We All Want to Be the Police: Crowdsourcing, Fantasy and National Tragedy

It wasn’t surprising that the media was debating who had perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings just moments after the tragic events happened—and immediately began asking questions about when the FBI would hold a press briefing. It wasn’t surprising that angry citizens demanded answers by the time the sun set on Monday. We live in a world of constant connection where we can access information with the touch of a button, so why wouldn’t we expect that crimes be solved just as quickly? The regular parade of accusations was trotted out: The police weren’t working quickly enough, The FBI tech experts had no idea what they’re doing, We the People have better technology than the government does.

Then something happened: Completely untrained amateurs decided to indulge their Sherlockian fantasies by hopping on Reddit and 4Chan to analyze bombing footage and find suspects. What seemed like a well-intended civic action carried out by a diverse group of citizens instead came to reveal startling truths about the civil state of Americans and their relationship to control and its attendant fantasies. What happened is perhaps best summed up with Nietzsche’s classic observation that staring into the abyss is not without its own set of risks. What emerged from Reddit and 4Chan was nothing more than an example par excellence of aesthetic policing.

Crowdsourced Investigation: All that je nais se quoi

As I scrolled through the Boston Marathon bombing images analyzed by 4Chan members and the now-deleted images posted by Reddit users, my fears about what crowdsourced investigation might mean were confirmed. Users sourced photos from the Internet and appended their observations, pointing to “suspicious backpacks”, “foreign-looking people” and “weird-looking people”. That’s no joke there; those are the three themes that emerged again and again. One user went so far as to draw the outline of a pressure cooker on the outside of a so-called suspect’s backpack. It was ridiculous, yet many people took it seriously.

That the crowdsourced “analysis”, as it were, was motivated only by surface visuals was blatant. The text written on pictures bore statements such as “looks like a deranged agent” and “creepy looking”. One image on 4Chan bore the text “same clothing, same backpack, same hat, same skin tones” and “secret police/military equipments”. All of this was happening while generally reputable news agencies were chasing Reddit leads and social media commentators were lauding this new move in crime fighting. Many of the individuals posting on the now-defunct Reddit subsite, as well as some Twitter and Facebook users, even suggested that the Redditors were more capable of using technology to find suspects than the FBI and other agencies assisting in the investigation.

And then things started to fall apart. A Redditor reposted a tweet by a young woman who claimed that she recognized the second suspect as missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi. Some news outlets claimed that they’d heard Tripathi’s name mentioned as suspect number two on the Boston P.D. scanner. Angry, nasty comments quickly filled the Facebook page the family had started in an effort to find their son. The time period between when the accusation was first posted and when Sunil’s family begun to notice the nasty comments was incredibly brief.

Of course, what happened to Sunil’s family—and no doubt to others who were falsely accused of being terrorists by the two websites’ users—is an illustration of how quickly a witch hunt can begin. But it’s also an illustration of something vastly more sinister: of a fantastic desire for control that seems to be always lurking just beneath the surface of polite society. This illustration of the gap between our everyday, symbolic world and its fantasmatic support, as Slavoj Žižek and other Lacanians might characterize it, is incredibly poignant because it demonstrates that the police state has never been on the outside of our everyday lives.

The Fantasy of Investigation

Before we can consider what it means for a Reddit user to realize that she behaves exactly like the law enforcement agencies she calls racist and inept, we have to understand where this fantastical idea of being a self-made investigator originates. Amateur detectives have been around for as long as the detective story. What’s different today is that these untrained investigators are relying largely on evidence removed from its context.

Think of an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: It’s all about physical evidence. The folks in the lab do high-tech tests and almost always arrest a suspect before the episode ends. They don’t tend to spend a lot of time chasing gossipy leads because they don’t need to deal with such ephemeral things. They have the concrete evidence, that bit of blood spatter or piece of pipe that has been removed from the crime scene and now rests in the laboratory environment. When they enlarge and enhance images, they end up with crystal-clear high res photos with easily identifiable faces of suspects who clearly display their emotions. As the online crowd was reminded here, that’s not really how crime investigation works.

When we look the crowd at the Marathon in the hours leading up to the blasts, we project upon it our own ideas, desires and prejudices. Disheartening though it may be, we have no idea what we’re doing. We’re gazing at the photo from a stance of pure ideology; we have this thought that we’re looking at this image without the preconceived notions that we are very sure the police and the FBI are going to bring to these same images.

