Social Media Vigilantes Cloud Boston Bombing Investigation

False leads and misidentifications whipped through social media following the bombings in Boston last week. Steve Henn talks to Audie Cornish about lessons learned and whether it's possible for citizen journalists and sites like Reddit to adopt standards of verification of information.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The events last week in Boston played out live on television, on the Internet and all over social media. In online chat forums, such as Reddit and 4Chan, would-be sleuths pored over photos of the bombing site, attempting to identify suspects. Again and again, these Internet rumors found their way into mainstream media.

On Thursday, the New York Post ran a front-page photo of two individuals with the headline Bag Men. And a missing student from Brown University was even named online as a suspect. Both these reports were inaccurate and all of them took root on the Internet. Joining us now to talk about how so many people got so much wrong is NPR's technology correspondent Steve Henn. And Steve, first, for folks who don't know, what are Reddit and 4Chan?

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Well, 4Chan and Reddit are social media sites that let users post content more or less anonymously. And early last week on both of these sites and some others, people began discussion groups dedicated to finding the Boston bombers. I spoke with Alex Madrigal. He covers technology and social media at The Atlantic. And he started watching this at the beginning.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: People decided that they could help with the investigation by taking all the photos that had come out of the bombing, combing through them and looking for - I'm sort of air-quoting here - "suspicious" characters, people carrying backpacks, people who might look like terrorists.

HENN: At the time, Madrigal compared this to online vigilantism.

CORNISH: But what did these online discussions look like?

HENN: Well, one of the most popular appeared on 4Chan and it was a collection of photographs with, you know, these, quote/unquote, "suspects" circled. In some cases, notes were scrolled next to the photos explaining the reason why the person circled was allegedly suspicious. And some of the reasons in the post were that the person was, quote, "brown." In the end, none of the people who were circled in this post turned out to be at all related to the bombing.

But that individual post attracted more than two and a half million hits by late afternoon Wednesday last week. And it's clear some of these forums affected both the investigation and the media's coverage of it. On Thursday morning, the New York Post ran the front-page headline you mentioned, Bag Men. And it included a large color photographs of two high school athletes who were featured in one of the 4Chan photos.

The Post later said they'd been given that photo by law enforcement.

CORNISH: All right, Steve, but how did all this online sleuthing actually affect the investigation?

HENN: Well, over the weekend, investigators in Boston said one of the reasons they decided to publicly release images of their suspects Thursday evening was to try and tamp down on the Internet rumors and this kind of speculation, which by late last week had become a distraction. Unfortunately, shortly after the FBI's press conference, folks on Reddit began speculating that one of the suspects looked like Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old student at Brown University who's been missing since mid-March.

That rumor began to spread online. And in the middle of the night, several people on Twitter tweeted out that Sunil's name had been broadcast on a police scanner and he had been named as a suspect. There's no evidence that happened, but starting about three in the morning, Tripathi's family was besieged by media requests. Reporters were calling both his sister and his parents, increasingly confident that their missing son was somehow involved.

Major websites printed Tripathi's name as a suspect. And again, these accusations were completely wrong, but this was obviously a horrendous experience for a family that was already going through a very, very difficult time.

CORNISH: All right, Steve, now that it seems pretty clear that the prime suspect is in custody, do you see any contrition online?

HENN: Yes. Actually, immediately after the suspects' names were released by police in Boston, individuals who had participated on Twitter and on Reddit in naming Sunil Tripathi reached out to the family and apologized. And just this afternoon, the general manager of Reddit, Eric Martin, apologized publicly to the family, saying that he regretted the pain that they had to endure. And he expressed hope that the entire community would learn from this experience, and he promised to do a better job policing Reddit's own rules in the future.

And even last week, during the events unfolding in Boston, there were those on Reddit and in some of these other forums that were warning some of the participants that what they were doing could seriously injure innocent people and that they needed to be more careful. Obviously, those warnings weren't heeded at the time.

CORNISH: NPR's technology correspondent Steve Henn. Steve, thank you.

HENN: You're welcome.

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