Social Media

FBI, rioters and social media: The pitfalls of online vigilantism

US authorities are conducting crowdsourced investigations to identify rioters after the siege of the Capitol. But an expert is warning of the significant damage that can occur when online detectives get it wrong.

As online detectives scramble to identify the rioters who stormed the US Capitol, a social media expert is warning about the dangers of social media vigilantism.

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Police Department released a 26-page digital booklet of faces from the attack, asking those who recognised any individuals to contact the authorities.

The FBI posted a similar callout, asking for the public to help identify those who engaged in “rioting or violence in and around the US Capitol” on January 6. 

And it seems social media detectives didn’t need to be asked twice.

Supporters of Donald Trump climbing the west wall of the the US Capitol in Washington during the riot
Supporters of Donald Trump climbing the west wall of the US Capitol in Washington during the riot
AAP

Internet sleuths have already tracked down a number of rioters and publicised their identities, causing several people to be fired from their jobs. 

One Twitter thread devoted to identifying those involved read: "Let's name and shame them!”.

While 18-year-old Helena Duke outed her mother for taking part in the riot, tweeting: “‘Hi mom remember the time you told me I shouldn’t go to BLM protests bc they could get violent… this you?”

Dr Axel Bruns is a social media researcher at the Queensland University of Technology.

He said tracking down rioters has been relatively straight-forward as many individuals have published incriminating evidence of their alleged crimes online. 

Several interactive maps have drawn on the abundance of content from Parler, as well as GPS metadata, to give an insight into the insurrection.

Dr Bruns said MAGA supporters openly shared this content on social media as they felt their involvement was justified and had been requested by US President Donald Trump.

“There’s been a trove of content from Parler that’s been accessed and shared and people have used Facebook, Twitter, Gab and all the other platforms to live stream some of their activities,” he told The Feed.

When online vigilantism becomes dangerous

With social media users on the case, there are growing concerns about the wrong people getting caught up in the naming and shaming efforts.

A person wears a shirt with the letter Q, referring to QAnon, during events at the US Capitol on Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021
A person wears a shirt with the letter Q, referring to QAnon, during events at the US Capitol on Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021
AP

Dr Bruns said in cases of online vigilantism, there is a possibility that someone might be identified for merely looking like another person or being an innocent bystander. 

“There may be some people who engage in mischief if they see someone in those pictures looks a bit like someone they really don’t like,” he added.

“They could try and deliberately misidentify them and thereby make their lives difficult.”

Crowdsourced investigations were brought under severe scrutiny after the Boston bombings in 2013.

As users on Reddit, 4Chan, Twitter and Facebook pieced together clues from the attack and forensically examined footage of the event, Sunil Tripathi, a missing student, was wrongly identified as the culprit. 

Another person singled out as a suspect was 17-year-old, Salah Barhoun, whose photo was published on the front page of the New York Post after Reddit users posted information about his whereabouts. 

Sunil Tripathi
22-year old philosophy major, Sunil Tripathi, had been missing since March 15, 2013.
Reuters

When he saw the front-page story, with the headline ‘Bag Men’, Mr Barhoun told ABC News, "It's the worst feeling that I can possibly feel… I'm only 17."

There are dozens of examples of online sleuths going after innocent people. One memorable instance was of Sikh man and freelance writer, Veerender Jubbal, who was wrongly accused of coordinating a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015.

Salah Eddin Barhoum
Photos of Salah Eddin Barhoum, 17, and friend Yassine Zaime were posted on the front page of the New York Post.
USA Today

Images Mr Jubbal posted on social media were photoshopped and shared by a Twitter user to show him holding a Quran and wearing a vest filled with explosives.

“This image has been used, and placed on the front page of a major Spain newspaper — putting me as one of the people behind terrorist attacks,” Mr Jubbal wrote on Twitter.

“In gauging this entire incident — millions upon millions of people have seen the photoshopped images, and have placed me as a terrorist.”

Dr Bruns said if someone is widely misidentified on social media or in the media itself, there can be very “significant” and “lasting” damage to their reputation even after a correction is made.

“These sorts of false reports, if they happen, may or may not be taken down from news sites or social media… So once that kind of claim is out there it’s very difficult to entirely make that disappear,” Dr Bruns said.

“It’s possible that down the track... if they’re going for a job interview, that information might still be associated with them in some form and it might not always be clear to someone seeing it for the first time that it is false and misleading.”

A federal judge has ordered a far-right conspiracy theorist who left an ominous note for Vice-President Mike Pence inside the US Capitol to be detained.
A federal judge has ordered a far-right conspiracy theorist who left an ominous note for Vice-President Mike Pence inside the US Capitol to be detained.
Getty Images North America

Dr Bruns said online detectives should be aware of the potential harm to others and themselves if they actively attempt to identify rioters. 

“Others in that mob may come after you if you become prominent as this ‘Trumpist hunter’. Some of their sympathisers may try to identify you and do you harm,” he told The Feed.

He suggested avoiding posting about individuals on social media and only reporting this information to authorities through official channels. 

“Don’t just tweet it at the FBI account,” he said.

“Contact investigative teams through the proper channels and if you don’t think law enforcement is doing enough, the other thing that could be possible might be to contact the media.”