Last week, thousands of people took to social media in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, hoping to help identify the perpetrators.
It didn’t take long before the admirable effort degenerated into a racist Where’s Wally, with thousands of people trying to find brown people with backpacks in the huge crowd. Eventually these industrious CSI fans “identified” dozens of such individuals, including a couple of law enforcement officers and security staff in plain clothes.
Of course, they were all dead wrong.
The terror suspects were eventually identified thanks to CCTV footage, which wasn’t even made public following the attack. In other words there was absolutely no way the public could have identified them, but the cyber vigilantes did find quite a few dark skinned people with backpacks. It turned out the real suspects were not “brown,” they were from the Caucasus, which means they were, er, Caucasian.
The Washington Post now reports that law enforcement was practically forced to release the suspects’ images due to the social media witch hunt. Investigators were concerned that the manhunt could become a chaotic free-for-all, with civilians, media and internet vigilantes in the mix. The FBI stressed that only its images should be considered by the public, to no avail. Even US president Barack Obama cautioned the FBI to make sure that their photos really showed the real suspects.
What’s more, even after the Tsarnaev brothers were identified, the mob kept going, spurred on by conspiracy theorists.
The fact that the vigilantism contributed to the decision to post the images may have far reaching implications. We will never know whether the suspects would have been apprehended quietly, with no casualties had the photos not been published. Once the photos were released, the Tsarnaevs panicked, shot an MIT police officer and carjacked an SUV. One of the suspects was eventually killed, while the other one suffered extensive injuries and may not be able to provide investigators with information even if he recovers.