeed did some impressive sleuthing in the hours before it was revealed that a possible suspect had been identified.
The comment said:
“If the police in Boston and the FBI put all the images and video of the scene they have online and went on Reddit/4chan and said go for it. They would probably have the person/s doxxed within a day. Seriously.”
It would be premature to say that Reddit or 4Chan (original seat of the hacker collective known as “Anonymous”) was responsible for IDing a suspect in the Boston bombings. It’s also important to note that social media has been instrumental in the advancement of information in a crisis, both faulty and accurate, through all major recent events — and no one on Reddit or 4Chan is necessarily a trained forensics professional.
However, it seems 4Chan and Reddit indeed got their sleuthing caps on and did some detective work … and a few hours later, law enforcement also had some information. No evidence has emerged that either site was referenced.
An earlier Slate piece today notes the difficulty in corralling an enthusiastic online response on sites like Reddit and 4Chan, referencing the pre-social media public pillorying of Richard Jewell, who had assisted in the Olympic bombings in the 90s and was wrongly fingered as a suspect. But the piece also notes that a subreddit (which already has more than 2,000 members) called r/findbostonbombers did some matching and located what appeared to be two men holding backpacks that looked similar to the ones seen in the debris in the crowd before the bombing.
4Chan’s slightly different structure to Reddit makes it less possible to link to their discussions, and content on both sites may or may not wrongly implicate a party — but as we’ve seen in mainstream media debacles, this is not exclusive to social sites:
Suspect now saying there may not be a CNN.
— Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) April 17, 2013
Ultimately, as we’ve learned from today’s news cycle, no one yet knows where the investigation into the Boston bombings has led or is going, but if any of Reddit and 4Chan’s sleuthing turned up a hit, it will have some interesting implications on the role of social media in solving crimes.