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On Thursday, April 18th, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, the FBI released photos of two suspects.
Very early Friday morning, on the website Reddit, someone posted side-by-side photos of the second suspect and Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who had been missing since March 16.
Reddit users speculated that Tripathi might be the younger bomber.
Within hours, a Twitter user named Greg Hughes shifted speculation to presumed fact, when he said he heard the name Sunil Tripathi on a Boston Police scanner. It turns out that was also not true.
The rumor went from there to a Connecticut news anchor and on and on.
That single, incorrect Reddit posting ricocheted around the Internet, shattering Tripathi’s family and calling into question, again, the role of social media.
Tripathi’s body was found on April 23, after the actual bombing suspects had been officially identified and apprehended.
Suspect number two was Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev. His older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev was suspect number one.
Jay Caspian Kang traced the anatomy of the rumor in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, “Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?” He joins us.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And now to the anatomy of a rumor about the Boston Marathon bombings. Now, to be clear, there is no question that the Tsarnaev brothers are accused of the bombings, Tamerlan killed during a police chase, Dzhokhar awaiting trial. But late Thursday, early Friday after the bombings, after the FBI released pictures of them and before anyone knew who they were, someone on the online community Reddit posted a photo of one next to a photo of 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student, implying that Sunil was the bomber.
Within hours, a Twitter user named Greg Hughes added that he heard the name Sunil Tripathi on a police scanner. That never happened, but the rumor went from there to a Connecticut news anchor and ricocheted around the world, shattering Sunil's family and calling into question, again, the role of social media.
Jay Caspian Kang traced the rumor in a recent extensive New York Times magazine piece. He's also an editor at the sports and pop culture website Grantland, and he joins us from the NPR studios in New York. Jay, it's amazing to watch how this spread like a virus.
JAY CASPIAN KANG: And watching right around 3 o'clock in the morning, when it really sort of caught on fire. It was very dynamic seeing the way that one bit of misinformation - which was that somebody had heard on the Boston police scanner the name Sunil Tripathi - it just went from one node to another node to another node. And the more people with large followings - for example, Perez Hilton, who has about six million followers. The more people that come in contact with it who have some sort of authority, the more any piece of information, I think, can start to seem like it's actually real.
YOUNG: Sure, it's a danger. You're supposed to have at least two sources. Well, but if both of those sources have a rumor, what you've done is confirmed a rumor. It's not true. And so you had Greg Hughes, who first tweeted that it was connected to a police, a Boston police scanner. As you wrote, he took the speculation, made it fact.
Then a journalist at a TV station in Hartford, Kevin Galliford, re-tweeted it. As you say, these become multipliers. Next you have Andrew Kaczynski, a journalist at BuzzFeed. And then it makes its way back to Sunil's family. What happened to them that morning?
KANG: Once the tweet went out about the Boston police scanner, and the family, I think, all total must have received over 100 phone calls from reporters in the span of about 45 to 50 minutes. If you can imagine...
YOUNG: Yeah, and this is at 2 o'clock in the morning.
KANG: Yeah, 2 o'clock in the morning, while they're still searching for their lost family member, they're up following the news. They're up, you know, trying to find any sort of lead that will help. And at that point, all their phones blow up. The social network tools that they used to try and help find Sunil - including the Facebook page and a Twitter page - all start to sort of overrun with the same message.
A lot of it was anti-Islamic, which is, you know, it's not an Islamic family. There was a lot of threats. And, you know, only until like a few days later, I think, did the news have really gone out that, you know, it wasn't this kid.
YOUNG: Well, but by Friday night, the two real suspects, one had been killed. The other was, you know, in a shootout with police. So it was obvious who the suspects were. But meanwhile, this is out there. And one of the things that confirmed for people that it had to be Sunil was the family finally took the Facebook page down, which interrupted their search for their son, but only convinced the people behind the rumor that it must be Sunil. Because why else would you take your Facebook page down?
KANG: Sure. I mean, and this is something that people have contested in the time after the article has come out. But I do think that at the point where you are putting out the information during this massive manhunt and when all of the information you're putting out pertains to the Boston bombing, if you put out information about this kid and how his parents have taken the - or how somebody has taken the search Facebook page down, and how there's FBI involvement with the search and all of this, like, you're spreading a rumor there that you have no ability to confirm.
