As thousands of Internet users turn to analysing the many photos and videos taken before and during the attack, it is important to remember not to engage in witch-hunts.
The age of the instant news and social media allows anyone with an Internet connection to engage in a little cyber-sleuthing, especially when it comes to attacks like the Boston bombings that occurred very much in the public eye.
The ample number of videos and photos of the attack allows anyone with the time and inclination to launch their own cyber-investigation, scouring through the various media as they search for suspicious individuals and activity. All from within the comforts of their own home.
But amateur cyber sleuths should be careful that they don’t unwittingly start witch hunts. Already several images have been highlighted on websites like Reddit and then passed on to other sites like Facebook, circulating at rapid speeds with instructions to circulate the images or videos far and wide in an attempt to “identify the suspicious individual” depicting within them.
And whilst the sleuthing itself may be harmless, the viral circulation of such media deemed suspicious will undoubtedly lead to problems, as particularly viral media can cause issues for their oblivious subjects. It leads to the possibility of innocent people being mistakenly identified as responsible for the attacks, and this can be extremely dangerous. This is nothing more than Trial by Social Media, which we warned about in a recent blog article.
Of course whilst the hearts and intentions of many of these amateur detectives may be in the right place, they are ultimately just that – amateurs. We’ve already seen several people pointed out, dissected and scrutinized merely for wearing a backpack, or in some cases looking “suspiciously suspicious”.
One Redditor commented regarding one “suspect” – “He looks overtly happy in one of the photos. Not exactly the expression I would expect from this sort of criminal.”
However if you do feel compelled to use your digital microscope then far be it from us to tell you otherwise. But we do recommend following some simple advice – avoid circulating images or videos across the Internet on the pretence of identifying people. If you do find content you deem suspicious for whatever reason, then contact the authorities and explain your reasoning. If you want other opinions then try and keep the content within your Internet communities.
Similarly if you see such content posted on social media, avoid circulating it further. Remember that from what we have seen several people have already been pointed out by the public, meaning most of these people you see will be completely innocent and do not deserve having their image circulated in connection with this attack in such a way.
And remember that if the authorities do want the online public to identify a particular person for whatever reason, then that information has to come from the authorities, not your Facebook friends!
UPDATE: April 19 2013 – And that information has indeed come. The FBI have asked members of the public if they can identify two men wearing baseball caps near the scene of the explosions. You can see the photo of the men in this BBC news article.