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.