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04/19/2013

How the Internet fingered another innocent person in the Boston bombings

Yesterday, we brought you a story about how wannabe cyber-sleuths on Reddit, 4chan, and elsewhere online had managed to circulate a whole lot of photos of "suspicious-seeming" possible suspects this week, none of whom turned out to be the real suspects. 

When we went to bed last night, at least some Redditors were chastened, if not the New York Post -- who had also published a front-page photo of two innocent bystanders alongside a technically accurate but incriminating story.

Incredibly, overnight, the sleuthy-Internet-machine-thing revved back up and by morning had already fingered another innocent person. 

After laying their paws on the FBI's grainy images of the two actual suspects in Monday's bombings, posters on Reddit on Twitter users came to conclusion that one of the suspects was Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student missing since March 16

By 10:00 AM the next Morning, the New York Times and other outlets had identified the suspects as  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is still at large, and his brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout.

But all night, Reddit, Twitter and environs raged with speculation that Tripathi was a suspect in a bombing that killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy. 

Once the real suspects' names came out, Redditors and others keep insisting that Tripathi's name came from investigators: listeners heard his and someone named Mike Mulugeta's names mentioned as suspects over the Boston police scanners.

The Atlantic, after some digital digging of their own, has an excellent piece on the source of the inaccurate information, and discovered the police scanners broadcasted no such thing. Listening back to the audio of the scanner, the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal points out that the police said only this:

"Last name: Mulugeta, M-U-L-U-G-E-T-A, M as in Mike, Mulugeta." 

There is no Mike, and who the person with the last name Mulugeta is is unknown.

According to the Atlantic's digging, Tripathi's name seems to have entered the Internet feedback machine via a single tweet from an information studies masters student and blogger with fewer than 600 followers.

Gawker is making a big deal about how the Tripathi affair embodies how badly "the media" have screwed up this week, reporting inaccuracies and broadcasting badly-sourced information. On Friday, the New York Post continued to be blasted from all sides for its irresponsible reporting.

Gawker's story on how Tripathi and "Mike Mulugeta" were incorrectly named says that by morning, "The media, content to pile new data on top of old, was simply pretending that it had never fingered the wrong two guys."

But no major media outlets reported Tripathi's name. One Buzzfeed reporter did, and according to the Atlantic so did one cameraman for a local CBS affiliate. A Twitter feed for the hacktivist group Anonymous also helped spread the two names, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would agree they are a member of the mainstream media.  

None of this absolves the news establishment for previous inaccuracies in their coverage of the Boston bombings, or precludes the online hordes from ever cracking an important case in the future. But last night's debacle appears to belong to the Internet alone. 

Still, Gawker makes a really interesting point: that it's possible the police are monitoring social media as closely as everyone else, and could have picked up the information online, broadcast it through the scanner, which fed it back into the cyber-hounds online, initiating a wild feedback loop of faulty information.

But that theory doesn't seem to hold if the Atlantic is right and the police scanners never mentioned Tripathi's name in the first place.

On Friday, Redditors once again seem chastened. 

A moderator on the "findbostonbombers" sub page (with the unfortunate handle "Rather_Confused") posted this: 

"I'd like to extend the deepest apologies to the family of Sunil Tripathi for any part we may have had in relaying what has turned out to be faulty information. We cannot begin to know what you're going through and for that we are truly sorry. Several users, twitter users, and other sources had heard him identified as the suspect and believed it to be confirmed. We were mistaken."

Meanwhile, Tripathi is still missing. A new thread has popped up on Reddit: Find Sunil Tripathi.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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