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Apr 24 2013

No More Trial by Twitter

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.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin

    Is there even a person named Mulugeta?

    Wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it was the name of somebody jaywalking or something.

    And how does “listening to the police announce a name over the scanner” equate to “we found who the bomber is before anyone else”? If you listened to it over the police scanner, that means the police have already broken the case. You’re merely reporting something that the police already know.

    Fucking morons. Don’t know the difference between investigating and reporting.

  2. 2
    sivivolk

    Also, as Alex Hern at the New Statesman pointed out, because Reddit could point out so many people, if one of those “potential suspects” ended up being a police suspect, Reddit could trumpet their role without having to acknowledge the ton of false positives.

    http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2013/04/4chan-plays-racist-wheres-wally-find-boston-bomber

  3. 3
    Gretchen

    The internet is excellent at charity. The internet is also excellent at righteous indignation without limit. Some of the latter leads to the former, but it also leads to a desire to punish. And to punish, you have to identify. The internet is, unfortunately, lacking in 1) any particular incentive to identify the right people, and 2) any concept of when to stop.

    How to fix this? I have no earthly idea.

  4. 4
    Kevin

    @Gretchen: Yes, let’s just name everyone in the world who ever lived. Then, by definition, you’ll be right. Checkmate!

    And again, what is this “find the right person” thing? The people who “found the right person” were the police.

    Some folks with smartphones helped by providing photos and videos. Some business with security cameras also helped.

    Reddit did fuck-all to “find the right person”. They merely spread a false rumor that the police had identified the “right person”. That is not “finding the right person”. That’s reporting on the the potential identity of someone who is known to the police.

    Again, there is a difference between reporting and investigating. Reddit did both wrong, and confused one with the other. Badly.

  5. 5
    Kevin

    Oh yeah, one more thing about the “lamestream media”.

    I used to work for the “lamestream media”. And there’s one thing I know. During all of this, someone’s actual paid job — with benefits and health insurance and everything — was to keep their ear glued to the police scanners.

    Do Reddit people think they’re the only ones who can listen to police scanners? How in the world is this “breaking the news first”?

    Fucking morons.

  6. 6
    Ulgaa

    News sites are reporting that a body found in a river may be Sunil Tripathi.

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/body-pulled-river-brown-university-student-sunil-tripathi/story?id=19031402#.UXgkNMrnZss

  7. 7
    ChasCPeterson

    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

    The Post isn’t that stupid. They printed the photo–of two guys with bags–and labeled it, literally, “bag men”. That’s all they did. At the time, the implication was that they were the bombers…but a deniable implication only. (irt doesn’t even make sense for bombers to have a bagman, in conventional criminal parlance)

  8. 8
    Modusoperandi

    Kids these days! Back in my day, we didn’t use the Twitter for such nonsense! Instead, we gathered the whole family ’round the CRT and received pictures of Anthony Weiner’s crotch.
    Sure, you kids are pretty blasé about such things now, but at the time it generated quite the hub-bub.

  9. 9
    mojave66

    Reddit & 4chan fucked up here, no doubt. But one thing that I’ve yet to see mentioned is how quickly Reddit became a resource for folks stranded in Boston and needing a place to stay, transportation, airline tickets and the like. That’s where crowdsourcing is AMAZING. While Gretchen Karr has a great point about how a few very high-profile cases are as much about guilt as they are about a sincere wish to help, there are also tons of smaller stories on Reddit about folks who get all sorts of help, small and large. Again, crowdsourcing at its best. If I end up in a situation some did in Boston, Reddit is going to be one of the first places I look for help and immediate information– with a huge grain of salt for the latter.

    This was crowdsourcing at its worst, and I hope cybercommunities remember that experts are experts for a reason.

  10. 10
    baal

    ” The internet is also excellent at righteous indignation without limit. ”

    That it is. I suggest advocacy for proportionality and advocacy for making statements based on facts and context rather than ideology is a very good place to start solving #2 (teaching people when to stop).

    There are a rather large number of folks who are all too happy to bend each and every thing to their ideology and they actively argue against proportionality and arguing from a foundation. They may even be very near by.*

    *I’m expecting a shiv any minute now.

  11. 11
    Who Knows?

    Game changer? I guess if you think digital vigilantism is a good thing. But then, it’s nothing new.

  12. 12
    Gretchen

    mojave66 said:

    While Gretchen Karr has a great point about how a few very high-profile cases are as much about guilt as they are about a sincere wish to help

    If you meant my blog post, I don’t think I said that guilt and a sincere wish to help are mutually exclusive. I intended to suggest the opposite, actually. And it’s Koch, not Karr.

    If you didn’t mean me, then please ignore this comment. :-)

  13. 13
    ambulocetacean

    The idiots at 4chan (NSFW) were doing this for days as well, churning through “suspect” after “suspect” — basically anybody who was photographed carrying a bulky backpack.
    .
    It was a days-long circle-jerk of self-congratulation, and when they finally realised that they were all completely wrong they started whining about how they didn’t have all the information that the cops did.
    .
    They don’t care that people could have been hurt or killed as a result of their stupidity. It’s all just a game to them.

  14. 14
    drizzt

    When will these people understand the difference between sending pictures to the cops so they can analyze them, and analyzing them themselves, with all the biases and hatred and lack of knowledge etc…

    Baah, never… there will always be nuts. The problem is how do we keep them from influencing real mainstream media ? Shit in 20 years we’ll have a breitbart site that’s like pre-crime or something, trying to indentify terrorists even before they are born!

  15. 15
    khms

    Remember also that it’s not just Internet crowds who do this thing. Real-world mobs are very good at doing it. And occasionally, even the police cannot resist.

    It is, unfortunately, a very human inclination.

  16. 16
    democommie

    “Fucking morons. Don’t know the difference between investigating and MAKING SHIT UP.”

    TFTFY.

  17. 17
    Aaron

    I have no doubt that this will not stop Reddit and 4Chan from repeating the same process with the same results over and over. And occasionally someone will get a hit and everyone will cheer and all the misses will be forgotten. They brew and drink their own kool-aid.

  18. 18
    mojave66

    >If you meant my blog post, I don’t think I said that guilt and a sincere wish to help are mutually exclusive. I intended to suggest the opposite, actually. And it’s Koch, not Karr.

    My apologies! I was on a phone and am very nearsighted to begin with. Plus, I apparently need a refresher course in reading comprehension.

  19. 19
    Ichthyic

    Again, crowdsourcing at its best. If I end up in a situation some did in Boston, Reddit is going to be one of the first places I look for help and immediate information– with a huge grain of salt for the latter.

    hey, if the river is polluted, you might seek another river for your drinking water.

    there’s simply no need for Reddit to exist any more.

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