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.

Getty
Show Hide image

A father’s murderous rage, the first victims of mass killers and Trump’s phantom campaign

From the family courts to the US election campaigns.

On 21 June, Ben Butler was found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie. She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely ­accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

 

Red flags

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Shooter stats

On the same theme, it was no surprise to learn that the Orlando gunman who killed 49 people at a gay club had beaten up his ex-wife. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, looked at FBI data on mass killings and found that 16 per cent of attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence, and 57 per cent of the killings included a family member. The Sandy Hook gunman’s first victim was his mother.

 

Paper candidate

Does Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exist if he is not on television saying something appalling about minorities? On 20 June, his campaign manager Corey Lew­andowski quit (or was pushed out). The news was broken to the media by Trump’s 27-year-old chief press officer, Hope Hicks. She was talent-spotted by The Donald after working for his daughter Ivanka, and had never even volunteered on a campaign before, never mind orchestrated national media coverage for a presidential candidate.

At least there aren’t that many staffers for her to keep in line. The online magazine Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reported that Trump currently has 30 staffers nationwide. Three-zero. By contrast, Bouie writes, “Team Clinton has hired 50 people in Ohio alone.” Trump has also spent a big fat zero on advertising in swing states – though he would argue his appearances on 24-hour news channels and Twitter are all the advertising he needs. And he has only $1.3m in his campaign war chest (Clinton has $42.5m).

It feels as though Trump’s big orange visage is the facial equivalent of a Potemkin village: there’s nothing behind the façade.

 

Divided Johnsons

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Johnson family Christmas celebrations. As Boris made much of his late conversion to Leave, the rest of the clan – his sister Rachel, father Stanley and brothers, Leo and Jo – all declared for Remain. Truly, another great British institution torn apart by the referendum.

 

Grrr-eat revelations

The highlight of my week has been a friend’s Facebook thread where she asked everyone to share a surprising true fact about themselves. They were universally amazing, from suffering a cardiac arrest during a job interview to being bitten by a tiger. I highly recommend repeating the experience with your own friends. Who knows what you’ll find out? (PS: If it’s juicy, let me know.)

Peter Wilby is away

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain