The Internet and social media gives us the opportunity to share information faster and easier than ever before. But with it comes a responsibility that all too often is shirked. This is the story of how the largest online witch hunt in history unfolded, and how and why it went so terribly wrong, serving as a shocking warning about how devastating online misinformation and “trial by Internet” can be.
– Chris Ryves, on his /FindBostonBombers Reddit thread
Patriot’s Day is the day each year that the popular Boston Marathon is run, the third Monday in April. First held in 1897, the event can attract over half a million spectators, but in 2013 – nearly three hours after the winners crossed the finish line – tragedy struck. Two high pressure cooker bombs were detonated, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others.
The attack triggered the largest crowd-sourced online investigation in history. An investigation that included several social media platforms and millions of amateur sleuths who poured through thousands of photos that were being uploaded by those who attended the event. All looking for clues as to who was responsible, and to ultimately aid the authorities in tracking them down.
The ensuing consequences would have an everlasting impact on the lives of many innocent people, and would not reflect well on either the scores of Internet amateur sleuths involved, or many of the mainstream media outlets that duly reported erroneous information. It would demonstrate the increasingly powerful and alarming impact digital witch hunts can have in the real world.
This is what happened.
In an age of real-time information sharing, where data can be shared across the globe at the click of a mouse button, the unofficial online investigation – that would soon involve over 3 million people – had begun within hours of the fatal explosions.
But it was the media – not the Internet bandwagon – that were the first to falter. In a race to be the first to get information out, several outlets – most notably The New York Post – within hours of the attack asserted that an unnamed “Saudi national”, injured from shrapnel of one of the bombs, was a suspect. They claimed he was under armed guard at a Boston hospital. The story was retweeted and shared thousands of times across the Internet.
But it wasn’t true, and it is unclear how and why this story developed. To this date, The New York Post has neither retracted nor apologised for the mistake. But this mistake would prove to be a warning as to what was to come.
It was less than 48 hours after the attack and thousands of “armchair” Internet sleuths had recruited themselves into examining the attack. The constant barrage of images uploaded online that were taken either just before the bombs exploded or depicting the direct aftermath were providing effective fodder for their investigations.
It was at this time that these thousands of sleuths found an unofficial HQ at Reddit, when the /FindBostonBombers subreddit was created by Reddit user Chris Ryves. A “database” of suspicious photos and potential suspects was soon cultivated, and despite the moderator’s insistence of “no personal information” and “no racism”, direct accusations and clear racial profiling were widespread. The moderators soon adopted a “1 strike, no warning” banning policy for those that ignored the rules, but they just couldn’t keep up. As Redditors poured over photos, everyone with a backpack was considered a suspect. The subreddit was soon attracting hundreds of thousands of users.
As the popularity of the subreddit thread grew exponentially, it was 17 year old Subway worker Salah Barhoum who became its first victim. A photo of Barhoum and a friend was published on the subreddit. The photo was taken hours before the explosions, and showed both men adorned with rucksacks standing alongside other spectators watching others finish. It was their rucksacks (which were actually filled with gym gear) and their foreign heritage that was enough to put them near the top of the suspect list.
During the latter hours of Wednesday, Barhoum was being warned by his friends that his photo was being disseminated across the Internet.
While many experienced ‘Redditors’ had already dismissed Barhoum as a suspect after finding his social media profiles and realising he was merely a fan of running and thus most likely an innocent bystander at the marathon, Barhoum’s photo still was still spreading steadily across the Internet.
At 1.30am Thursday morning, Barhoum voluntarily turned himself into state police to plead his innocence.
“I was terrified, I have never been in trouble and I feared for my security… he would later say in a subsequent interview. After 20 minutes or so at his local police station, he was told he wasn’t a suspect, and was free to go.
However things only got worse for Barhoum. Later that day, The New York Post (again) published the photo of Barhoum and his friend on their front page, titled “Bag Men” (below), stating that the authorities wished to identify both men. The fact that the small print of the story mentioned that neither was actually suspected of being the bomber would prove to be of little consolation to either man.
It’s not known if Barhoum’s face winding up plastered on the front page of the New York Post was a direct consequence of the online speculation concerning him, but the social media witch hunt was only just getting started. Over the next 48 hours, the consequences of the online, Reddit-fuelled “investigations” would escalate dramatically, as Sunil Tripathi’s name entered the chaos, and there would be no ambiguity as to Reddit’s involvement in the following events.
