At the height of the Boston Police Department and FBI’s pursuit of the two suspects of last Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing, something unprecedented occurred: Hundreds of people, across social networks like Reddit and Twitter, tuned into police scanners and claimed law enforcement officers had identified one of the suspects as Sunil Tripathi, the former member of the class of 2012 who has been missing since mid-March. News agencies quickly picked up the accusation, and many celebrated the flow of information as a “victory” of new media over old — despite shady evidence supporting their claims. Then, a couple of hours later, NBC’s Pete Williams released the actual identities of the bombers, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, discrediting and embarrassing the so-called citizen detectives and their erroneous witch hunt. This active attempt by social media users to prove the worth of new media over traditional media left everybody for the worse, including members of Tripathi’s family, who were made the subjects of written attacks by self-justified internet vigilantes. This all speaks to the grave consequences of citizens attempting to play detective and to the need for law enforcement officials and news agencies to speak up early to minimize the damage that misguided attempts at justice can wreak.
What exactly occurred that allowed people to make this damaging logical jump is unclear. It all started with a thread on Reddit, titled as a question: “Is missing student Sunil Tripathi a marathon bomber?” Though since deleted, the thread slowly built up from a conspiracy theory discussion into a jubilant, congratulatory stream of comments for the Reddit user who “broke” the story — but the necessary evidence was never there. Many commenters claimed Tripathi’s name was mentioned as a “person of interest” on the police scanners and that this was the damning evidence they needed. But a “person of interest” is not an official suspect, and, perhaps more embarrassingly, Tripathi’s name never appeared in subsequent transcriptions of the police scanner logs from that night. Instead, Internet sleuths pounced on the narrative the Reddit thread set up, so much so that they decided to hear what they wanted to hear over the scanners. This kind of wish-fulfillment is unacceptable — and the reason why we rely on trained professionals to validate and publicize news items instead of trusting unverified strangers touting their theories online.
But some blame also rests on law enforcement and news agencies for not recognizing and fighting against the mob mentality these social media sites fostered in the aftermath of the bombing. The Internet is both a wonderful tool and a terrible curse — it can give immediate information, but it can also lead to immediate misinformation. Knowing this, law enforcement agencies must release the names of suspects in cases with as large a profile as the Boston Marathon bombing as soon as possible to avoid misidentifications as damaging as this one. Our society’s systems of information validation must keep pace with the systems of information sharing — otherwise, as we saw last Thursday and Friday, innocent people can get hurt in the gap.
This is an unprecedented event in the history of journalism, and it is unacceptable that Tripathi and his family got caught up in it. While there is little we, as Brown students, could have done to stop it, we can still demand a greater degree of scrutiny directed at online forums and a quicker response from those we rely on to share validated information. We may not be able to act as detectives of crimes, but we can at least engage critically in reviewing information — because if we don’t, we can contribute to collateral damage far beyond what we imagine.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Dan Jeon, and its members, Mintaka Angell, Samuel Choi, Nicholas Morley and Rachel Occhiogrosso. Send comments to email@example.com.