Inside Reddit’s Hunt for the Boston Bombers

Reddit's frenzy over the marathon bombing wasn't confined to the Internet — the story of two Redditors who were on the ground in Watertown, Mass.

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Robin Young / The Lowell Sun / AP

Undated file photos show Tamerlan Tsarnaev, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Kevin Cheetham looks like a Hollywood rendition of a Reddit user. The 19-year-old student at Emerson College in Boston is lean and youthful, dressed in all black with glasses with a skull earring in his left ear. His companion on this Friday afternoon looks less the part: Luke, a 37-year-old entrepreneur from New York who spoke to TIME on the condition that his last name not appear in print because he was worried it might affect his businesses, is stubbled, wearing corduroys and a plaid, untucked button-down.

The unlikely duo are stationed in a parking lot across the street from the Arsenal Mall in Watertown, Mass., where a fleet of news trucks and a large crowd of reporters have gathered to cover the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. Cheetham and Luke appear to be living out of Luke’s car — what Cheetham calls their “mobile command center” — a navy blue minivan carpeted in crumbs, a bag of clothes, a cigarette-lighter-powered spotlight, a metal baseball bat (just in case) and a wirelessly connected laptop. With a wide swath of Watertown on lockdown, police probably wouldn’t have let them in if it weren’t for one thing: they were on the scene early.

Cheetham and Luke are self-deputized reporters for Reddit, the massive user-generated news site and “front page of the Internet” that played a central role in the media maelstrom that engulfed last week’s search for those who detonated two bombs at the Boston marathon. Both men say they were near the finish line when the explosions happened and began following the investigation online, where they listened to Boston police scanners and posted information to the now defunct FindBostonBombers section of Reddit.

When the bombing suspects, eventually identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan, cut a violent path through Watertown late Thursday, Cheetham and Luke separately struck out into the night to follow the manhunt. They decided to team up after meeting by chance in the early hours of Friday morning at Massachusetts General Hospital, looking for the body of Tamerlan, who was killed during a shootout with police hours earlier. With their gear packed in Luke’s van, the pair drove to Watertown, searching for Dzhokhar and posting details about their hunt and Watertown’s geography on Reddit. (The spotlight was for looking in bushes, says Luke, but its power overloaded a fuse in Luke’s van, rendering it useless.) By Friday afternoon, Luke and Cheetham had formed a tight bond. Says Luke: “Maybe Kevin is a little younger than me or into to different things, but [Reddit] is a community.”

According to general manager Erik Martin, 272,000 users were reading Reddit at the time of Dzhokhar’s arrest, 85,000 of them in a single post on the manhunt. That puts the site in direct competition with the largest U.S. news organizations.

(MORE: Two Degrees of Separation From a Bomber)

Hours after two homemade pressure-cooker bombs tore through the crowd of onlookers on Boylston Street on Monday, Redditors were posting photos of the event, picking out people wearing bags and circling them in red. When the FBI released grainy photos of the two suspects Thursday afternoon, users quickly identified the brands of hats they were wearing. That’s “the power of the crowd,” says Luke. “I would never say Kevin is smarter than a top FBI guy — although he might be — but I would rather have 10,000 Kevins than one FBI guy.”

Many Redditors followed the investigation with a fervor bordering on obsession. “I’ve been sleeping three or four hours a night because I’ve been spending so much time looking at photos and reading theories online,” says Luke.

As rumor and misinformation circled traditional and new media alike, a few like Cheetham and Luke gathered information from primary sources. “Everybody has a lot of questions, and we just want everything answered,” says Cheetham. “Instead of waiting for answers to come to us, we are trying to get them ourselves.”

The amount of information available on Reddit during the Boston manhunt was so vast that it even had the capacity to surprise authorities. According to Cheetham and Luke, a police officer who pulled them over late Thursday night was so taken aback at what they had gleaned from the Internet that he asked, “How do you have this information? Can I write this down?”

Redditors also created tools to help online spectators understand what was happening. Luke and Cheetham say they posted an interactive map showing the various locations of Thursday night’s violent spree. It was popular on Reddit, but they are quick to say that they don’t want credit. In some ways, this stance epitomizes both what’s great and what’s terrible about the Reddit collective — there is not much chance for individual glory — or personal responsibility.

(MORE: Tread on Me: The Case for Freedom From Terrorist Bombings, School Shootings and Exploding Factories)

Without the filter that news organizations have traditionally used to sort good information from bad, or the ability to confirm facts with reliable law-enforcement officials, Reddit’s hive mind is often abuzz with misinformation. None of the photos of potential suspects circulating the Internet in the days immediately following the bombing picked out the Tsarnaevs.

In a moment of unfortunate old-media-new-media synergy, the cover of the New York Post on Thursday morning featured a picture of two innocent teens, widely circulated on social media, under the headline “Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” Cheetham and Luke say Reddit realized the mistake before the Post went to press, but the reckless identity mix-ups continued.

On Thursday night, after the FBI released pictures of the Tsarnaevs but before their names were identified, Reddit users singled out Brown University student Sunil Tripathi as a match for suspect No. 2. Tripathi had gone missing in March, and rumors of a vague note left in his apartment as well as the involvement of the FBI in the missing-person search led amateur Internet sleuths to conclude Tripathi was involved.

Compounding the mistake were erroneous reports on Twitter that Tripathi’s name, along with another alleged suspect, was read aloud on the Boston police scanner. Tripathi’s family, who had launched a social-media campaign to find the missing student, endured a long night of accusations. They even had to take down the Facebook page dedicated to Tripathi’s safe return.

On Monday, Martin, Reddit’s general manager, issued an apology to the Tripathi family and others fingered in the digital hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. “Though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties,” Martin wrote. “The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”

Over the weekend, administrators unceremoniously shut down FindBostonBombers, the Reddit section that housed much of the crowdsourced information on last week’s manhunt. When asked by another Redditor whether the effort had been worth it, the Subreddit’s purported creator, a user going by the handle oops777, said, “Not even slightly.”

While Luke and Cheetham’s on-the-ground Reddit reporting isn’t the kind of information typically posted on the site, it shows yet again the power and danger of the Internet’s wide open-publishing capabilities. Information may want to be free, but there’s often a cost associated with unverified facts that are widely distributed at rapid speed.

“Over the past few days, Reddit has been tremendously important to me,” Cheetham says. “Some of the information has not been correct, but neither has the mainstream media.”

It may be naive to imagine that Redditors learned a lesson from the Boston-bombing frenzy and will be more cautious next time the site is awash in posts about a breaking-news event. Then again, there were aspects of the Boston Marathon bombing that made it ripe for Reddit in all its utility and destruction. A national-security threat, bombers on the run and maybe an opportunity to help.

MORE: Reddit and Crowdsourcing: Valuable or Problematic?