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.

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