Out of all of the steps that the police in the States would have taken in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, appealing to the online community for help solving the case was not likely to be one of them.
Like many others, I first became aware of the bombings when graphic images of the aftermath began to find their way into my Twitter timeline.
This was ahead of any of the news channels picking up on the story, it was too soon to say what had happened but even at this early stage some users were making unwarranted assumptions about what had happened.
As it does, the true picture began to emerge slowly with the mainstream news needing to verify their sources before reporting. Even with this professional journalistic approach some stories found their way into the headlines that turned out to be misleading.
With images and videos uploaded directly from the scene onto social media, rumour about the significance of certain ‘clues’ encouraged some using message boards and forums to take it on themselves to try and piece together what might have happened.
The sum of the efforts was well represented by the since removed ‘Find Boston Bombers’ forum created on Reddit.
Footage was assembled and with the available ‘clues’, uninformed theories gathered pace to the extent that names of ‘suspects’ were mentioned despite their being nothing to support a suggestion of their involvement.
As The Onion well summed up in its ‘Internet Comes Up With 8.5 Million Leads On Potential Boston Bombing Suspect‘ article, the large amount of time spent online by amateur detectives had been distinctly unhelpful and counter-productive.
In the professional investigation, many different sources of evidence will have contributed to the formulation of theories including forensics, intelligence, human testimony and perhaps most importantly of all, the expertise of the investigators when it comes to managing major incidents.
Not only lacking any real knowledge of investigation, without any supporting context from other sources of evidence as outlined above a few blurry frames from a camera phone could never have been sufficient information on which to base credible theories.
As such though well meaning, most of the theories generated online were ill-informed and in no way helped further the official investigation.
The problem I think was that the public’s interest to help had not been guided, instead it had been discharged unsupervised and at random.
Imagine instead if there was a mechanism through which this eagerness could be harnessed to help rather than hinder the actual investigation, to employ the resources of the many eyes and ears available for a useful end.
Take witness identification as an example and the ‘trace, identify, eliminate’ strategy that we sometimes use to help further investigations. Could people be asked to tag themselves in scene photos so the police are able to contact them as potential witnesses?
As another example, a portal through which witnesses could upload photos and videos from the scene would be hugely beneficial in terms of the evidence gathering process.
With some thought and structure, public ‘crowd-sourcing’ could be a powerful investigative tool and one which in the wake of serious incidents such as the Boston bombings could be very valuable indeed.
There’s potential in the pitfalls of the Boston example, potential that is worth serious consideration.