Kyle Quinn Hid At A Friend's House After Being Misidentified On Twitter As A Racist
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
After the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., many civil rights activists took to Twitter and shared photos of people who were allegedly at the march. The idea was to publicly identify them and to shame them. But what happens when you identify the wrong person? NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It was Saturday, and Kyle Quinn and his wife were having a low-key evening at home.
KYLE QUINN: I was sitting on the couch with my wife. I think we were watching "Planet Earth II."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PLANET EARTH II")
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: This series will take you to the last wildernesses.
QUINN: And I got a phone call (laughter).
SYDELL: It was from the University Relations Office at University of Arkansas where Quinn worked as a professor of biomedical engineering.
QUINN: They wanted to confirm where I was. And then they asked whether I'd heard about what was going on in Charlottesville. I told them I was vaguely familiar. And then she indicated that your weekend's about to get a lot worse (laughter).
SYDELL: Quinn learned that a counter-protester at the white supremacist march had posted a picture of a man with a beard and light-brown hair the same color as Quinn's. The man was wearing a T-shirt that said Arkansas engineering. The university said someone on social media put Quinn's name to the picture. Quinn's Twitter account and email were inundated with people cursing at him, threatening him and his wife. The university was getting phone calls and emails saying it should fire Quinn.
QUINN: It got to the point then on Saturday night where they had tweeted our home address. At that time, we definitely got the police involved.
SYDELL: Quinn and his wife hid out at a friend's house. They were frightened. It was like being chased by a mob.
QUINN: And they're emboldened because they're online, and there are no or little consequences for their actions. That was definitely the most disturbing part - not knowing what poor decisions this group of people on the Internet could make next.
SYDELL: The problem is most people are not experts at identification. That's why a company called Storyful exists. It uses common sense and technical tools to verify photos and videos for news media. Benjamin Decker, a research coordinator at Storyful, says someone with training would have noticed some details that raised questions. The man in the photo at the rally was wearing glasses.
BENJAMIN DECKER: Kyle Quinn does not wear glasses in his academic photo on the University of Arkansas website. Why would he be wearing glasses to a torch-lit rally that could get ugly?
SYDELL: Decker says Storyful has a lot of tricks in its bag to verify, including looking at Quinn's social media accounts, which would probably have given clues about his whereabouts.
DECKER: But usually the standard rule of thumb is that if you can raise enough doubt about something without even using any of the tech tools, odds are there's a decent chance that, you know, you're right.
SYDELL: Still, at Storyful, they use a lot of technical tools that can help figure out where and when a photo was taken even if it's been altered. Meanwhile, Kyle Quinn is still getting nasty emails and messages on Twitter. Though as word has gotten out that he wasn't at the rally, it's slowed down.
QUINN: I understand the anger and frustration that's out there about what happened in Charlottesville. It was awful, and I understand that people want to be able to do something about it. I don't know what the right way is, but I can tell you being on the receiving end, this is not the way to go about it.
SYDELL: Quinn thinks in this case, maybe it would have been better to leave photo identification to the experts. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: We're continuing to follow news of an attack today in Barcelona in Spain, where a van drove into a crowd of people on a busy pedestrian street. Police say at least 13 people were killed. At least 100 people are injured. ISIS has claimed responsibility for this attack, and two people have been arrested. Vice President Mike Pence condemned the attack.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The latest scenes of carnage and mayhem sicken us all. And as the president said earlier today, the United States condemns this terror attack. And we will do whatever is necessary to help. Whatever inspired today's terror attack, the United States stands ready to assist the people of Spain and find and punish those responsible.
SIEGEL: We'll hear more reaction elsewhere in the program and accounts from eyewitnesses. And we'll continue to bring you the latest from Barcelona as we get more information.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.