But as Žižek has written in his essay “Fantasy as a Political Category”, “Ideological identification exerts a true hold on us precisely when we maintain an awareness that we are not fully identical to it, that there is a rich human person beneath it.” (Blackwell 1999, 97.) The thought that we’ll do this with more objectivity than they can betrays us immediately, because it awakens the fantasy that our mindset is outside that of our own experiences and the perceptions which have shaped us. What actually happens when most amateur detectives look at crime scene footage is that they see the lessons they have learned from portrayals of crime on TV, in the newspaper and in film projected on top of the images that they are looking at. This is why the Redditors spent so much time pointing out that this-or-that suspect looked creepy, or funny, or Muslim, or brown.

Framing the Fantasy

The problem with the way that we perceive images and stories about criminal acts is that we are perhaps too overeager to believe that we understand why other people act as they do. CSI and Law & Order rarely show us the complexity of desires and motivations behind a crime; they show the aftermath of the crimes. Thanks to shows like Numbers and The Profiler, we might even have a false sense that we understand why serial killers and terrorists do what they do. We take this truncated and deeply mediated information and carry it over into how we understand the crimes that happen around us. We sometimes even use what we’ve learned to predict that a kid we know is probably the next Jeffrey Dahmer because he wets the bed.

It was this same mediated information that the Redditors and 4Chan folks took into their crowdsourced “investigation.” They saw all of their pop culture-generated fantasies about crime in the photos. They applied racial and ethnic criteria to the photos that many of them have no doubt railed against in the past. We like to say that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about where terrorists or from or what religion they might practice, but we certainly love to jump to those conclusions. We like shortcuts. We want answers and we’re sure that we can find them – or perhaps generate them.

How is it that people, in this case the crowdsourcing investigators, behave in a way that is so diametrically opposite to what they purport to believe about critical matters such as racism, due process, civil rights? This is, of course, all about control. To borrow Michel Foucault’s famous example, prisoners who take over the guard tower of a jail haven’t changed the nature of the guard tower just because they’re in it. In fact, they just might start acting like the guards they killed to get there.

The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, revealed that regular university students put into the roles of prison guards or inmates did indeed act like either power-hungry enforcers or outraged criminals. Our actions are largely conditioned by the space in which we find ourselves. This doesn’t excuse us from personal culpability. If anything, recognizing this terrible truth about ourselves – that we’re quick to judge, quick to jump to conclusions, and quick to voice our uneducated opinions — is the best means we have of acting ethically. When we long to help identify a bomber with our technical sleuth work but can’t recognize these essential ideological conditions, we are simply inserting ourselves into that position of control that we think others are abusing.

At the very heart of control—or power, if you want to call it that—is inequality. For the sake of brevity, let’s say that control is the organic result of our interactions with one another and with the world around us. In every exchange, every transaction, someone is in control and someone is not. It happens in our relationships, it happens when we vote, it happens when we let someone cut in front of us in the grocery store. When we step into the framework that the authority has vacated, we do what that framework will allow. In the case of the Redditors, that meant relying on the visual markers of what the participants view as “ethnicity” and “weirdness”. It is the very idea that we are all about equality and fairness that enables us to be so unfair.

Every now and again, you hear a narrator in a police procedural say something like “The problem with cops is that they’re people.” Redditors are thusly afflicted. Instead of creating a constructive discourse in which ideas about improving crime detection mechanisms could be discussed, they become a prime example of over identifying with an ideology. Detectives who spend their lives looking at crime scene photos are, of course, motivated by desires and held in place by ideological constraints. But they also aren’t always the overzealous, surface-driven characters we meet on some of America’s most popular TV shows. In fact, many of these folks have spent a lot of time thinking about how they can most effectively occupy the position of control that they are in, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. They know about this position both from mediated representations and from working within the circle of power.

The danger in occupying a position that we only know about via mediated representations is that there’s nothing genuine about what we’ll do with our new-found control. Redditors could only regurgitate the type of information they’ve learned from the news and crime dramas. They made a spectacle of themselves and revealed deeply held attitudes about crime in society precisely because all they did was enact a role. They didn’t voice their ethical concerns about what they were doing. At the end of the day, they never were detectives. They were behaving like bullies, whose actions had serious consequences for the wrongfully accused. We should be just as outraged at what those citizens did as we were the first time we saw The Thin Blue Line or heard one of the countless stories about individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of a crime and sent to prison to pay a debt they never owed. In the end, crowdsourced investigation proved to be just another form of injustice.