When crowdsourcing goes wrong: Reddit, Boston and missing student Sunil Tripathi

Reddit's initial hunt to find the Boston bombers devolved rapidly into a sort of "racist Where's Wally", profiling – racially and otherwise – scores of innocent people.

Update, 20 April: The two suspects for the bombing have been identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The former was killed in a gunfight with police in the early hours of 19 April, while the latter was arrested and is now in custody. Sunil Tripathi was found dead on 24 April.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 16 March, Sunil Tripathi, a student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, went missing, leaving behind a cryptic note. His whereabouts are still unknown, but for a brief moment, it looked like he was involved in far bigger things. His name turned up on the Boston Police Department's scanner early this morning, suddenly and without warning. We now know that BPD was mistaken: according to NBC and the Associated Press, the suspects are migrants from an area of Russia near Chechnya. But that didn't stop a lot of people getting very excited.

The BPD was chasing two men who had held up a 7/11, shot and killed a police officer, and then headed west, apparently hurling explosives out of the window of the stolen SUV they were driving. As the chase continued, it seemed more and more likely that the men must be related to the Boston Marathon bombing, and at 7:20am BST the Boston Globe confirmed it: one suspect had been taken into custody. That man, they now report, is dead. The second remains at large.

But it's not quite true to say that Sunil Tripathi's name first came up in this startlingly new context on the BPD scanner. Because Reddit "called it" first.

Late last night, Redditor pizzatime linked to reports of Tripathi's disappearance, asking "Is missing student Sunil Tripathi Marathon Bomber #2?". At that time, the FBI had just released photos of two suspects, neither of whom had appeared on any of Reddit's crowdsourced hunts for the bomber. But pizzatime noticed that one of them bore a resemblance to Tripathi, and posted accordingly.

 

 

 

Reddit had set themselves the task of finding a needle in a haystack, but failed to take account of the fact that they had no way to tell for certain whether they'd found a needle or a needle-like piece of hay. The initial hunt to find the bombers devolved rapidly into a sort of "racist Where's Wally", profiling – racially and otherwise – scores of innocent people.

It's hard to be certain of the provenance, but that crowdsourcing (along with 4Chan's who did much the same thing) certainly led to images stripped of their context being passed around as though they were confirmed, and probably had a hand in the New York Post smearing two innocent men on their front page. And now it looks like it smeared Tripathi, too.

But really, the crowdsourced hunt for the bomber should be split into two acts. The first, finding suspicious-looking people in photos of the marathon, was always going to end in innocents' reputations being destroyed. With no method of confirmation, few feet on the ground and a wealth of opportunity for false positives, Reddit was abysmally suited for the task, and it failed abjectly.

But once the photos of the suspects were released, it had more chance of being useful. "Do you know this man?" is the archetypal example crowdsourcing. Wanted posters have been used for over 130 years, and we've got a pretty good hang on how they work by now: you need to find someone, so you show their face to as many people as possible. Tripathi looked like the second bomber, and so his name was linked. But then Reddit took it further.

The crowdsourcing part of wanted posters is about making sure as many people as possible see the picture. It is emphatically not about making sure any allegations resulting from the picture are made public. That's not crowdsourcing, it's just speculating; there is little advantage in getting the crowd involved at that point, and the major downside that someone's life might be ruined based on who they look like.

Tripathi wasn't the bomber. He just looked like him. How his name ended up with the Boston Police Department remains unclear, but it is clear that he is not a suspect. Where he is remains an open question, but maybe one Reddit should steer clear of. The world hasn't changed that much.

The FBI's two suspect photos, now identified as the Tsarnaev brothers.

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

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No, identity politics is not to blame for the failures of the left

This is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality.

In these troubled times, it's good to know that moderate conservatives, anxious liberals and even your neighbourhood Trotskyist uncle can come together against the common enemy: students. Prissy, stuck-up students, with their trigger warnings and political correctness and highfalutin ideas about racial justice. It must be their fault. Forget the gurning neo-fascists goose-stepping into power across the globe, it's the students who are the real enemy. If they hadn't been so hung-up on identity politics, we wouldn't be staring into this abyss. You know I'm right.