On the Thursday April 18th, 3 days after the bombing, the FBI released two photos of the suspects for the first time, who would later be identified as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. For now though, they were known only as Suspect #1 and Suspect #2. The release of the photos may have been good news for Barhoum, who bore no resemblance to either suspect. However this was only the start of things for the Tripathi family.
Sunil Tripathi was a 22 year old student from Brown University. On March 16th 2013 – a month prior to the bombing – he went missing, leaving his phone and wallet behind in his student accommodation. Within minutes of the FBI releasing photos of the bombing suspects, one Redditor posted a side-by-side photo comparison of Suspect #2 and Sunil, taken from a Facebook page set up by Sunil’s family dedicated to finding the missing student.
Sunil’s appearance and the timing of his disappearance set alarm bells ringing for many on Reddit. Many commented on the “obvious” similarity between the men in both photos, and links to the Facebook page set up by his family were being posted. Only a handful of hours elapsed before the first hateful messages first started appearing on the Facebook page.
This would have been the first indication for the Tripathi family that something was going on. A few more hours went by, and by Thursday evening, Ravi, Sunil’s older brother who set the page up, began receiving phone calls from reporters who had been following the now-hugely popular subreddit, asking about Sunil’s disappearance.
However, this was only the beginning. The next day would see the full force of a misguided witch hunt in devastating full swing.
Removing the Facebook page aimed at finding Sunil amidst the plethora of hateful and threatening messages it was receiving would only fuel the suspicions of the Internet bandwagon.
However, it was an unconfirmed claim from a Redditor user named Greg Hughes at 2.43am Friday morning that really got things started soon after news broke that an MIT police officer, Sean Collier, was murdered by the suspects, shot while in his squad car. Hughes had claimed his police scanner picked up Sunil Tripathi’s name being transmitted over the airwaves. That seemed to all but confirm that Sunil was one of the suspects, and that Reddit had discovered it before anyone else. According to Reddit’s community, speculation had become fact.
To this day, it is not known where the user Greg Hughes actually got his information from, or whether he simply just made it all up.
This was all happening at the same time as both suspects had been tracked to a Boston suburb called Watertown. As the entire area was locked down by thousands of armed police, the Internet was proving just as chaotic.
The information from Hughes was caught by local reporter Kevin Galliford, who tweeted it to his followers, and saw around 1000 retweets. This in turn caught the attention of Buzzfeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski, who then retweeted the false police scanner information to his 81,000 followers, along with the message ”Wow Reddit was right about the missing Brown student per the police scanner. Suspect identified as Sunil Tripathi.”
@YourAnonNews, a Twitter handle connected to the “hacker collective” Anonymous were the next to enter the fray, tweeting the same information to hundreds of thousands of followers. At this point, many were tweeting about the “suspicious” removal of the “find Sunil” Facebook page. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin was when Hollywood gossip reporter Perez Hilton tweeted Sunil’s name to over six million of his followers.
At this point, it was generally accepted as fact that Sunil Tripathi was one of the Boston bombers. After all, it must have been correct; the Internet said so.
At no point did the authorities identify or suggest Sunil Tripathi’s name.
That evening the second suspect was captured hiding in a boat in the back garden of a house in Watertown. Both suspects were identified, and thousands of apologies would flow in the upcoming days, most aimed toward the family of Sunil Tripathi.
Reddit’s glorious victory was unceremoniously taken away, and the overwhelming scope of the misinformation that had been circulating social media was soon apparent. Reddit users, threads and tweets were soon deleted as if they never existed as the dust settled on the largest witch hunt in history. Many were forced to look back on how something like this managed could have possibly happened.
Sunil’s body was found only a few days later. He had taken his own life some time before the bombings had even took place. He would never know that millions of people had believed he was a murderer and a terrorist.
The story of the social media witch hunt after the Boston Bombings and the impact that the Internet has on journalism is told in the fascinating documentary The Thread, which you can download from Amazon here.
This entire story demonstrates the power of the Internet, and the effects that “trial by social media” can have and how it can escalate. It’s something to bear in mind the next time you see an unfounded rumour online accusing someone of a wrongdoing.
– Salah Barhoum