If you thought the New York Post's "Bag Men" outing was bad, the most crowdsourced terror investigation in American history transformed from Internet sleuthing of FBI photos on Thursday night into a lynch mob — from Reddit to a police scanner to social media and beyond — that led to the outing of even more innocent people as would-be suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Indeed, the chaotic overnight scene in Watertown, Massachusetts — before one actual suspect was killed and before the ongoing manhunt for the other shut down Boston — was just the latest in a series of false reports naming suspects in a terror investigation, with their foundations in Internet sleuthing. The r/findbostonbombers subreddit was a flurry activity on Thursday night, tracking down a photo not released by the FBI that appeared to be a clearer picture of the man now known as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But there was an irresponsible chase in the works, too, trying to put a name to the face of the man in the white hat, until this morning only known by his FBI description, Suspect 2: "I think i found suspect 2..." asked one Reddit thread; "Is missing student Sunil Tripathi Marathon Bomber #2?" asked another. The amateur investigators from the site — having served as a kind of unofficial proving ground for theories that made their way to the mainstream media, jumping on the clear photo, despite the Post story that had also spread on Reddit — were tying the FBI photos to a 22-year-old Brown student and this ABC News report about his having gone missing last month. There was pushback, even on Reddit — "Leave the missing guy alone" — but it was too late; the trolls on Reddit had fed an army of all-nighter trolls in the media.
On Twitter, young Internet journalists covering a shooting at MIT and a growing police scene in Watertown, were tuned in to the Boston police scanner — scanners are meant for police planning purposes, contain tons of unconfirmed information, and tend not to be reported by newspapers and television. But this has been a case unfolding in real time on social media, and so the media treated the scanner as a bridge between the amateur sleuthing that had given them a lead on the Brown student. Then came a brief blip on the scanner in the 3 a.m. hour: the names Sunil Tripathi and Mike Mulugeta, mentioned in a flurry of information. (Update: Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic has a recording of the scanner, which does not mention Tripathi's name at all, making it even more puzzling how Twitter and media latched on to his name.) It led to brief vindication from the Reddit crowd, but, more importantly, the Reddit-to-mayhem-to-Twitter-to-press domino effect was in motion. The ABC story on Tripathi was linked by numerous journalists staying up live-tweeting anything and everything; a YouTube video from his family got passed around by journalists. Media outlets repeated the names — so did Michelle Malkin. "Wow Reddit was right about the missing Brown student per the police scanner. Suspect identified as Sunil Tripathi," wrote BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski, who had been live-tweeting the scanner almost all night, before deleting his tweet with the false names. There was immediate pushback from other journalists, reminding the flurry of younger, Internet-first reporters that the scanner is unconfirmed.
Of course, now we know that neither Tripathi or Mulugeta are or were the suspects, with authorities pursuing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and after killing his brother Tamerlan. But the damage to Tripathi and his family is already done — Mulugeta didn't have an already outed public story to be retold in the game of dominoes. But these men are just some of the many innocent people who have had their names and details passed around the mainstream media, the Internet, and beyond — and the passing started gaining traction on Reddit, where regret continues to set in.
Indeed, doxxings — the Reddit term for outing someone, connecting personal information about people to news that sees in high demand — aren't harmless, especially when you're dealing with a manhunt. One of Reddit's "bag suspects" made its way to tabloid editors, who turned into the front page of Thursday's New York Post as "BAG MEN"... but one of those men turned out to be Sala Barhoum, an innocent track star, who was so terrified that he turned himself into the state police. "I was there about 25 minutes but I was very frightened. I still am – my photograph is all over the internet and I worry that someone, a mad person, might come after me and my family," he told the Daily Mail. "I'm going to be scared going to school," Barhoum said. "Workwise, my family, everything is going to be scary," he told the AP. The family of Tripathi has taken the attention with an unbelievable strength, updating their Facebook page with the following message:
But imagine seeing your missing son's face and name associated with a deadly atrocity. Imagine that.
In general, Reddit doesn't approve of doxxings for this very reason. But Redditors have a long history of selectively enforcing these rules. In the case of the Boston Marathon Bombings suspects, Reddit decided it was okay not just to seek out but toidentify the people it thought was involved, for all of the Internet — and the world — to see. Of course, there is some value in using crowdsourced information as clues. A man who snapped a a photo and posted it to his Facebook happened to catch a picture of what looked like the suspect. It ultimately made its way to Reddit and then into the FBI's hands, and The New York Times. That's arguably different than going wild searching out for people with similar faces and colorings as some blurry photos. The FBI did ask for help — "The response from the community has been tremendous," the co-founder of a new FBI tip site told The Boston Globe last night — but it didn't ask for allegations to be made publicly: In releasing 12 images Friday night, FBI special agent in charge Richard DesLauriers said that "these images should be the only ones, I emphasize the only ones, that the public should view to assist us. Other photos should not be deemed credible and they unnecessarily divert the public's attention in the wrong direction and create undue work for vital law enforcement resources."
Turns out, it wasn't the new photo sleuthing that misdirected social media and the mainstream media — it was the naming of names. It was the above-and-beyond trolling that Reddit tries to counteract, but which Reddit can't keep from escaping into the wild as the media continues to trust its influence. Of course the blame doesn't just fall on Reddit, where apologies are flooding in — or 4Chan, which was also sleuthing for Boston — and the people who took them as seriously as confirmed police reporting are the ones who may have been taken the outing from viral to hurtful. Looking for the "scoop" on a story, some over excitable journalists connected the Boston scanner, Twitter feed and all, to the theories elsewhere online. But cops talking on a radio sometimes don't provide any more confirmation than trolls posting on a subreddit — combined, they are dangerous to people's lives, in an already all-too-dangerous situation.
On Monday, one media critic called Twitter the press's ombudsman, giving a more sober, slower, measured version of the news, having learned the lessons of Newtown. For a moment, it seemed like the Internet had redeemed itself. Then Thursday night bled into Friday morning, and as a truly chaotic police situation unfolded, the seedy underbelly of the Internet left some good names maimed in public. In perhaps a strange bit of irony, Reddit got hacked.