Although the Web carries with it great collaborative potential, mistakes can be made in the heat of a crisis, especially when research is being led by amateurs. It is even worse when online actors “dox”—or publicly release the private information of—the incorrect person. As online social communities grow, bands of well-meaning users are increasingly trying to play detective to enforce a type of street justice—and about as often, they get it wrong.
The consequences can be miserable, as those affected tell The Daily Beast in interviews.
The misidentified Ferguson shooter
This week the nebulous hacker collective Anonymous released the name of a man they believed to be the shooter of Michael Brown, the teen killed in Ferguson, Missouri, last Saturday. They were flat out wrong. Not only did Anonymous issue the incorrect name, posting the information of a man who had never been a St. Louis police officer, but the vigilante hackers also acquired a false address. They posted the address of the man’s 48-year-old stepmother, Stephanie Warnack.
“Wow, this is not good,” she said, when informed by a national reporter. She began to weep. “Now I have to defend myself and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
A harried-sounding woman answered the phone at a publicly listed number for Warnack on Friday. The phone had been ringing off the hook all morning, the woman told The Daily Beast, refusing to identify herself.
“Don’t call back again,” she warned.
Twitter messages show there was some internal dissension among Anonymous hackers as to whether they had the correct name. Despite misgivings, some decided to release it anyway—with unfortunate results for those wrongly fingered as responsible for a police shooting that has led to widespread protests in the Missouri suburb.
The wrong Boston Marathon bombing suspect
In April 2013, Reddit users began to speculate that one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects looked like missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.
Online commenters remarked that the student bore a similarity to one of the suspects pictured in a picture released by the FBI. Their suspicions were solidified by a user who supposedly went to school with Sunil and wrote that she recognized him in the FBI photos.
So as they continued the search for their son and brother, the Tripathi family had to deal with a second, overwhelming ordeal: the flood of accusations and insults that comes with being associated with a violent, criminal act.
“We were already in a very tense and anxious state, having looked for Sunil for 32 days or so,” Judy Tripathi, Sunil’s mother, told The Daily Beast. “The whole night the phone was ringing off the hook with news reporters and nasty messages. It was devastating because we knew it wasn’t him, and we were so worried… It just seemed to be an epidemic.”
Of course, Tripathi had nothing to do with the bombing. His body was found after the Tsarnaev brothers were fingered as suspects in the bombings. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a shootout with police in a Boston suburb, and younger brother Dzhokhar is facing charges for his involvement in the attacks.
But before Sunil’s body was found, his mother was most concerned that the online speculation might cause someone to recognize him on the street.
“The thought of this misidentification and what anyone would do if they saw him, or what Sunil would feel if he got wind of this news, was beyond my imagination,” she explained. “It was just another horrible thing on top of everything else… it’s very unsettling, because it can happen again [to others].”
The general manager of Reddit later apologized for the community’s inaccurate sleuthing, which “fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation.”
The impact of the error will stay with Sunil’s family for all time.
“When you Google his name, forever, it just pops up a million sources that are connected to the Boston bombing. When you’re trying to memorialize your 22-year-old, that’s very horrible. It’s had a very devastating long-term impact,” Judy Tripathi said.
After Newtown: Adam Lanza, not Ryan Lanza
In December 2012, Adam Lanza shot more than two dozen people in what has come to be known as the Sandy Hook massacre. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, his brother Ryan was forced to defend himself online as commenters flooded onto his Facebook page. Ryan’s identification was found at the scene of crime.
“Everyone shut the f*** up it wasn’t me,” he wrote on his page. “I’m on the bus home now it wasn’t me. IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.”
Adam had not spoken to his brother in a year, according to a book on the shootings, but the younger Lanza had carried his identification during the shooting, leading to police, media, and online commenters to finger him as a suspect.
So the elder brother, whose family member had just shot and killed his mother, along with 20 children at an elementary school, had to deal not only with the trauma of that nightmare, but also with defending his own reputation. And much like Sunil Tripathi, his name will forever be associated with an act he was not involved in.
Reached by phone, he did not appear interested in reliving the ordeal.
“I’m out of the country right now,” Ryan Lanza said, before hanging up.