April 18, 2013 -- This week has brought us a veritable witch hunt as details about Monday's deadly Boston Marathon explosions have continued to be hazy, at best. Online, the hunt has been for information -- or even speculation that "sounds about right" -- on who could be behind the two blasts that left three dead and dozens injured. On cable news, the hunt, as it always is, has been to get new information out first. After all -- you have to compete with the internet.
The problem is, nearly a week later, we've misidentified a whole lot of people via online channels as the perpetrators, and many print and cable organizations have just rolled with it.
Wondering how we ended up here?
People have been closely studying images and video footage from this week's Boston Marathon bombing in an effort to find suspicious activity and possible suspects. They've been comparing the FBI's images of what remained of the bag thought to have held a homemade explosive to the straps, buckles, and tags on bags used by onlookers that day. In doing this, the Reddit community came up with various theories and possibilities, including zeroing in on two men carrying bags near the site of the explosion -- one, a large backpack, and the other a duffel bag.
Having faces to go with a story tends to both calm and ignite. Within minutes, one of the men ID'd found his name posted online, and turned to Facebook to clear himself. As one Reddit user explained, "Blue track suit guy's Facebook info got out. I won't post it but this guy is not the bomber. His latest Facebook post shows him freaking out that he is on TV as the bomber. He said he was going to court to say he didn't do it."
Reddit responded by pulling posts about the men and noting that: "The two Males that the media have claimed the FBI are looking for are local guys and appear to be innocent. PLEASE DO NOT POST ANY MORE ON THEM, ESPECIALLY LINKS TO NEWS SITES THAT IDENTIFIES THEM."
4chan has also been working towards coming up with potential leads, including focusing on a man described as wearing a blue robe and a pair of men in similar or matching black jackets.
But, as author and journalist Greg Mitchell explains on his Pressing Issues blog, the damage had already been done. Outlets online, in print, and on TV have already run images of the two men, with the New York Post splashing the two across their Wednesday cover.
Meanwhile, CBS' John Miller has said that the two men on the Post's cover are not among the individuals sought by authorities, whom he says may release images of their own today.
But while it may be understandable, even expected, for online citizens to get things wrong in their search for answers, mainstream media outlets haven't fared much better. And the hunt for a suspect in the absence of concrete, well-sourced evidence has already prompted some (quite organized) criticism in the form of this "Give It Arrest" chart and a healthy dose of Twitter snark -- a snark that at least one anonymous and eristic TV executive feels has "reached new heights."
Bigger picture? When incorrect news is shared, we all fail, regardless of the source. And when big, ostensibly trustworthy news sources fail to check and double-check their sources, as apparently happened this week, it opens the door for the kind of "vigilante journalism" growing across the web, whether that means fed-up and impatient communities searching for clues on their own, or smug (yet validated) armchair pundits weighing in from the sidelines. It isn't a case of a snake eating its own tail so much as a snake rabidly consuming itself as quickly as possible, while the mongooses look on and think up a hashtag.