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Boston bombings: Can crowdsourcing work in a case like this?

As authorities searched for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing case, online amateurs used social media and other sites to crowdsource the investigation. But like citizen journalism, 'citizen law-enforcement' has its downsides.

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Police officers guard the entrance to Franklin street where there was an active crime scene search for the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, Friday, in Watertown, Mass. While police and FBI spent the week searching for the marathon bombing suspects, online vigilantes used social media and crowdsourcing to try to crack the case.

Matt Rourke/AP

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The hunt for the bombers behind the deadly Boston Marathon attacks didn't take place only on the streets with professional police officers and SWAT teams. In an era of digital interactivity, it also unfolded around the country from the desks of ordinary people.

Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4Chan, smartphones and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detective as police searched for men who turned out to be suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, ethnic Chechen brothers who had immigrated from southern Russia years ago.

But as amateur online sleuths began identifying possible culprits, people were wrongly accused or placed under suspicion by crowdsourcing. It showed the damage that digital investigators can cause and posed a question: In the social-media generation, what does law enforcement unleash when, by implication, it deputizes the public for help?

"The FBI kind of opened the door," said Hanson R. Hosein, director of the University of Washington Master of Communication in Digital Media program. "It was almost like it was put up as challenge to them, and they rose to it. ... They can be either really helpful or mob rule."

The bombings have been the highest-profile case in which the public has joined an active investigation, using ever-evolving crowd-sourcing tools, showing the pitfalls and benefits of new technology. It's certainly not vigilantism, but it's not standard policing, either. It's perhaps something new — the law-enforcement equivalent of citizen journalism.

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