by Mehrzad Pashutanizadeh
The blasts that sent shockwaves across the globe a little over two years ago on the afternoon of April 15th, 2013, on the corner of Vassar and Main Street in Boston, Massachusetts, would become a defining moment in the evolution of the internet. As one of the most massive manhunts in United States history captivated the attention and fears of the American people, another hunt less publicized, yet more revolutionary began.
Video and images of the bloody scenes of the Boston Bombings flooding the internet galvanized users of the exponentially expanding site Reddit to begin a witch hunt that would unknowingly create further victims of this horrific act of terror. With intentions of creating a subpage as a way to spread up-to-date information as well as media coverage, rules intended to prevent the catastrophe that ensued quickly deteriorated as the influx of posts to the subreddit r/findbostonbombers skyrocketed. Specific prohibited actions such as the posting of personal information were nonchalantly pushed aside as wannabe sleuths made bold accusations of who the perpetrators were, based on analyses of the limited content that was previously uploaded. Wild finger pointing, beginning as innocent attempts to use social media to help solve the mystery of the identities of the attackers, first focused on large groups of suspiciously clothed individuals, but then took an inexcusable turn as specific individuals, full identity and all, were posed as the suspects in question.
Boston youth, Yassine Zaimi and Salaheddin Barhoum, whose inherently middle eastern complexions and possession of a duffle bag and bulging backpack, became such overwhelmingly popular targets that the New York Times decided to print the image of the two men on the cover of its April 18th publication titled Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon. A recent lawsuit concluded last October with a settlement in favor of Zaimi and Barhoum over the New York Times for damaged reputations and emotional distress with shocking information brought to light during the short trial that preceded it. While the New York Times displayed emails that suggested authorities were looking for these two individuals, lawyers for the men cited an email from the Department of Homeland Security specifically stating the men were “not of interest" and that the identification of these men as the attackers was analyses of “bogus intel.”
Unfortunately, Yassine Zaimi and Salaheddin Barhoum were not the only recipients of the slander of this bogus intel, as in a twisted and eerie series of events Brown University student Sunil Tripathi became another stand out suspect as accounts of his disappearance a month earlier and an identification from a classmate who had not seen him in 3 years became outstanding evidence to Reddit, 4chan, and Facebook, users. The final verified guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers that was solidified with the firefights and manhunt that began in the early hours of April 19th, as well as the discovery of Tripathi’s body from an apparent suicide four days later, exonerated the student from the crimes but not without a great deal of pain for his family who had to watch the honor of their missing and eventually dead son be defamed.
With one brother dead and another in custody, the panic that swept throughout New England and the United States slowly passed, allowing us to once again regain our sense of critical thinking. Reddit’s public apology for the crude turn of events and eventual disintegration of r/findbostonbombers would bring the issues of crowd-sourced investigations and internet witch hunting to the nation’s attention, although the debilitating damage had already been done.
The concluding trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two real Boston Bombers, and the arrival of the two year anniversary forcing us to relive both of the tragedies that occurred that fateful week, makes it more important than ever to understand the causes that allowed such blunders in cyber security, journalistic integrity, and human decency. In retrospect, answers such as the dangerously increasing reliability on the Internet, and the rise of open online community systems dedicated to creating and sharing information, are viable explanations for why we reacted the way we did; however, an inconvenient truth that became more evident in the aftermath than any other, is our innate cultural instinct to attack before thinking. Had those who contributed to this delusional attempt to supercede law enforcement taken a day to think about the possible consequences of their actions, lives such as Yassine Zaimi, Salaheddin Barhoum, Sunil Tripathi, and many more, would not be only recognizable in association with this terrible event of with which they had absolutely nothing to do. The day will come when a tragedy, perhaps of even greater proportion, will once again test our will as nation. It will be our job then, the generation born into this great realm of technology, to make sure that the follies of our past do not become the actions of our future.
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