The night the Boston bombers were hunted down by the police in an unprecedented show of force unfolding on live television there was another drama unfolding online. Several of us were following a police scanner just as they were on the trail of the suspects. What pointed to their guilt, of course, were the pipe bombs they threw at police and the testimony of one witness whose car they had stolen. His life was spared and he lived to tell the tail of who the two brothers were.
At the same time, several threads on Reddit were tracking someone they thought to be one of the Boston bombers. He was misidentified as a young man from India who had disappeared from Brown University one day, leaving behind his cell phone and identification. That news began to seep out into the mainstream and unfortunately I was one of those responsible for using my own credibility as an internet source to pass on this information. Although hours after my own tweets pointed suspicion at Sunil Tripathi, the FBI released the names of bombers, names they probably had for a lot longer than the public had any knowledge of. Moreover, the FBI would have also known that it was not, nor could not be, Sunil Tripathi. They are the FBI, the internet is, well, not.
When the FBI held up the photos of the Boston bombers and asked the public for help, they were expecting people who knew the bombers to come forward. But what they could not have anticipated, what they have never taken responsibility for, what no one has really discussed at all is whether or the FBI is culpable in helping to whip a potential witch hunt by scared and concerned citizens who were using the powerful tool of the internet to track down anyone they thought might be the bombers.
True, they specifically ordered the public to stand down, to do nothing but report information. They instructed people not to act on the public’s behalf. But was that enough? Have we now crossed into a different era where the FBI should be more mindful of what the public might do with such a powerful information tool as the internet at its fingertips?
The FBI released blurry photos of the Boston bombing suspects, which triggered a flurry of activity online by concerned citizens who truly believed they were helping the FBI find their men. When all was said and done, those who went on the various witch hunts were nailed to the wall but no one said anything about the FBI’s role that night. It comes down to this: in the post-911 internet age the FBI – and any government body for that matter – ought to be fully prepared for this kind of thing to happen with regularity should they once again ask for the public’s help. It is a dangerous game where the word “terrorist” is involved. If you’re talking about a bank robbery or a kidnapping – these Amber alerts we all get on our cell phones – we can cull our resources to help law enforcement find the perps. But when you’re talking terrorists we have been conditioned both by the acts of the terrorists themselves (they are willing to die in order to kill their enemy) and by our own government that when it comes to terrorists and us it is truly a matter of life or death.
As it happened, Sunil Tripathi had already killed himself a month prior to the evening of the manhunt. But what if he hadn’t? What if he had been very much alive? What if people knew his whereabouts? We are already at the point in this country where we have carte blanche to get terrorists dead or alive. We have all seen most of our civil rights thrown out the window in such cases. Those bombers had no due process because they’d already put themselves in danger when they threatened law enforcement with pressure cooker bombs.
What happened that night is going to be the subject of a documentary I recently participated in hoping to bring the event to light in order to better understand what kind of world we’re living now and what led to such a dangerous chain of events to unfold. Citizen journalism is what will be blamed. Twitter will be blamed. The New York Times was happy to do a story on the events because it gave them a chance to really fortify their position as “reliable news source” while Twitter and Reddit were discredited instantly. Had the bomber actually turned out to be Tripathi (ludicrous as it sounds) what then? As it happened, the status quo was maintained. Mainstream media proved more reliable than citizen journalism because they take the simple but important step of fact-checking before they roll out a story.
But competition is fierce. If the New York Times is falling behind Joe Asshole on Twitter who is tweeting out factoids from listening to the police scanner, suddenly it looks as though the NY Times is out of it, not with the story, not the go-to place for breaking news. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook or Reddit you’re scouring the internet for the fastest news possible, eager for the next thing no one has heard yet, either to know it for yourself or to pass it on.
After the shooting in Oregon there were reports that an officer had taken down the shooter. That news went far and wide before the correct news came out the following day that the shooter had taken his own life. But we live with this kind of wrong-then-right breaking news now as though it should be completely normal. Most of the time, as with this shooter, it wouldn’t make much of a difference if it was wrong or if it was right. With Sunil Tripathi, potentially, it would have made a big difference. Even though he was dead it made a big difference to his family who were mourning the loss of their beloved son.
It made a big difference to a man named Abdulrahman Alharbi, falsely accused by Glenn Beck as the “money man” funneling funds to the bombers. The 20 year-old student from Arabia had been injured at the marathon was later questioned by police. Though he was cleared of wrongdoing Beck did not let up, urging the feds to “release information” or Beck would “expose” him.
From the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/04/01/glenn-beck-sued-for-defamation-after-calling-victim-of-boston-marathon-bombings-the-money-man-behind-attack/?tid=hp_mm
“Let me send this message very clear,” said Beck, who left Fox News in 2011. ”We know who this Saudi national is…. We know who this man is and, listen to me carefully, we know he is a very bad, bad, bad man.”
Beck continued days later: “While the media continues to look at what the causes were [behind] these two guys, there are, at this hour, three people involved,” he said, alleging the U.S. government had “tagged” Alharbi as a “proven terrorist.”
The broadcaster eventually called Alharbi an al-Qaeda “control agent” and the “money man” behind the attacks. “You know who the Saudi is?” Beck asked. “He’s the money man. He’s the guy who paid for it.”
Beck is being sued now for defamation, as well he should be. I do not know whether this is being included in the documentary on citizen journalism but in Beck’s case I think it is much bigger and more frightening than that, considering who he is and who his followers are.
Even still, as irresponsible as it was for me to pass on the false story about Tripathi, and as irresponsible as it was (I think) for the FBI to give the public carte blanche in helping to find the “terrorist”, how far are we away from what just happened in Brazil?
