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Crowd sleuthing: help or hindrance?

Spurred by the confusion surrounding the recent Boston bombings and the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ appeal for citizen help, online communities such as 4chan and Reddit resolved to help authorities identify and locate key suspects.

Sifting through the thousands of photos, audio-clips and films circulating the web, these online communities generated wave after wave of hypotheses, ranging from credible to blatantly racist; insightful to intentionally provocative.

Whether or not these conjectures aided or obstructed the investigation, as noted by the debates between numerous tech bloggers and online journalists, remains a contentious subject.

Those sceptical of this new form of ‘hacktivism’ raise concerns regarding the invasion of privacy, unfounded generalization and pseudo-specialist opinion- a perceived breeding ground for false accusation and social distrust.

“The Boston bombing warrants a lot more caution,” argues Slate.com writer Will Oremus. “Labelling people as ‘suspicious’ based on the scantest evidence can do real damage”.

Conversely, those backing these collaborative efforts argue for the efficiency of exploiting the internet’s mass cognitive resources – especially in situations where potential clues can be, and often are, hidden in the overwhelming surplus of citizen content.

Jason Calacanis, internet entrepreneur and blogger, argues that “we [being the online mass] should not sit back passively… ‘shut up and let the cops do their job’ in the case of a terrorist attack is EXACTLY wrong.”
For Calacanis, the duty of the online citizen is simple but important: “speak up, speculate and investigate”.

With the ever-increasing potential of the internet as a cognitive resource, debates surrounding ‘online duties’ and citizen-speculation are only going to grow – both in importance and intensity.

Whether blessing or a curse, help or hindrance, one thing is for sure: crowd sleuthing, the new and potentially game-changing digital phenomenon, is here to stay.

-Ben Coullie-