Boston bombing: How internet detectives got it very wrong

By Dave Lee
Technology reporter, BBC News

  • Published
SWAT team in Boston search
Image caption,
As the police manhunt stepped up - some members of the public flocked to sites like Reddit to try and find their own clues

Internet users tried for days to piece together clues about the culprits of the Boston bombings. The result? They got it wrong - and left innocent people fearing for their safety. Many are now asking: should "crowd-sourced investigations" be stopped?

Thousands have been tirelessly picking through the evidence - every piece of video footage, every photo, every eyewitness account they can get their hands on.

But this investigation wasn't within the confidential confines of the FBI or local police.

No, these sleuths were working in public - discussing their theories and "leads" within massive communities such as Reddit, 4Chan, Facebook and Twitter.

On Friday, those efforts ended with an apology. After hours of chatter and speculation, the standout suspect identified - and named - was the wrong man.

"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," wrote Reddit user Rather_Confused.

"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.

Image caption,
Wrongly accused Sunil Tripathi, 22, has been missing since mid-March

"We were mistaken."

'Racist Where's Wally'

In the preceeding hours, Mr Tripathi, who has been missing since mid-March, became a trending topic on Twitter as his name and picture were shared far and wide.

Information had been gathered on a specially created section on Reddit - known as a subreddit - entitled Find Boston Bombers.

Members had been posting their ideas and footage, offering suggestions over what they saw as crucial clues in what has been described as a crowd-sourced criminal investigation.

While undoubtedly set up with noble intentions, innocent people were routinely singled out in pictures captioned with such apparent evidence as "not looking at the race", or because of sketchy similarities between the rucksacks being worn by onlookers and the bag that contained the bomb.

The New Statesman went as far as to call it a "racist Where's Wally", with the suggestion that there was emphasis on pointing out non-whites among the crowds.

One "suspect" was 17-year-old Salah Barhoun, described on Reddit simply as Blue Robe Man thanks to the tracksuit top he had worn.

Users posted information relating to his whereabouts, and pointing out the "sagging" in a shoulder bag he was holding - a sign, some thought, that he was carrying something heavy.

Hours later, the same pictures that had circulated on Reddit and 4Chan found their way to the front page of the New York Post.

Under the headline "bag men", Mr Barhoun and a friend were said to be wanted for questioning - but the tabloid added: "There is no direct evidence linking them to the crime."

The pair were not involved in the bombing - and Mr Barhoun told ABC News he now fears for his life.

There were more: White Hat Black Jacket Guy, Blue Duffel Bag Guy and Green Hat Guy, to share a few.

With each suspect, a rush to find their real identities - and in some cases, social media profiles and groups were peppered with threatening messages.


When the real suspects - as confirmed by the FBI - were identified, the moderators of the Find Boston Bombers group told members that any posts about other people would be deleted immediately.

It meant much of the focus in the subreddit had shifted to the morality of what had occurred.

"This subreddit has been a disaster that has done more harm than good," wrote Reddit user DarrenGrey.

"It ended up an epicentre of unstoppable finger-pointing and wild conjecture.

"And worst of all the mainstream media leapt on the information here like hungry hyenas.

Image caption,
A dedicated section on Reddit was launched to discuss theories

"Unreliable crowd-sourced material plus the media's ravenous desire for fresh information has proved a disgusting mix. Let's never ever do this again."

But Charlie Beckett, director of the journalism and society think tank POLIS, told the BBC these highly public investigations are unstoppable.

"There's nothing you can do about it," he said.

"You can't lock down the internet like you can lock down part of Boston. You have to live with that."

The only hope, he said, was that this very public and damaging mis-identification serves as a lesson to those eager to be "first" with new information online.

"It's been a kind of a media literacy seminar - people are learning to be less stupid. You don't want to be the person who names a suspect who turns out not to be right."

He added: "I doubt that when we write the history of this event that the intelligence services will be thanking social media over this."

Police scanners

But one Reddit user, who has spent the past two days posting minute-by-minute updates on the police investigation, defended the actions of those on the site.

"Innocent people will always be singled out," said Joseph Stuhr in an email to the BBC.

"That's why we have police. We can give them leads and they will figure everything out using facts and clues."

At his desk in Virginia, 22-year-old Mr Stuhr has been using a combination of television feeds, local radio and police scanners to report updates. He has been praised by Reddit users for being quicker than mainstream outlets to share information.

In doing so, he said he believed mainstream media could learn a lot about reporting honestly in breaking news situations.

"When I make a mistake I can fix it quickly and many users point it out. I feel it lets the readers get involved, and its better to be honest and say 'yeah, I messed up. I was wrong. But I fixed it!'."

Yet perhaps the most poignant conclusion of the whole affair came from the family of Sunil Tripathi themselves.

"A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours," read a message posted to a Facebook group.

"Now more than ever our greatest strength comes from your enduring support.

"We thank all of you who have reached out to our family and ask that you continue to raise awareness and to help us find our gentle, loving, and thoughtful Sunil."