“The Boston manhunt is an example of how things can go wrong,” says Rahwan. “It appears that information was very much misdirected. This may be, in part, due to the high profile of the event, which led everyone to want to help even if they were incapable or misinformed.”
“There may be a tradeoff between mass mobilization and effective mobilization of a more specialized group of reliable and well-informed individuals,” Rahwan adds. “Having too many people involved might actually make things worse.” He and his colleagues have begun to explore schemes for supporting the checking and verification of crowdsourced reporting.
“I think the web-enhanced ‘collective detective’ is potentially very powerful and is here to stay,” says Dodds. And it's not just about finding bad guys, he says. Missing children might be sought this way, too, for example. “But we have to ensure that the distributed social search is always used for good — for example, that well-intentioned people are prevented from collectively generating errors leading to witch hunts.”