And I do think that that is irresponsible, and that the defense that you are just putting out information and that the information should be taken agnostically I think is a little bit of a - I mean, I don't think it's a little bit of a stretch. I think it's a massive stretch.
But, yeah, I think that once that information got out, that the family was reacting and that the FBI was involved in the search. Then a lot more conclusions were jumped to, and I think that sort of also helped push this thing along.
YOUNG: Well, meanwhile, the FBI was involved with the search because this was a missing young man from Brown University. At 5:16 on Friday morning, Pete Williams of NBC gets on and announces that Sunil Tripathi is not a suspect, but you say - you talk about some of the ripple effects this had. Now the Tripathis are getting reaction from people in the outside world as they continue to search for him. What were some of the things that happened?
KANG: The first thing that happened was the secretary of the father, an employee of the father called a homeless shelter in Philadelphia to ask if they had seen Sunil. And this was just sort of the normal process that they went through every single day, because the Tripathi family is from Philadelphia.
And the morning after - I suppose this person hadn't heard that it wasn't Sunil - and, you know, she gave a very strongly worded answer.
YOUNG: Yeah. You write that when the woman answered at the homeless shelter, she told the caller: I'm sorry, we don't aid terrorists.
KANG: Sure, sure.
YOUNG: Yeah. So, again, they were looking for their loved one. The homeless shelter thinks he's a terrorist. And you also write that the private missing person's organization that had been helping Sunil's family told them they had to pull out of the search, because their association with the family was hurting their business.
Jay Caspian Kang is the reporter who traced the false, online rumor that missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi was the second Boston bomber. When we come back, what do the people who spread the rumor say now about their part in it?
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Some other stories we're following: President Obama has decided against a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this fall. And a new study finds dolphins can remember and recognize individuals from their past up to 20 years later. Those and other stories later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We're back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're doing a deconstruction of the rumor that started after the Boston bombing that a missing Brown University student was the second bomber. It started as a message on the online website Reddit, one of the largest in the world, which speculated that missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi looked like a suspect.
It took over from there, picked up by a Hartford news anchor, Your Anon News. That's the website for hackers. Jay Caspian King traced it and how it devastated Sunil Tripathi's family in a piece for the New York Times Sunday magazine. You can still see false claims that Sunil Tripathi was the bomber in online posts. Jay's article is titled "Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?"
Jay, Reddit has users who submit information. Other users vote it up or down. You know, interesting and accurate info is supposed to rise, and the rest fall. And backers say it worked well during the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting in 2012.
KANG: For the Aurora shooting, which happened at midnight in the Mountain Time Zone and where news outlets were really sort of slow to react to it, I think Reddit proved itself during that time as being a source where people could go to get a lot of breaking information. That happened again during the Boston Marathon and the subsequent days. And, you know, in the end, I think that that was an unsustainable system. I think the stakes are too big.
I talked to many of the people who are doing this, and by all their own admissions, you know, they would say: I don't have the qualifications to do this, but I am just doing it within Reddit. A lot of them sort of expressed an almost disbelief that news organizations would be turning to Reddit to find all of their information. And they, you know, I guess their argument would just be, like, what happened to their methods of gathering information during these sorts of things.
YOUNG: Well, you talked to Erik Martin, you know, one of the people behind Reddit. Now that it has been at the center of this smear, how is Reddit feeling about this, and what did they do?
KANG: Well, I think that they're honestly stuck a little bit between two difficult positions. The first position, if you go on Reddit, you'll find that almost all the news stories that get voted to the top are all about Edward Snowden. They're about the NSA, you know, anything that involves Internet, free speech.
Under that stance, I think that it's difficult for the people who work there to take any sort of responsibility, because even this would fall under the Internet free speech.
YOUNG: And, by the way, in many ways, they thought they were doing what Boston Police had asked to do, crowd-sourcing. The Boston Police were crowd-sourcing and putting the pictures out. The difference is that when you get the crowd on Reddit, you're not getting people calling the police tip line. You are getting them to post their speculation in a forum.
KANG: Sure. And I do think that the police, the authorities definitely asked people to help with the search. The issue came, I think, in two ways. The first was that when the New York Post posted the photo of one high school track kid and I think his old coach or something like that on the front page of the New York...
YOUNG: Another false report. Mm-hmm.
KANG: ...sure, on the front of the New York Post, saying that the authorities are looking for these two men, I think that sort of threw the lid off of any sort of responsibility that anyone felt.
