In age of real-time news, social media and Web crowdsourcing, wrong Boston bombing suspects ID’d online

If you weren’t glued to Twitter last night and early this morning amid the chaos in Boston, you might have missed how the Internet, social media and real-time news affected coverage of the pursuit of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects: At one point, two people were misidentified as the suspects.

A quick summary of what has happened, at least as of this post: Boston is locked down. One of the suspects is dead after a shootout with police that began Thursday night, but there is now a manhunt for the second suspect. The mayhem erupted last night after the suspects shot dead an MIT police officer, according to authorities. The suspects’ names: Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. They are brothers, and stories about them now abound.

But for a while there last night, there were two other names floating around on Twitter and elsewhere, supposedly of the suspects — as people caught up in the rush of watching news break on their feeds tweeted declarations of the mainstream media being dead even while they retweeted reporters who were on the scene, working for such organizations as the Boston Globe and the New York Times.

One of those misidentified as a suspect was Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who has been missing since mid-March. Many people had tuned in to Boston police department scanners during the chaos, and there were tweets — it’s tough to pinpoint the first mention, and it very well may have been the case — that said they heard the PD say the names of the two suspects were Tripathi and a friend (it’s pointless to name him here, now). Here’s where, as some have written, crowdsourcing went wrong: Some members of Reddit, the online forum, were attempting to find the suspects using the videos and photos released by the FBI, and had speculated that Tripathi might be one of the suspects. Vindication and jubilation, on Reddit and elsewhere, ensued.

And so a Facebook page set up by Tripathi’s family called Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi was reportedly taken down for a while last night after accusatory and abusive posts. Except, as we now know: Tripathi was not a suspect. The page is back up today, with a note reading, in part: “A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours. We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.” So a family frantically trying to find their missing loved one was pulled into the whole circus.

The Internet and social media and technology as a whole — no matter who’s using them, because some members of the mainstream media were also retweeting unconfirmed information last night — they’re all players when big, breaking news occurs. As events continue to unfold in Boston, for example, the police department has asked on Twitter and elsewhere that the media not broadcast live video of the manhunt to avoid compromising officers’ safety.

It was probably inevitable that mostly well-meaning people would want to try to use tech tools to try to find the bombers after officials basically issued out a crowdsourcing plea by releasing photos and videos of the suspects. But the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal writes: “This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline that allows this to go on. Imagine if people were standing around in Boston pointing fingers at people in photographs and (roughly) accusing them of terrorism.”


Photo above: A member of the SWAT team trains a gun on an apartment building in Watertown, Mass., during a search Friday for the remaining suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)



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  • WisdomWouldBeWelcome

    Very glad you investigated and posted this, Isuma.

    I hope the MSM pick it up, as they surely should.