A woman was lynched to death because people on a Facebook group had heard and then discussed her having kidnapped children and used them for black magic. The Facebook post has since been taken down but it reportedly depicted a police sketch of someone who resembled 33 year-old Fabiane Maria de Jesus. We are no longer really talking about citizen journalism here but mob rule. How terrifying that no sources were needed, none were checked, no law enforcement was involved – just concerned and angry citizens out to avenge children, or so they thought. They were completely wrong and killed an innocent woman.
An innocent woman is killed in Brazil by a mob formed on Facebook – KILLED. Innocent — vaguely swarthy, vaguely “Middle Eastern looking men” were falsely accused of being terrorists.
Both stories threaten the lives of innocent people. But only one had the FBI involved. Given that level of authority, there is no telling what people might do in the name of truth, justice and the American way. Hell, look at what they did in Brazil without any authority whatsoever.
In the end, I have to wonder what the FBI would have done had Tripathi been hauled out to the street and mobbed by freaked out Americans. Would they have changed how they approach the public after an act as frightening as the Boston bombing? Would they consider Tripathi to be collateral damage in an ongoing war with radical Islam?
None of this removes my own responsibility in the matter to check my sources more carefully and to, perhaps, not pass on information that is pure speculation, with no supporting facts to back it up. Some might go a step further and say, “you’re an entertainment blogger – what business is it of yours to pass on this information anyway?” But we live in an era where anyone will pass on information if they believe it will be helpful to catch the killers. We have to start there and work backwards. Even if I never tweet another thing in my life (which isn’t bad advice) it doesn’t change what people will do when confronted with something that tests the limits, and the power, of instant online communication.
The internet has given us enormous power and thought it feels like a giant step into the future, it also feels like an even bigger step back, to the times in our history where stuff like this happened with frightening regularity.
Full Text: FBI update on Boston Marathon bombings
Good afternoon. My name is Richard DesLauriers. I am the special agent in charge of the Boston Division of the FBI.
Since Monday’s bombings, the FBI and our law enforcement partners have been working around the clock and are fully committed to investigating this matter to bring those responsible for justice.
Our collective law enforcement team has pursued thousands leads and tips. As I said two days ago, we are working methodically and with a sense of urgency to identify those responsible for the bombings. Within the last day or so, through that careful process, we initially developed a single person of interest. Not knowing if the individual was acting alone or in concert with others, we obviously worked with extreme purpose to make that determination. The entire force of the federal government, the FBI in Boston and around the world, as well as our partners in the Boston Police, ATF, Massachusetts State Police, and the more than 30 agencies of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, have set about to ensure that all responsible for the bombings will be brought to justice.
More importantly, it was done to ensure the future safety of the city, the commonwealth and the country. Indeed, through that process, the FBI developed a second suspect.
Today, we are enlisting the public’s help to identify the two suspects.
After a very detailed analysis of photo, video, and other evidence, we are releasing photos of the two suspects. They are identified as Suspect 1 and Suspect 2. They appear to be associated.
Suspect 1 is wearing a black hat
Suspect 2 is wearing a white hat.
Suspect 2 set down a back pack at the site of the second explosion just in front of the Forum Restaurant.
We strongly encourage those who were at the Forum Restaurant who have not contacted us yet to do so.
As you can see from one of the images, Suspects 1 and 2 appear to be walking together through the marathon crowd on Boylston Street in the direction of the finish line. That image was captured as they walked on Boylston in the vicinity of its intersection with Gloucester Street.
As you can see, the quality of the photos is quite good, but we will continue to work on developing additional images to improve their identification.
Further, on FBI.gov, we have videos of the suspects. The photos and videos are posted for the public and media to use, review and publicize.
For clarity, these images should be the only ones—the only ones—that the public should view to assist us. Other photos should not be deemed credible and unnecessarily divert the public’s attention in the wrong direction and create undue work for vital law enforcement resources.
For more than 100 years, the FBI has relied on the public to be its eyes and ears. With the media’s help, in an instant, these images will be delivered directly into the hands of millions around the world. We know the public will play a critical role in identifying and locating them.
Somebody out there knows these individuals as friends, neighbors, co-workers, or family members of the suspects. Though it may be difficult, the nation is counting on those with information to come forward.
No bit of information, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, is too small. Each piece moves us forward towards justice.
It is extremely important to contact us with any information regarding the identities of Suspect 1 and Suspect 2 and their locations.
We considered them to be armed and extremely dangerous. No one should approach them. No one should attempt to apprehend them except law enforcement. Let me reiterate that caution. Do not take any action on your own. If you see these men, contact law enforcement. If you know anything about the bombings or the men pictured here, please call the telephone listed on the photo arrays—that’s 1-800 CALL FBI. Again that’s 1-800 225-5324. All calls will be kept confidential.
We also have established a website for tips that directly relate to the bombing—bostonmarathontips.fbi.gov. Again, that website is bostonmarathontips.fbi.gov
The photos can be viewed on our website: FBI.gov.
The images from Monday are indelible and the horror of that day will remain with us forever. This further underscores our obligation to investigate this crime judiciously in order to bring those responsible to justice. The victims and the survivors deserve that much.
As to Monday’s victims, the FBI is committed to ensuring that victims receive the rights they are entitled to and the assistance they need to cope with crime. Treating victims with respect and providing them with assistance benefits victims and helps us build better cases. Our resources include an Office for Victim Assistance at FBI Headquarters and victim specialists nationwide. These highly trained professionals can assist victims and coordinate with other agencies to provide victims with the support, information, and resources necessary to effectively meet their needs. Our victim specialist team continues to work around the clock to bring assistance to the victims of this heinous act.
Identifying and locating those responsible is now our priority. No other details of the investigation will be released at this time because this is our focus now.
Review these photographs and contact us at 1-800-CALL-FBI or bostonmarathontips.fbi.gov immediately.