YOUNG: But the Post is not a - I mean, it's a tabloid.
KANG: Sure, but it is a newspaper, and I think that for the majority of people who are on Reddit, all mass media is the same. Like CNN, the New York Times, the New York Post, once one of those outlets - even if it was the Post - makes such a massive error, I think that everybody else starts to decide that it's free reign.
And I think the second thing happened, which is if you find somebody who is a very likely suspect that other people agree upon, within Reddit's scoring system, you get a lot of points, which are called karma. You know, you don't want to keep it to yourself. You don't want to call the Boston Police tip line. You don't want to call the FBI, because if you do it privately, then you don't get the credit for it.
I remember I was at a murder scene in Oakland, and there were these two very well-respected, award-winning journalists, and they were both standing around discussing how many Twitter followers they had. And one said to the other, you know, like, how do you have that many more than me? And, you know, to me, it was just this weird moment where I had this realization that, like, nobody was free from that manic need to sort of see their own importance reflected by a number of Twitter followers.
YOUNG: Well, and Erik Martin seemed to have some of this soul-searching, as well. As you were saying, Reddit wants to stay true to its core participant, which are, you know, people who believe in open sourcing. But they apologized to the family of Sunil Tripathi. What are they saying?
KANG: I do think that it was - even if - I don't think a lot of the employees that I spoke to even believed that they are culpable at all, they still felt terrible that it had happened. And the majority, almost every employee that I spoke to there, did feel - deep down inside - that, you know, their site did have something to do with what had happened.
YOUNG: Well, you talk about some of the other people involved, those who had also tweeted this bad information, how they apologized to the family in one form or another. Some of them seemed to feel pretty badly. Some wrote articles about how awful it was that this rumor had been spread without noting that they'd been participants in it. One deleted some of his tweets.
But I found most interesting, you tracked down Jackal, who's with the Your Anon News, the website that's associated with the hacker group Anonymous. And his reaction seemed to be the most heartfelt. These are, you know, hackers. His reaction was oh, blank. What do we do? This is terrible, what happened.
KANG: Sure, I - you know, I think that somebody like Jackal has the freedom to not be a journalist, and he has the freedom to pass everything along as he sees fit. And then when things go bad, he can sort of say well, we messed that one up, but, you know, we're not a news organization. Mass media news organizations are bad, and we're good, because we can be fluid in this sort of way, or whatever justification that he would come up with.
But I do think that when you meet him, when you meet other people who are involved, it's a shocking amount of power that they have. I mean, Your Anonymous News has over a million followers on Twitter, and they're starting a website. They're going to have, basically, an Internet TV station. You know, the sort of lack of journalist background that the people who are running the site have is a little bit alarming.
But at the same time, like, that is the point of Your Anonymous News, and that's what Jackal would tell you, that the point is that they don't have journalism backgrounds, that they're not sort of hemmed in, and that they're not, as he would say, slaves to, like, the sort of agenda that is put out from the White House, or wherever.
YOUNG: Even so, this anarchist said you feel terrible, and you maybe want to rethink things. But meanwhile, Sunil Tripathi's body was ultimately pulled from the Providence River in Rhode Island. His family has their answer. I'm sure they're reeling from that, but also still reeling from everything that happened. What do they say?
KANG: The family, when I visited them, was incredibly thoughtful, given the circumstances. I mean, they were all still grieving. It hadn't been that long ago since Sunil's body had been found. Their thought was just that we have to be a little bit more careful in how we dispense information. And one of the things that Sangeeta - who is Sunil's sister - said is that there is a porous-ness now between the Internet and media and law enforcement. And all those places which used to be distinct institutions that would operate on their own and would keep secrets from one another, you know, within the media and law enforcement, at least, now just sort of are all plugged into the same sort of ongoing stream of information.
If there's one bad piece of information now that everybody is getting, and the reaction time to that bad piece of information has gone from, like, a day and a half to 30 seconds, that is going to lead to massive problems and catastrophes, like it did. For me, at least, that was sort of the time when the piece at least clicked in my head. You know, I was, like, of course, that is sort of the point that all of this should drive towards.
YOUNG: Jay Caspian Kang, his article "Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?" appeared in the New York Times magazine. Thank you so much, Jay, for talking to us about it.
KANG: Oh, thank you.
YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.