One of the most appalling aspects of last week’s search for the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings was the fact that several people had their names smeared because they were named as suspects — not by the police or the FBI, but by people on Reddit, Twitter and other internet forums who thought they were helping the authorities find the bad guys and ended up hurting good guys instead. Alexes Madrigal has a breakdown of how Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student, and someone named Mike Mulugeta ended up having their names blasted all over the world as a suspect.
The story begins with speculation on Twitter and Reddit that a missing Brown student, Sunil Tripathi, was one of the bombers. One person who went to high school with him thought she recognized him in the surveillance photographs. People compared photos they could find of him to the surveillance photos released by the FBI. It was a leading theory on the subreddit devoted to investigating the bombing that Tripathi was one of the terrorists responsible for the crime.
Meanwhile, at 2:14am Eastern, an official on the police scanner said, “Last name: Mulugeta, M-U-L-U-G-E-T-A, M as in Mike, Mulugeta.” And thus was born the newest suspect in the case: Mike Mulugeta. It doesn’t appear that Mulugeta, whoever he or she is, has a first name of Mike. And yet that name, “Mike Mulugeta,” was about to become notorious…
At 2:42am, Greg Hughes, who had been following the Tripathi speculation, tweeted, “This is the Internet’s test of ‘be right, not first’ with the reporting of this story. So far, people are doing a great job. #Watertown” Then, at 2:43am,he tweeted, “BPD has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.”
The only problem is that there is no mention of Sunil Tripathi in the audio preceding Hughes’ tweet. I’ve listened to it a dozen times and there’s nothing there even remotely resembling Tripathi’s name. I’ve embedded the audio from 2:35 to 2:45 am for your own inspection. Multiple groups of people have been crowdsourcing logs of the police scanner chatter and none of them have found a reference to Tripathi, either. It’s just not there…
Yet the information was spreading like crazy. Seven minutes after Hughes’ tweet, Kevin Michael (@KallMeG), a cameraman for the Hartford, Connecticut CBS affiliate, tweeted, “BPD scanner has identified the names : Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi. #Boston #MIT.” More media people started to pick things up around then, BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski most quickly. His original tweet has since been deleted but retweets of it began before midnight and reached far and wide. Other media people including Digg’sRoss Newman, Politico’s Dylan Byers, and Newsweek’s Brian Ries also tweeted about the scanner ID as midnight approached. Then, at 3am Eastern*, @YourAnonNews, Anonymous’ main Twitter account tweeted, “Police on scanner identify the names of #BostonMarathon suspects in gunfight, Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.”…By this time, there was a full-on frenzy as thousand upon thousands of tweets poured out, many celebrating new media’s victory in trouncing old media. It was all so shockingly new and the pitch was so high and it was so late at night on one of the craziest days in memory. That Redditors might have identified the bomber hours before anyone but law enforcement seemed like amazing redemption for people who’d supported Reddit’s crowdsourcing efforts.
Hughes himself, the primary source of the information on Twitter, tweeted, “If Sunil Tripathi did indeed commit this #BostonBombing, Reddit has scored a significant, game-changing victory.” And then later, he continued, “Journalism students take note: tonight, the best reporting was crowdsourced, digital and done by bystanders. #Watertown.”
As we all know now, none of this was even remotely close to being true. Add to this a local high school student whose face was splashed all over the front page of the New York Post as a “bag men” for the bombers; he had nothing at all to do with it either. This is why this whole idea of internet communities banding together to help the police does nothing of the sort.
There are two different types of crowdsourcing that are possible here. The first is what the police wanted, which was for anyone who had video or still images of the area that was bombed to send those files in to them for analysis. And people responded with huge amounts of data that really did help the police find out who did it. The second kind is what happened on Reddit and other places, where individuals with no experience in such matters and no access to any information other than Google decided to crack the case themselves and ended up doing far more damage than good.
As Madrigal’s dissection shows, what happens is like the biggest game of telephone ever — it gets mentioned by one person as a possibility and, by the time it is blasted all around the world it’s been embellished and exaggerated. And there’s no way of knowing if the initial identification was even close (and in this case, none of them were). It’s perfectly fine and quite useful for someone to look at those images, think they may have an idea who someone in the picture might be and then forward that speculation to the police, who can really do some digging to find out before any names are put out.
But the last thing anyone should do is come up with such a name and then put it out on the internet for all to see. Real people, innocent people, get hurt because of this crap. I hope this serves as a lesson that will prevent this from happening in the future, but I doubt it will.