#BostonBombing: The Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster

By Alexis C. Madrigal
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Reuters

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."

The informational cascade was fully on. @YourAnonNews's tweet was retweeted more than 3,000 times. We don't know how far Hughes's, Kaczynski's, or Michael's tweets went because they've been deleted. Hundreds of references to their tweets remain on Twitter.

By this time, there was a full-on frenzy as thousand upon thousands of tweets poured out, many celebrating new media's victory in trouncing old media. It was all so shockingly new and the pitch was so high and it was so late at night on one of the craziest days in memory. That Redditors might have identified the bomber hours before anyone but law enforcement seemed like amazing redemption for people who'd supported Reddit's crowdsourcing efforts.

Hughes himself, the primary source of the information on Twitter, tweeted, "If Sunil Tripathi did indeed commit this #BostonBombing, Reddit has scored a significant, game-changing victory." And then later, he continued, "Journalism students take note: tonight, the best reporting was crowdsourced, digital and done by bystanders. #Watertown."

Within a few hours, however, NBC's Williams had confirmed with his sources that two Chechnyan brothers were the primary suspects in the case. Their names and stories came out quickly. This horrible deed of misidentification ended mercifully quickly. Apologies were made.

In the aftermath, I kept coming back to the moment when the fevered detective work of a subreddit broke out into a national story within minutes. Where had that authority come from? How had so many people bought in so fast? 

The key moment was clearly at 2:43am when Hughes tweeted that the police scanner had mentioned these two names as suspects.

Never mind that even if the scanner chatter had mentioned Tripathi and Mulugeta, that would not have been enough to call them suspects. The supposed presence of these names on the lips of Boston police was convincing evidence that something was going on and that they were somehow linked to the crime.

Hughes, for his part, maintained (a bit cryptically) that he got the information when, "It was posted on the scanner and was transcribed on Reddit." I've reached out to him for comment, but haven't heard back. I also reached out to many of the other early tweeters of the scanner misinformation to ask if any heard Tripathi's name with their own ears. A few have maintained that they have. Others say that they listened to the feed for the entire time and never heard it, or were away from the feed during the time when the tweets broke out. As I said earlier, at least two group attempts to transcribe the available feeds did not find Tripathi's name, according to text that they sent me. 

A few things are for sure: the scanner chatter never mentioned the two false suspects together. The scanner chatter never mentioned them as suspects, either. The scanner chatter recordings contain no record of any mention. And no one has been able to produce any recording of the scanner mentioning Tripathi.

This presents us with a strange mystery that I wish I could fully solve, but I can't.

Perhaps this is some kind of hoax perpetrated by some unknown group.

Or maybe people heard Tripathi's name, even though police never said it. Many of the people who thought they heard Tripathi's name already knew about the Reddit-centered suspicions about the student. Police had also said another name earlier in the evening and spelled it out. Perhaps they were primed to hear the name and among the static and unreliable connections to these scanners, they heard what they wanted to hear.

Maybe that's what I want to believe. Because otherwise, I just don't understand what happened last night. A piece of evidence that fit a narrative some people really wanted to believe was conjured into existence and there was no stopping its spread.

No one gets off easy here. This isn't a new media versus old media story. All kinds of people participated in last night's mistake. All I can say is thank you to NBC's Williams and the case's real investigators for coming forward so quickly with the information that cleared the false suspects' names.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/04/-bostonbombing-the-anatomy-of-a-misinformation-disaster/275155/