When the news is filled with stories of explosions and gunfire and ricin-laced letters, it can be hard to remember that words still have power in this world.
But they do, for better or worse — and we saw the full force of this late yesterday and early today, when self-proclaimed social media vigilantes made a false connection between a photo of a Boston bombing suspect and Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student missing since mid-March.
Based on the scattered information about this, it’s hard to tell how this pernicious idea took flight. It seems like a perfect storm of misinformation from several places: A disturbingly self-congratulatory Reddit thread (the Reddit moderator apologized to Tripathi’s family); Tweets saying that Tripathi’s name was supposedly mentioned on a Boston police scanner; a Twitter post from an old classmate of Tripathi’s who thought he looked an awful lot like one of the Boston bombing suspects; and the NBC Cleveland affiliate that made the erroneous leap of identifying Tripathi as a suspect despite the lack of any evidence.
There are so many horrifying things about this, I don’t even know where to start. But here’s my best shot at summarizing what we can learn from this shameful mistake:
1.) Just because we have access to the Internet, it doesn’t mean we’re “citizen detectives.” Salon.com published a great piece about how while the Web played an important role in rapidly disseminating information that led to the successful ID of the Boston bombers, it also led to an alarming number of “citizen detectives” who falsely identified and accused Sunil Tripathi. The fallout that followed was awful — Tripathi’s family had to take down the Facebook page set up to help find Sunil because of the abusive comments. Fortunately, the page is back up and the apologies are rolling in, but the Internet owes the Tripathi family a collective apology for this witch-hunt style behavior.
2.) Just because we have the ability to post breaking news whenever we want, it doesn’t mean we should do it without substantiating facts. The ability to share information across the world with the touch of a button is a good thing. Just look at the role Twitter played in the Arab Spring or how mass media alerts spread the word that Boston residents should stay inside due to one of the bombing suspects being on the loose in the area (let’s hope he’s apprehended quickly and that the city of Boston is able to begin healing soon). But we need to acknowledge the danger of this as well. What if Tripathi’s name hadn’t been cleared so quickly? Who knows how many people’s names live on on the Internet, connected to pasts or crimes that they have no part in?
3.) Just because you’re a “regular person” posting something on the Internet, it doesn’t mean you aren’t publishing for the world to see. In the age of the Internet, we are ALL self-published. Everything we post on Twitter, Facebook or a blog is a piece of content that’s published for the public to read. As an editor, I come across a lot of crazy comments on the Web every day — for better or worse, the Internet gives voice to any rant or rave by anyone who wants their ideas to be heard. Again, democratizing debate can be a good thing. But when we use these tools to slander or launch smear campaigns (however unwittingly) we should take pause and remember that the only publishers aren’t newspapers or book publishers. We need to take this responsibility seriously.
4.) Just because somebody has brown skin or seems different, it doesn’t mean they fit the profile of a terrorist. I shouldn’t even have to add this to the list, but the events of the last day prove that I do. As Angry Asian Man points out, Tripathi bears little resemblance to the photos released of the Boston bombing suspects. But that’s besides the point. When we let horrible acts carried out by a few disturbed individuals affect how we treat entire groups of people, our society continues to be a victim of terrorism every day by surrendering our sense of humanity. Remember the Saudi Marathon Man, whose unfair, harsh treatment after the bombing was so poignantly profiled by The New Yorker.
Lastly, as Angry Asian Man also points out, Sunil Tripathi is still missing — and he has been since March 16th. If we have to find a silver lining in the madness involving his name over the last 24 hours, let’s hope that the spotlight raises awareness and brings him home.
Last night I ended up hanging out in the subreddit (http://www.reddit.com/r/findbostonbombers/) where a lot of this misinformation seemed to be gestating and can offer some perspective on how the idea caught fire.
I first visited to see if they’d managed to make progress turning up better photos of the suspects than the stills the authorities had released. I wasn’t disappointed. Whether the photos were originally unearthed by redditors or not, they had better photos than any on the more mainstream sites I’d visited.
I ended up staying though because the shootings were unfolding at about the same time. Soon this now-deleted post, posted by someone with the username TreyWalker (now deleted) showed up and rose to the top of the subreddit home page: http://www.reddit.com/r/findbostonbombers/comments/1co0d5/hey_fuck_you_mods_sunil_tripathi_the_one_guy_you/
The idea had been percolating for hours, if not days. One disgruntled commenter, thinking himself vindicated, complained that he’d previously posted two threads asserting Sunil Tripathi’s guilt, as had others, and that the moderators had deleted them.
What seemed to finally kick the ember into a flame was a convergence of two tweets. One, the tweet by one of Sunil’s former high school classmates that one of the bombing suspects looked like him. Second a supposed report from someone listening on a police scanner, probably first posted to twitter and quickly spread to reddit and elsewhere, that two suspects had been named in the shooting and manhunt near MIT: Mike Mulegeta and Sunil Tripathi.
At this point, there were still many expressing doubt that the bombings and the MIT shootings were connected. Plenty of others were unconvinced by increasing “evidence” being offered that Tripathi was the second bombing suspect. Others questioned the reports of what was picked up by the scanner. Still, the idea built its own momentum.
People confidently repeated things they’d seen elsewhere. They defended reports and assertions by citing other sources that were likely drawing on the same primary sources, particularly more established (though not necessarily reputable) news blogs. People who’d previously felt dismissed and silenced fanned and fueled the flames. They summoned dubious “facts,” that supported their position, such as an assertion that multiple bombs had been found around Brown around the time of Tripathi’s disappearance. The involvement of the FBI in Tripathi’s disappearance, and the withholding of a note he apparently left when he disappeared, were taken to support the idea that he may have been under suspicion even before the bombings. Some people saw the bumbling sequence of events around MIT as evidence of formal, foreign terrorist training. One even saw the 7-11 robbery and shooting of the MIT campus cop as bungling, but interpreted the subsequent bomb detonation and firing from the resulting cloud of smoke as shrewd tactics, rather than more clumsy desperation.
As it turns out, no one can find real evidence that Tripathi was ever named on police radio transmissions ( though Mike Mulegeta, whoever he is, was). It may well have been planted by someone who had a chip on their shoulder.
I can’t find it now, but last night I found a blog from before the bombing that questioned the attention being given to Tripathi’s disappearance when other less “PC” missing persons weren’t receiving the same attention. The post, and the comments on seemed to be underpinned with racist resentment.
I feel like the major force behind much of it can be summed up as: Confirmation bias is its own reward. Everyone is subject to cognitive biases. Some are aware, and try to compensate. Others either aren’t aware, or don’t care. They embrace evidence that supports their convictions, anything that doesn’t just makes them more determined to find validation and reinforcement.
When I finally went to sleep in the early hours of the morning, I thought Sunil Tripathi might actually have been the suspect #2. Some of my initial doubts had been overcome by some of the photos I’d seen. I was by no means sure of it though. I’d criticized others for their overconfidence and pointed out flaws in their “evidence.” When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the whole thing had been wrong. I’m biased towards skepticism, and confirmation bias is its own reward.