Reddit Thinks It Can Solve the Boston Bombings

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 17 2013 11:20 AM

Reddit Thinks It Can Solve the Boston Bombings

Investigators work the crime scene on Boylston Street following Monday's bomb attack at the Boston Marathon.
Investigators work the crime scene on Boylston Street following Monday's bomb attack at the Boston Marathon.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Acknowledging that “the range of suspects and motives remains wide open,” the FBI on Tuesday appealed to the public for help in solving the Boston Marathon bombing.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Users of the social-news site Reddit are, in their own way, doing exactly what authorities asked. On a subreddit called findbostonbombers, a group of amateur sleuths is sharing theories and passing around publicly available crowd shots. At this stage, Redditors have latched on to images of two different middle-aged men in the marathon crowd, each of whom appears to be holding a backpack with stripes on the straps. Why are those stripes relevant? They think the markings look similar to those in an FBI picture of a destroyed backpack found at the scene of one of the explosions. Authorities believe that backpack could have held one of the explosive-filled pressure cookers used in the bombing.

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In the court of Reddit opinion, those stripes are enough to cast suspicion on a couple of to-this-point-anonymous men, one of whom the site’s users have dubbed “Blue Robe Guy.” (The other man Redditors have homed in on does not yet have a nickname.) Never mind that the guy’s outerwear more closely resembles a fleece jacket—a robe sounds more sinister, right? In any case, beyond the backpack markings, the supporting evidence seems a little thin. Some Redditors note that Blue Robe Guy appears to be gripping his pack tightly and “trying to look nonchalant.” Another adds that he “fits the profile of the kind of person I think did this.” Well then!

In some ways, Reddit is well-suited to the search for the Boston bomber. The site has a proven ability to crowdsource digital clues, and its built-in voting system allows users to bump up the comments they deem most helpful. On a subreddit called the “Reddit Bureau of Investigation,” there’s a group that’s always at the ready “to use the power of Reddit to solve crimes/mysteries and catch criminals.” According to the page’s info box, “Witch-hunts and the posting of personal information are forbidden. The motto not your personal army applies.” In addition to the search for the Boston bomber, the RBI page now lists investigations of a missing girl in Utah, a lost memory card full of personal photos, and “organized pitbull fights in Macedonia.”

Redditors have been known to help solve a crime or two in the past—last year, one gearhead identified the make and model of the car involved in a hit-and-run just from a photo of its right front headlight. But the Boston bombing warrants a lot more caution than a case that seems well-suited for Encyclopedia Brown.

Labeling people as “suspicious” based on the scantest evidence can do real damage. To their credit, many members of the community have recognized this, voting a post with the title “Does anyone remember Richard Jewell?” to the top of the findbostonbombers page. After invoking the name of the man who was falsely accused in the 1996 Olympic bombing, the user who created that thread writes, “Who knows? You may get lucky and your pet suspect turns out to be the bomber. But I've seen at least 10 people singled out, and not all of you are correct. You should be very very careful about picking and choosing who you think might have killed three people and wounded many more, based on where they were standing and if they were carrying a backpack or not.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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