That was me being sarcastic. The reason I need to point that out is that on or around 9 November 2016, the age of irony gave way to a new one of deadpan sincerity. It happened at some point between the election of an orange billionaire tycoon to the White House and authorities condemning Native American protesters at Standing Rock under the outgoing administration. So, unfortunately, I must be clear: no, I don't think that “identity politics” is the greatest threat to western civilisation. Some people, however, really do, and are at pains to point out that this geopolitical disaster could have been avoided if we had all been less precious about gay rights and women's rights and black lives and concentrated on the issues that matter to real people. Real people meaning, of course, people who aren't female, or queer, or brown, or from another country. You know, the people who really matter.

In the wake of successive victories for the venal far-right, commentators from all sides of the self-satisfied, chin-stroking debate school are blaming “identity politics” for the disaster on our doorsteps. What they seem to mean by this is “politics that matter to people who aren't white men in rural towns”. I have always thought of that simply as politics, but according to Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times, I was mistaken. Diversity, Lilla writes, is:

“A splendid principle of moral pedagogy  but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

This is an idea that has remarkable staying power across a fractious and divided left: the idea that issues of race, gender and sexuality are at best a distraction from class politics, and at worst a bourgeois tendency that will be destroyed after the revolution. The logic is that by focusing on issues of social justice, the political class has abandoned “real” working people to economic hardship.

This notion is horribly wrong, and the worst thing is that it's wrong in the right direction, a train of thought that stays safely on track right until it slams into the hoardings next to the station. The political class has indeed rolled over and let kamikaze capitalism wreck the lives of working people around the world. Identity politics, however, has little to do with that cowardice. That the two are now yoked together in the popular imagination is something the left must answer for.

All politics are identity politics, but some identities are more politicised than others. The notion that the politics of identity and belonging have been allowed to overwhelm seemingly intractable issues of class, power and poverty is, in fact, entirely correct  but this is not a problem for the traditional left. It is a problem for the traditional right, which has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy for centuries, pitting white workers against black and brown workers, men against women, native-born citizens against foreigners in a hierarchy of victimhood that diverts energy and anger away from the vested interests bankrolling the entire scheme.

As journalist Michelle Garcia noted, responding to Lilla in the New York Times:

 “The attack on political correctness fits within the brand of identity politics Donald Trump exploited during his campaign. Mr Trump's victory relied on fusing a culture of racism and sexism with economic anxieties and the backlash against neoliberalism.”

It's a shell-game. A con. It did not start with Donald Trump, but the real-estate mogul and social media tantrum-artist has taken it to its logical conclusion. The president-elect and his fellow travellers and sugar daddies have committed political fraud against the entire western world. They have compounded it – as all good fraudsters do – by making us believe that it was our fault for being so naive in the first place.

It is, to some extent, reassuring to believe that it’s all our fault. If it’s all our fault for being too politically-correct, too committed to “diversity”  if it were liberals and leftists who messed up by listening to these whining hippies with their patchouli-scented ideals of fairness and tolerance and police not shooting young black men dead for no reason  we might have to face the much scarier notion that what’s happening is, in fact, beyond our control. Instead, those who should know better are encouraging the most vulnerable to throw themselves under the bus for the greater good. This is not just offensive. It is also stupid.

The truth is that social justice and economic justice are not mutually exclusive. Those who would sacrifice one for the other will end up with neither, which is of course what the unscrupulous narcissists manspreading at the gates of power are counting on. The mainstream political left has, for generations, been unable to answer the core economic issues that  shocking, I know, but hear me out  affect the lives of all human beings, of every race, gender and background. For generations, in the face of late capitalist hegemony, all it could realistically achieve was to tweak the system incrementally, making things a little fairer for individual groups, without challenging the structural inequalities that created the injustice in the first place. This must change, and soon. Not just because of “fine moral principles”. Trying to fix economic policy without tackling structural inequality is not just morally misguided  it is intellectually bankrupt.

Race, gender and identity are not side issues in the current crisis. On the contrary. Capitalism has always divided its labour supply along lines of race and gender, ensuring that in times of unrest, we don't start burning our looms  far safer for us to set fire to one other. All politics are identity politics, and this is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality. This is when we double down. The fight against the corporate neo-fascism funnelling out of every television set is not a fight that can be won if liberals, leftists and social justice campaigners turn on one another. It is a fight that we will win together, or not at all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.