So now there are two official suspects in Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, but for a time Wednesday and Thursday, the Internet -- and one mainstream tabloid -- had zeroed in on two other faces in the crowd.
The wrong faces, as it turns out.
The two men framed -- literally -- in red circles went up online Wednesday morning, but by midday Thursday the circles were gone, the two young men no longer "persons of interest" sought by federal authorities.
The damage had been done, nonetheless -- on blogs, Flickr, Reddit and in the New York Post ("Bag Men," its headline screamed, in reference to the heavy backpacks the young men toted), even as one of those young men -- a 17-year old track star from New Jersey -- rushed to the police to clear his name.
"Going to the court right now!!" he posted on his Facebook page before taking it down. "But u will see guys [I] did not do anything."
He was right, but the unprecedented wave of amateur online detectives hunting for culprits in Monday's bombing seems to have ushered in a new phenomenon: investigation by crowd-sourcing.
And that, according to retired FBI agent Larry Likar, is not necessarily a good thing.
"Not only does it put a lot of pressure on investigators to come up with a suspect, it's just the sheer numbers of people doing this, with a total lack of concern for anyone's privacy. It's really terrible," said Mr. Likar, now a professor and chair of the Department of Justice, Law and Security at La Roche College in McCandless.
While it's possible that the bombing, which killed three and injured 176, was an act of terrorism, "we don't even know that yet," he added. "It's still a debatable issue. It could very well have been someone with a grudge against the Boston Marathon."
Mr. Likar has been contacted by numerous media outlets in this country and overseas "who are looking for a terrorism expert to talk to, but have made no actual attempt, as far as I can see, to find out whether I know anything about the subject."
Wednesday's perfect storm of speculation and finger-pointing at the would-be bombers -- the two young men, it was repeatedly noted, were dark-skinned -- is perhaps inevitable in this era of Reddit, Twitter and Facebook: photos are posted on the Web, only to be picked up by different law enforcement agencies who post them onto bulletins which are then leaked to the media. Despite no evidence implicating them, these people's images are getting their 15 minutes of Internet fame: there's "the blue robe guy" and the "brown sweatshirt guy."
The New York Post retreated from its earlier assertion about the two young men Thursday afternoon, removing the red circles from the photo it had posted earlier -- and emblazoned on the front of the print tabloid -- announcing that the young men had been cleared.
But for some it was an all too-similar reminder of Richard Jewell, the security guard present at the Olympic Park bombings in 1996 who was wrongly identified as a person of interest by some media outlets, only later to recover millions of dollars in damages from NBC and CNN. When he died in 2007, he was still in the middle of lawsuits against other media companies for defamation.
"We can cause great harm to individuals and to the investigation when we suggest people are suspects and when we show images with red circles around the people, making them appear to be targets," wrote Al Tompkins, a media consultant, on Poynter.com, a website for journalists. "Slow down. Today, I'm thinking of Jewell. Let's not repeat that mistake again."
Thursday, Reddit seemed to have gotten that message, and in its "FindBostonBombers" subreddit -- a message board on its website -- there are a number of threads that seem to be telling users to go slow. There's a list of "innocent suspects." Another thread instructs users to stop posting "about the two males that the media have claimed the FBI are looking for."
"They are local guys and appear to be innocent. PLEASE DO NOT POST ANY MORE ON THEM, ESPECIALLY LINKS TO NEWS SITES THAT IDENTIFIES THEM."
And then, this: "Media outlets, please stop making the images of potential suspects go viral, then blaming this small subreddit for it."
Still, was someone defamed or was his privacy violated when his image went up online, along with the words "person of interest"?
While privacy isn't explicitly guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, the courts have treated any number of aspects of life as private, said David Harris, an associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh Law School and expert on privacy and police practices.
Parks, streets and marathon finish lines aren't among them.
"You're outside. The fundamental way we think of privacy is when you're in a public space, you don't have an expectation of privacy," he said.
However, if a blogger or news organization going through images or videos of the crowds at Monday's marathon "sees some guy in a white hat, and in one image he has a backpack and another he doesn't, and you put those photos up and circle the guy as looking like a suspect, now you have something."
But not a violation of privacy, Mr. Harris added.
"This is not about something being private, it's about what is being said about you," and online speculation about the two young men in the red circles could provide legal grounds for a lawsuit on the basis that they were portrayed "in a false light," he said.
There is an upside. The recent Steubenville rape trial might not have ended the way it did if it wasn't for the incriminating posts on Twitter and Facebook.
"As disgusting as some of the things were said, none of that stuff is actually a shock to hear out of the mouth of a 17-year-old kid, and the fact that it kept being repeated online helped the investigation," noted Mr. Harris. "So if we have a million bloggers looking at a million video streams who see a guy with a backpack or duffle bag and 10 seconds later they don't, there's nothing wrong with that."
But perhaps the media, and everyone else, needs to take a deep breath, he said.
"Everyone wants, believe it or not, for these persons to be caught, rather than to find it out first. I for one will be very glad if the news comes to me a little bit later, if that means the investigation has been done in the right way and they get the right people."
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.