4Chan plays racist Where's Wally to find the Boston bomber

There's enough misinformation coming from the traditional media itself over the bombings, but Reddit and 4Chan think they're helping.

The Boston bombings have an interesting quirk to them: the bomber, whoever they are, was almost certainly caught on camera at some point. And not just grainy CCTV footage, either. The blasts occurred during a worldwide media event, in a part of the course featured in blanket coverage. On top of that, a huge proportion of the photos of the marathon taken by individuals are now online as well, on Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and Facebook.

As a result, Reddit and 4Chan are on it. The two communities have begun poring over all the photos they can find, in an effort to spot the Boston bomber first and bring them to justice. The only problem is, with no idea what they're looking for, the whole thing has devolved into a sort of racist Where's Wally.

The archive of the first 4Chan thread on the topic – it calls itself the "ThinkTank" – has had over two million views on imgur, and the first image basically says it all:

 

BROWN

(That man, it turns out, is most likely law enforcement; his partner is visible next to him, and the two of them are standing with first responders in later pictures)

To be fair to them, not everyone focused on in the thread is brown. There's a white guy who's been picked up on because he's carrying a bag which looks like it might be the same type of bag that contained the bomb:

And another man, of indeterminate ethnicity, who's picked on because he started running away after the explosion (which seems a pretty understandable thing to do):

The subreddit, /r/findbostonbombers, which is devoted to the same thing is at least slightly more responsible. Threads are dedicated to confirming people as innocent, and highly up-voted posts call on the media not to spread images, remind redditors of the dangers of false accusations, and lay down pretty stiff rules of conduct.

But it's still clear that the community hopes to repeat earlier successes, as when a car used in a hit and run was identified from just the headlight, or when the site reported on the Aurora cinema shootings with a speed and depth which normal journalists would dream of. The problem is that this scenario is more difficult than the others – its unlikely the bomber was tweeting about their plans beforehand, or that they'll have used a bag which was uniquely identifiable – and that the widespread interest in the event vastly increases the damage done by a false positive, of which there are sure to be many.

The subreddit's rules clearly state "we do not condone vigilante justice" and "r/FindBostonBombers is a discussion forum, not a journalistic media outlet" – but when this many people are being associated with an act of terrorism, it takes more than that to stop damage being done. Already, one pair of men, who were fingered on the "evidence" that they were Arabic with backpacks, have been tracked down on Facebook only to be revealed as Moroccan-American runners from Massachusetts. That's been dutifully reported back to the subreddit, but the damage has already been done.

There's enough misinformation coming from the traditional media itself over the bombings. Reddit and 4Chan may think they're helping, but by flinging suspicion at innocent people with no real evidence, they're only spreading more rumours.

The worst thing, though? Given the sheer weight of numbers behind this, chances are someone has drawn a circle around the actual bomber and written "suspicious?!" in red text on it. And even though if you libel enough people, you're bound to be right at some point, we'll be subjected to endless headlines about "how Reddit caught the Boston bomber" – and the whole cycle will be reinforced.

Update

The two guys who Reddit fingered then backed down on are now being accused of being terrorists on the front page of one of America's biggest tabloids. If, as seems likely, they are entirely innocent, it will be interesting to see whether Reddit is directly responsible for starting that chain of misinformation.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war