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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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