“Bag pointing downward. Probably heavy,” another user wrote at Reddit.com. That was accompanied by photos of the two and a diagram showing how one man’s backpack had a bulge that might have been a pressure cooker packed with explosives.
But the Internet had the wrong guys.
On Thursday, the Backpack Brothers turned out to be a pair of friends from the Boston suburbs. They had no apparent connection to the bombings. Neither did “Blue Robe Guy.” Or “Torn Pants.” Or “Mr. Cardigan” — other figures that amateur sleuths had also scrutinized in the crowd.
Instead, the Backpack Brothers showed the dark side of an audacious effort to crowdsource a murder investigation. By day’s end, the two men had been barraged on Facebook. Sought by the media. Featured on the front page of the New York Post.
And then cleared.
“It’s not me. I am not the person,” said Salah Barhoum, a Moroccan-born high school sophomore in Revere, Mass. He was the “brother” in the blue jacket. After learning he was under suspicion late Wednesday, Barhoum said he went to the police.
He said they didn’t know who he was. “It’s only people doing it,” Barhoum said of the parallel investigation online. “Only people.”
On Thursday evening, investigators released the first photos of their official suspects, two men seen wearing black backpacks near the bombing scene. Authorities were trying to harness the power of crowdsourcing for themselves, to turn the Internet detectives from their own clues to the official ones.
“The only official photos, which should be officially relied upon, are those you see today,” said Richard DesLauriers, the FBI official leading the investigation.
At Reddit.com, the flagship site for the unofficial investigation, users sought to comply. “At this point in time the only photographs that are allowed to be posted in this [page] are images that may contain the FBI’s two suspects — all others will be deleted,” one posted.
The Internet’s investigation had begun shortly after midnight Wednesday, as the photos of the marathon crowd began to appear online. In theory, this was the kind of thing that the online “crowd” was good at. A few months ago, for instance, Reddit’s “redditors” had identified a car used in a hit-and-run accident, using only a photo of one broken headlight.
This time, they set up a “single place for people to compile, analyze, and discuss images, links, and thoughts about the Boston Bombing.” Anonymous users pored through photos from online repositories like Flickr, searching for bags and bystanders that looked out of place.
They were not, of course, the only ones who got things wrong.
Media outlets focused on a Saudi national who had been wounded at the scene. The man was cleared. On Wednesday, CNN’s John King had erroneously reported an arrest in the case, describing the person arrested as a “dark-skinned male.”