By WILL GLOVINSKY posted at 6:00 am on April 23, 2013
Thursday night’s abhorrent online vigilantism — in which Reddit and Twitter users seized upon police radio chatter to accuse a missing (and completely innocent) Brown University student of bombing the Boston Marathon — reminded us of one of the most under-acknowledged facts of the internet: that beyond the sleek, profitable edifices of Web 2.0 there remains the humming, virtual presence of an online crowd that is restive, unpredictable, and hungry for a cause.
One need only glance at a few of the threads from Thursday night to get a sense of the zeal, numbers, and unscrupulousness of the throngs that intercepted two misidentified names and promptly set about defaming one. As with any physical crowd, what began as isolated innuendo quickly became the rallying cry of thousands. At midnight, Anonymous tweeted the full names of two possible suspects mentioned by the police — one of them the missing student, Sunil Tripathi — but omitted the all-important modifier “possible.” By morning, the post had been retweeted over 3,000 times, and it was not until the police confirmed the identities of the actual suspects, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, that the crowd’s furor over Tripathi subsided.
I first learned of the night’s disturbing events the following morning, when a friend called to warn me that Sunil Tripathi had been the victim of an online smear campaign. A year and a half ago I had visited this friend in Providence, and on the way there I happened to share a ride with Sunil and another Brown student. I had not met him before or since, and I did not know he was missing. My thoughts immediately went out to his family and friends, though soon I was also checking Reddit and Twitter to see the damage for myself. What I found were the digital debris of an internet lynch mob — incendiary posts, hastily produced collages of Tripathi’s face next to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s, some comments that had since been deleted, some that had been redacted to note that he was not, in fact, their man.
It’s a bit unfashionable to speak darkly of “the crowd” these days. One might think that the term itself betrays a certain elitism or establishmentarianism, and yet the odd state of affairs is that it is precisely the establishment — generally business and mainstream media — that has recently embraced the power and resourcefulness of the online multitudes. In the past decade, much has been made of the untapped energy of online crowds, of their wisdom, ingenuity, and potential for productivity. Search Amazon and you will find, apart from James Surowiecki’s inaugural 2004 discussion The Wisdom of Crowds, titles like Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business and We Are Smarter than Me: How to Unleash the Power of Crowds in Your Business.
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