(MyFoxBoston.com) – The mysterious man on the roof. The man clad in the blue robe. These individuals were all once considered to be possible suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings; however, it wasn't law enforcement pointing the finger at these men, it was average citizens playing detective on social media.
When the explosions hit the Boston Marathon, it took only minutes for the news to race around the world. Social media went into overdrive offering rapid fire, real-time accounts of the crisis as it unfolded.
"I don't think an event like this has ever happened in an age when social media is so prominent in our lives," Doug Perry, Senior Web Producer of MyFoxBoston.com said. He said the marathon attack dominated every social network FOX 25 monitors.
"You had people immediately putting stuff up on Instagram, tweeting, Facebooking, looking for answers saying this is what I saw. All sorts of things we have never seen before," Perry added.
As the FBI began its investigation, regular people with laptops and smartphones began their own. Thousands of internet detectives flocked to social media sites in hopes of breaking the case wide open.
"This is just a photo that surfaced on the Internet, but someone at home had circled the suspicious parties, the backpack, and had taken notes on it," Greg Gomer, the Managing Editor at BostonInno said.
Gomer followed the crowdsourcing closely and was amazed at what he saw. Websites like Reddit and 4Chan devoted special pages to the amateur sleuths. Hundreds of before and after pictures and videos were posted, analyzed, and scrutinized, including this widely circulated shot of a mystery man on the roof. Some marathon-goers were flagged for wearing hoodies or carrying backpacks, while others were flagged simply because someone thought they looked like a terrorist.
"It was presented in about 10 to 20 images that strung together a pretty compelling narrative - so in a sense it was believable that this person was suspicious," Gomer said.
Although it appears intentions were good, the overall outcome was that at least four innocent people were identified online by name as possible suspects, including a Brown University student who had been missing since mid-March. It would have been impossible for him to have been involved because he was already dead.
Jonathan Gilliam is a former FBI Agent who spent four years working counterterrorism. He says credible tips are priceless, but there's a fine line between helping and hindering a case.
"They will look at it to see if they have anything they don't have, but typically if someone has something that is valid they will call in and say, "Hey, I have something you should look at," Gilliam said.
In the end, it was digital and old-fashioned detective work that led to the arrests of the accused Boston Marathon bombers. The FBI criticized mistakes made in social and mainstream media and warned people to disregard unverified photos.
"People don't know the reach they have with social media. It takes one person to string together a compelling narrative or story for it to really spread virally. And that's a problem as we continue to go further with other tragedies or other well documented events," Gilliam said.
Social media sleuthing is still a work in progress. The lesson here is that crowd sourcing as part of an investigation can be dangerous without crowd control.