Hey Reddit, Enough Boston Bombing Vigilantism

By Alexis C. Madrigal
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Reuters/Alexis C. Madrigal

If there's one thing we want to believe about the Boston bombing, it's that someone saw the perpetrator. Somewhere, inside an iPhone or on a memory chip, there's an image of the terrorist(s). The video would serve as evidence at a trial, and it would calm the queasy feeling that grows as the hours pass between tragedy and arrest. Someone can't just plant bombs among hundreds of people and walk away without being spotted. Not in today's surveillance/sousveillance society. Right?

So, vigilantes have organized themselves on Reddit for a manhunt. They want justice served. And they're openly debating suspects on the site. They're gonna solve the case! Like real cops on television.

But they are not real cops. They are well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight of what they're doing.* This is vigilantism, and it's only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline that allows this to go on. Imagine if people were standing around in Boston pointing fingers at people in photographs and (roughly) accusing them of terrorism.

In one case, they point out a man in a "blue robe" and how he's holding his backpack. "Also note that in the very far right pic, he is clutching his hand with a very tight grip as if the backpack is really heavy," one says. "That left hand is holding quite a lot of tension. The guy is trying to look nonchalant, maybe?" another replies. "Though, look at the angle of the shoulder straps. You would expect them to be pointing straight down if they were under the weight of 30-40lbs, not angled like that"

Guys, this isn't dissecting the quality of an animation on the PS3: this is a human being whose role in an act of terrorism is being debated in a public forum because of people's observations of the "tension" in his grip on his bag?

This is not how civil society works. There is a reason that police have procedures around investigations and evidence. Due process is important. It exists to systematize justice, and in doing so prevent the sort of excesses common when people take justice into their own hands. And if anything, we don't have *enough* due process in this country.

All of these statements are obvious. And it is possible to see what some set of Reddit users are doing as insubstantial or silly. At best, they help the investigation. At worst, it's a distraction. But we need to take both the rhetoric and actions of this group seriously. It doesn't matter that it's happening in a forum, and not around a burning cross.

One can make a defense of vigilantism in certain circumstances: say, "in the absence of foundations regulating social order." But this is not one of those cases. The FBI and other law enforcement officials are clearly looking for the bomber, and with access to far more information and technical resources. 

San Francisco, the city where Reddit grew up, has an ugly history of vigilantes deciding to track down and convict suspects. Racial, usually anti-Chinese, violence ran through the 19th-century movement, as it has in many vigilante causes. No one is saying the police are perfect or that the FBI is always fair, but they have an ethos, a set of rules they're sworn to uphold, and accountability if they make mistakes. And in any case, the way to fix the failings of our law enforcement procedures is not to create an even more flawed system.

Investigating these bombings is just not a job for "the crowd," even if technology makes such collaboration possible. Even if we were to admit that Reddit was "more efficient" in processing the influx of media around the bombing, which would be a completely baseless speculation/stretch/defense, it still wouldn't make sense to create a lawless space in which self-appointed citizens decide which other citizens have committed crimes. This would be at the top of any BuzzFeed list of the tried-and-true lessons of modern civilization. We have a legal system for a reason.

Digital dualism can blind us to the real and serious problems of online vigilantism. There's no excusing it with reference to bits or tubes: It is plain, old vigilantism with no place in our society.

* Dan Sinker pointed out, fairly, that there are debates occurring on Reddit about the appropriateness of the vigilante action. My counterargument would be that you can participate in the vigilantism without participating in the debate. That is to say, the existence of the debate proves that *some* people are considering the moral weight, but not necessarily the same people or all the people doing the finger-pointing. But to make it clear: this isn't an indictment of Reddit as a platform. This is about a very clear action taken by a small group of specific users within the cultural context that's developed at Reddit for certain types of collective action.

Update 4/18: Several people Redditors had cast suspicion on have turned out to be local people who, in the words of /findbostonbombers moderator, oops777, "appear to be innocent." While oops777 is wisely suspending further references to these men in the subreddit, their photographs and Facebook pages have (predictably) gotten out to other media. This is a bad turn of events. But when we think about this crowdsourcing process, we can't focus just on the negative results. Even if Reddit had gotten the right guy, I would have still thought this was a dangerous experiment that should not be repeated. My hope is that we sober up about when and how crowdsourcing should be applied in the investigation of criminal cases. And perhaps, in the future, people will find ways to crowdsource without spotlighting false positives in a public discussion forum.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/04/hey-reddit-enough-boston-bombing-vigilantism/275062/