Reddit users work to find Boston bombing suspects

A Boston Police Officer stands near the scene of Monday's bombing attack at the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

TORONTO – As the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing moves into a fourth day, the hunt for the person, or people, behind the deadly attack has ramped up both in Boston and online.

One group in particular is getting a lot of attention for their efforts to bring those behind the attack to justice, through the subreddit /r/findbostonbombers.

“This is nothing more than one single place for people to compile, analyze, and discuss images, links, and thoughts about the Boston Bombing,” wrote Reddit user oops777, who created the subreddit Wednesday.

Posts on the subreddit are filled with photos of the crowd, gathered near the finish line moments before the blast, annotated with arrows and circled where evidence of matching black bags – what the FBI believe the bombs were carried in – can be seen.

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UPDATE: /r/findbostonbomber announced late Thursday afternoon that moderators will no longer allow posts that don’t involve the suspects that the FBI released photos of during a press conference Thursday.

Read More: FBI releases photos of Boston Marathon bombing suspects

By Thursday the page had over 3,900 subscribers and showed thousands of users actively participating in the conversation throughout the day.

The subreddit asks users to upload any photos or videos that may provide insight into possible suspects, in order to provide that evidence to the FBI. The rules, listed on the homepage of the subreddit, stress heavily that vigilante justice is not condoned and urges users not to make suspect images viral, or post any personal information of the suspect.

The underlying goal of the group is to provide insight to the FBI and other investigating law enforcements.

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But the subreddit has garnered some negative attention since going live – Slate’s Will Oremus referred to the page as “a group if amateur sleuths,” criticizing the group’s decision to label people as suspicious on insufficient evidence.

A similar report by the Atlantic Wire poked fun at the images – with circles, arrows and diagrams pointing out evidence in the photographs – saying things like, “we sorta have no idea why things are being circled.

While some are disputing the usefulness of Reddit users’ involvement in the Boston bombing investigation, some experts argue that using social media to crowd source evidence could prove useful due to the sheer size of this case.

“I think the usefulness of [the subreddit] is clear and quite profound – it gives the police a greater capacity to crowd source evidence and to get tips,” said Robert Currie, professor and director of the Law and Technology Institute at Dalhousie University.

“The danger is always that the police will get drowned in stuff –so you worry about the capacity to just sort through it. But, based on what I can tell, they have technology in place to deal with the large number of images and videos that they might be getting.”

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Currie noted that the ability to be able to sift through the evidence provided by online users depends on what type of law enforcement is being employed to investigate.

If the case were smaller, and did not have specially trained federal agents working on it, the volume of tips being passed along sites like Reddit may be cause for worry, because there may not be enough investigators to survey all of the evidence effectively.

The 2010 Vancouver hockey riots set the mould for using crowd sourcing to collect evidence and identify suspects successfully.

Vancouver police used image analysis technology to create a database of 30,000 images and videos taken at the riots – largely collected from YouTube and Facebook.

According to reports, the FBI has been in contact with the Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association (LEVA) with interest in the Vancouver riot database model to help with their investigation into the Boston bombing.

“We have to ask if crowd sourcing works in other mediums of law, then why can’t it be successful in cases like this,” said Anatoliy Gruzd, associate professor at the School of Information Management and director of the social media lab at Dalhousie University, who believes the link between the Vancouver riots and the Boston bombings is strong.

But there is still concern surrounding the way in which Reddit users are sharing information.

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Although the rules of the subreddit clearly state that the moderators will not tolerate users posting personal information of suspects, or acts of vigilantly justice, many of the photographs being passed around the site clearly show the faces of the people being identified as alleged “suspects.”

“The outside problem is that this type of thing could result in false accusations and it could even result as people being targeting by vigilantes,” said Currie.

“You worry about people getting too fired up and getting too enthusiastic about helping the law enforcement effort, or in trying to take it into their own hands.”

Currie believes that people who have evidence surrounding the Boston bombing should go straight to law enforcement with information before posting anything on social media.

He also noted that people should be cautious of what they are posting and how they phrase their posts before adding anything to their social media pages, warning that once something is online it is usually irretrievable.

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