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April 19, 2013

How REDDIT identified innocent men as the bombers and probably ruined their lives

It turns out that looking at pictures of people with bags in a crowd and getting a really good feeling about them isn't the same as doing actual investigative work. And probably you shouldn't launch an internet tough guy manhunt after anyone ever based on anything someone says on REDDIT. Funny thing: Remember last year when Gawker outed a REDDIT superuser as a pedophile and REDDIT responded to the outing not by apologizing and taking action against the pedophile, but instead by attacking the intrusion into their private world and banning all links to Gawker? Good times. How Reddit Fueled the Scanner-Happy Media to Out Innocent Boston 'Suspects' - Rebecca Greenfield - The Atlantic Wire
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.