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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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

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

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era