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.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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