#BostonBombing: The Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster

How a terrible mistake falsely linking two people to the Boston bombing spread so far so fast
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In the middle of the last night's nearly unbelievable turn of events, for a few hours, hundreds of thousands of people received a message about the identity of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers that was painfully false. Word got out that the Boston Police Department scanner had declared the names of the two suspects.

But the names that went out over first social networks and then news blogs and websites were not Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation released early this morning. Instead, two other people wholly unconnected to the case became, for a while, two of America's most notorious alleged criminals.

This is the story, as best as I can puzzle it out, about how such bad information about this case became widely shared and accepted within the space of a couple of hours before NBC's Pete Williams' sources began telling the real story about the alleged bombers' identities.

The story begins with speculation on Twitter and Reddit that a missing Brown student, Sunil Tripathi, was one of the bombers. One person who went to high school with him thought she recognized him in the surveillance photographs. People compared photos they could find of him to the surveillance photos released by the FBI. It was a leading theory on the subreddit devoted to investigating the bombing that Tripathi was one of the terrorists responsible for the crime.

Meanwhile, at 2:14am Eastern, an official on the police scanner said, "Last name: Mulugeta, M-U-L-U-G-E-T-A, M as in Mike, Mulugeta." And thus was born the newest suspect in the case: Mike Mulugeta. It doesn't appear that Mulugeta, whoever he or she is, has a first name of Mike. And yet that name, "Mike Mulugeta," was about to become notorious.

But not at first. 

A single tweet references Mulugeta at the time his name was said on the scanner. A Twitter user named Carcel Mousineau simply said, "Just read the name Mike Mulugeta on the scanner." It was retweeted exactly once. In the unofficial transcript of the scanner on Reddit, at least as it stands now, the reading of the name was recorded simply: "Police listed a name, unclear if related."

The next step in this information flow is the trickiest one. Here's what I know. At 2:42am, Greg Hughes, who had been following the Tripathi speculation, tweeted, "This is the Internet's test of 'be right, not first' with the reporting of this story. So far, people are doing a great job. #Watertown" Then, at 2:43am, he tweeted, "BPD has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi."

The only problem is that there is no mention of Sunil Tripathi in the audio preceding Hughes' tweet. I've listened to it a dozen times and there's nothing there even remotely resembling Tripathi's name. I've embedded the audio from 2:35 to 2:45 am for your own inspection. Multiple groups of people have been crowdsourcing logs of the police scanner chatter and none of them have found a reference to Tripathi, either. It's just not there.

Could some people have heard the name, but somehow that did not make it into the canonical recording at Broadcastify? I don't think one can rule anything out with this story, but it seems, at least, unlikely. (No other recordings have turned up from this time period in which Tripathi's name is mentioned.)

Yet the information was spreading like crazy. Seven minutes after Hughes' tweet, Kevin Michael (@KallMeG), a cameraman for the Hartford, Connecticut CBS affiliate, tweeted, "BPD scanner has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi. #Boston #MIT." More media people started to pick things up around then, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski most quickly. His original tweet has since been deleted but retweets of it began before midnight and reached far and wide. Other media people, including Digg's Ross Newman, Politico's Dylan Byers, and Newsweek's Brian Ries, also tweeted about the scanner ID as 3am approached. Then, at exactly 3:00 Eastern, @YourAnonNews, Anonymous's main Twitter account tweeted, "Police on scanner identify the names of #BostonMarathon suspects in gunfight, Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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