One of the most interesting details from the Washington Post's steller tick-tock of the F.B.I. investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings has to be the reason they decided to release the photos of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev: to fend off Reddit and the New York Post.
The social media site and notorious tabloid emerged as front runners in the race to distribute potentially useful but ultimately useless information in the early days of the investigation. The Post identified a Saudi suspect and reported 12 people were killed in the initial blasts. Both were not true. They then identified two people on their Thursday BAG MEN cover as F.B.I. suspects. That was also not true. Meanwhile, Reddit was on the case early looking at every picture possible trying to identify potential suspects. "I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day," one moderator said of the Boston suspect hunting sub-Reddit. Except, they didn't find a thing, and only helped add to the confusion surrounding the case.
And it was precisely because of that confusion and maelstrom of misinformation that led to the F.B.I.'s decision to go ahead and release the images of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, according to the Washington Post's David Montgomery, Sari Horwitz and Marc Fisher. The F.B.I. wanted to limit the damage being done" to people being wrongly identified by Reddit or the Post or any other amateur sleuthing being done. Once they were able to identify which faces in the crowd were the suspects late on Wednesday afternoon, they had a decision to make. The fear was that if they didn't head off the Internet's Sherlock Holmes approach early, then all-out chaos would ensue during the investigation:
Investigators were concerned that if they didn’t assert control over the release of the Tsarnaevs’ photos, their manhunt would become a chaotic free-for-all, with news media cars and helicopters, as well as online vigilante detectives, competing with police in the chase to find the suspects. By stressing that all information had to flow to 911 and official investigators, the FBI hoped to cut off that freelance sleuthing and attend to public safety even as they searched for the brothers.
What they did ended up working, thankfully. They received a tip from one of the victims saying he had seen one of the bombers. And, once the pictures had been released, one of the brother's aunts phoned the F.B.I. to identify them. Facial recognition hadn't turned anything up despite both of their names and faces existing in government databases. It was just another example of cops being cops, and succeeding when we needed them most.
Correction: A sentence has been added to identify when the FBI determined the Tsarnaev brothers were the suspects. They didn't identify their faces in the crowd until Wednesday afternoon. They released their photos Thursday because of the New York Post's cover that morning and the sleuthing done on Reddit's r/findbostonbombers thread, which is no more.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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