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Why Twitter Didn't Believe the "Hacked" AP, But Bought False Facts About Boston Manhunt

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, April 24 2013

When the Associated Press' Twitter account caused a brief stir Tuesday by posting a false report that President Barack Obama had been injured in a fictitious bombing at the White House, stocks plummeted — for a few minutes.

Other Twitter accounts associated with the AP announced that the wire service's handle had been hacked. An NBC reporter posted an image from the station's live feed of the White House, showing that everything was peaceful. Soon the incident became fodder for jokes, such as "I think if I hacked AP, I would go with 'SETI detects coherent narrowband non-terrestrial signal. President to address nation at 7 pm EST'" — humor developing into a strong indicator that an event is approaching the end of its social-media life cycle.

That response differed significantly from the situation late into the night on April 18 and early the next morning, a Friday, as the first reports emerged of the manhunt that would bring Boston to a halt for a full day.


What began with the shooting death of MIT campus police officer Sean Collier and the wounding of another officer, transit policeman Richard Donohue Jr., worked its way into the public consciousness after the sun had set and as many East Coast journalists were preparing to go to sleep.

In that news vacuum, people online turned to feeds of Boston-area police scanners for immediate information. What they heard was confusing, but complemented with some reports coming from people tweeting on the ground, listeners were able to piece together several details about the confrontation Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are alleged to have engaged in with police.

The scanner audience grew from 27,000 to more than 80,000 within those hours as characters as diverse as journalists, civilians in the Boston area and New York City, Washington, and California, the actress Mia Farrow and Democratic strategist Matt Ortega all signed on to Twitter to relay what they were hearing.

Search Engine Land editor Danny Sullivan created a Twitter list of people believed to be on the ground in the Watertown area in an effort to bring order to the confusion. When CNN finally began covering the chase just after 1 a.m, for those following on Twitter, it could not compete with real-time scanner traffic. People even announced they were watching CNN on mute, with an audio feed from the scanner turned up.

Those were the circumstances when, between 2 and 3 a.m., someone suggested that police on a scanner feed had said missing college student Sunil Tripathi and another person were the bombing suspects — names that were carelessly, even disastrously unrelated to the Tsarnaev brothers.

Alexis Madrigal writes that a user called Greg Hughes tweeted out that claim, but a review of police scanner audio showed that one name had briefly been mentioned earlier in the evening and Tripathi's name appeared nowhere in the audio but was ubiquitous amid the speculation on Reddit.

All of this came out the next day, after the suspects' names had already been plastered across the Internet and on television. In that moment late on a Thursday night, there was no immediate, authoritative reply — which is likely a reason why innocent people were the subject of scrutiny online for hours. In the moment, at least two people at least two people responded to Hughes by saying they hadn't heard what he had heard on the police scanner. But those denials were barely retweeted at all. Absent someone with more authority on social media to amplify calls of shenanigans, misinformation carried the day.

Police officials have said that information on scanners should be treaded as unverified and shouldn't be shared — because it might be wrong and because sharing it might put it within earshot of the wrong people. But with thousands of people listening, it's unclear if that's a realistic request to make — or given the way scanners filled an information void Thursday night, a reasonable one.

Yesterday, Blake Hounshell from Foreign Policy, posted, paraphrasing NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre's enthusiastic defense of guns as a solution to gun violence, "The only way to stop a bad guy with a Twitter account is a good guy with a Twitter account."

In situations like the Boston manhunt, that's more true than Hounshell may have realized.

Here's a Storify that shows how scanner traffic made its way onto Twitter on Thursday night: