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Columnists Internet vigilantism: The crowd-sourced court is now in session

The Internet is brimming with people who want to help. To help you prune an orchid, perfect the shape of your gnocchi. Shortly after the bombings this week, hundreds of Bostonians posted offers of accommodations, spare rooms and couches.

Most assistance is graciously received, yet I was surprised last week to see how many people embraced the announcement by the self-appointed public conscience Anonymous that it had investigated the unbearably sad Nova Scotia case of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, who killed herself after she was allegedly gang-raped at a summer party, then was tormented over the incident.

Anonymous claimed that it had found the four young men responsible. "Rehtaeh Parsons Rape Case Solved By Anonymous in Less Than 2 Hours Despite 'No Evidence,' " declared a much-shared and celebrated post on the website PolicyMic. Of course, no charges had been laid, so "solved" wasn't really the right word.

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What Anonymous did wasn't substantially different than what a journalist working on a crime story does. It asked questions, collected names and other details, all of which are essentially still hearsay (or, in this case, eHearsay). Imagine the outcry if a news organization threatened to release names if police didn't reopen a case, as Anonymous did – shortly before saying that it wouldn't release names after all and that two of the four are innocent anyway.

I'm almost as uncomfortable with this declaration that two are innocent as I am with their insistence that two are guilty – they are, in fact, referred to as "rapists" in one of the statements Anonymous issued.

The police had already investigated the incident, knew the names of the young men allegedly involved and declared that there wasn't enough evidence to lay charges. Were they correct in that conclusion? Many suspect not, and there was already a lot of public pressure to reopen the case before Anonymous came along. Indeed, it has been reopened, but anyone gleefully attributing this to Anonymous might want to consider to whom they're entrusting the meting out of justice.

Anonymous as an organization doesn't really exist. It's more of a meme – a concept, or behaviour that spreads within a community – than an agency. Anyone who says they're Anonymous is Anonymous, which makes the groundswell of support its actions received so understandable.

I think a lot of us, upon learning of Rehtaeh's death, wanted to go to Nova Scotia and shake those kids until something that looked closer to truth came out. Anonymous's motivations are much like ours, and it can be difficult to remember that the presumption of innocence should be given more weight, not less, the more heinous the crime; the part that is almost the best in us screams otherwise.

Anonymous is not composed of superheroes, nor is it evil. Anonymous is just your nephew, or your neighbour, or you. We cede our pursuit of justice to that highly distractable quarter to our peril.

One only had to see that massive game of Where's Waldo? taking place on Reddit this week to witness both the good intention, the potential and the problems inherent in crowd-sourced jurisprudence.

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Hundreds of photographs of those who gathered to watch the Boston Marathon were uploaded and scanned for people carrying backpacks, or looking preoccupied, or who merely fit the poster's conception of what the perpetrator must look like. Of course, thousands of "suspects" were isolated, and right up until officials made the real ones public, Redditors continued to identify the wrong people.

Some scanned eBay looking for anyone who had bought pressure cookers like the ones used to make the bombs. Others (the Internet is often a laudably self-cleaning organ) then pointed out that the purchaser had also bought, say, cookie cutters, making their culinary-oriented acquisitions less suspicious.

Yet it's not hard to imagine selling a pressure cooker (a cooking utensil that hasn't received this much attention since the seventies. America may soon have a "First they come for your yogurt maker …" situation on its hands) and being pressured to give up the buyer, to the detriment of some poor soul merely planning to make a lot of pot roasts.

When considering the power of the Internet, it's worth remembering our history with radiation: It is useful and saves lives, yet in our original enthusiasm for it, there was time when we put radium in toothpaste.

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