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    4Chan Users (and Half the Internet) Think They've Found the Boston Bomber

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    4Chan thinks that it's found the men behind the Boston Marathon bombings. While the FBI and local authorities are declaring that the case is "wide open" and that there are currently no suspects, the denizens of the Internet's most productive sewer claim they've fingered at least two of them. Maybe ten. The search has homed in on people carrying backpacks large enough to hold the pressure cooker bombs described by authorities, and 4Chan users think they've found one at each blast site. 

    Working from the FBI's photo of the shredded backpack—and the premise that the bomb exploded from within it—4Chan users scanned the crowd images hours before the explosion to find the man carrying it. Here's the first suspect, based on the fact that he appears to be carrying a backpack that matches the one the FBI says contained the pressure-cooked bomb.

    And here's a look at the backpack in the context of the blast site.

    4Chan's second suspects are visible in the same photo:

    These two men are also near the blast site, and, as the user indicates, there's probably room for a pressure cooker in that backpack.

    Which seems like ... something. Maybe. Those 'Breaking: 4Chan discovers identity of the Boston bomber' headlines on forums and blog posts are obviously totally unfounded, and nobody wants amateur online vigilantism to get out of hand. One of them happens to look like the frazzled, bearded stereotype of a terrorist, so that probably helps gets folks excited. But if the FBI wasn't looking at these photos before, you can bet they are now

    Still, these are pictures of men wearing backpacks at the Boston Marathon, little more. They're totally inconclusive. So let's hold off on the pitchforks.

    And there are many more accusations that are even less substantial. Here's a guy who some users fingered for standing around and not being white:

    And here's a guy who's bending over and perhaps maybe rooting around in a backpack near a kid who looks like the one who was killed by the explosion. 

    This can't possibly count as evidence. It certainly shouldn't be considered anything more than amateur sleuthing.

    Which is why many heap scorn on efforts like these. After Redditors started /r/FindtheBostonBomber, Gawker scoffed: "Stand down, FBI: Redditors have created a subreddit dedicated to finding the Boston Marathon bomber." And The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal told Reddit to knock off the vigilantism

    But there's merit to these efforts, and the Redditors at least are wary that they should tread cautiously. The top post on the new subreddit is titled 'Does Anyone Remember Richard Jewell?' It reads:

    If not: he was a security guard at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. He found a suspicious backpack that wound up being a bomb and manage to save more than a few lives.

    Unfortunately, he was suspected of planting the bomb himself for the fame and notoriety. He went through a trial in the public eye, and his house was raided. It was full of pornographic movies and magazines.

    Ultimately, he was cleared of all wrongdoing and the real bomber was later caught.

    Why am I bringing this up? Because this sub is dedicated to pointing to random people in a crowd photograph and declaring your suspicions. You're starting the trial by public aspect.

    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.

    Which is an important case to keep in mind—the men pictured above (which we have shown because the images are already ubiquitous) are more than likely innocent, and certainly must be considered so until actual authorities prove otherwise. The mad crowd of the internet is certainly quick to hurl its considerable but incomprehensible energies towards fruitless pursuits, too—the absurd frenzy over the grainy Man on the Roof photo is evidence enough of that. 

    Still, let's be honest. Internet vigilantism can be abhorrent, but that doesn't change the fact that thousands of eyeballs combing the digital documentation of the tragic day's events are better than the scores the FBI can muster—the enthused, unpredictable crowds on Reddit and 4Chan might turn up leads even the seasoned forensic scientists at the FBI or the Boston PD might miss.

    Due process exists for a reason, and Madrigal is right that we need more of it, not less—but just consider this phenomenon as if thousands more people were simply submitting more evidence for consideration than was ever possible before. And since Reddit is tempering its effort—there's no harassment, no targeted personal attacks yet—it may yet prove a boon. If the FBI already said it had a suspect, such an avalanche could overwhelm and confound; but right now, authorities are all but openly admitting they're floundering. They need every lead they can get right now.