Creating Fake Twitter Accounts for Boston Suspects Is Stupid and Dangerous

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April 19 2013 12:43 PM

Do Not Create Fake Twitter Accounts for the Boston Suspects

It’s stupid and dangerous.

In the hours since the news broke that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev are the suspects in Monday's terrorist bombing in Boston, some of the Internet's dumbest trolls have taken to Twitter to create fake accounts for the younger suspect, Dzhokhar. As of Friday morning, at least three fake Dzhokhar accounts had been created.

As journalist Steve Silberman noted, "Falsifying Twitter accounts during breaking news is the dumbest hack EVER." Not only does it require no skill, the pointlessness of the troll is jaw-dropping, as each fake account only ever garners minutes of attention before it is inevitably discovered as a fake. It is also damaging.

At 7:33 a.m., as most of us were waking up to the astonishing news of Thursday night's manhunt, someone created the account @Dzhokhar_A and started repeating the following threat to the Boston Police Department's Twitter account: "I will kill you all as you killed my brother." His first tweet was retweeted more than 400 times. The feed was debunked within minutes of going up, but it still managed to make the rounds enough for police scanners to repeat it. The debunked account was then recycled by journalists on Twitter to complete the circle. As Will Oremus rightfully points out, this shows the danger of journalists on Twitter relying on police scanners and vice versa. It also demonstrates the real harm that these Twitter "hackers" cause by taking advantage of a breaking news situation to fool the media and, much more importantly, the police.

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One could say that these morons do us all a service by exposing bad journalism from reporters who go on to repeat unverified information. The Daily Caller, for instance, retweeted its senior editor Vince Coglianese citing the Twitter account @Dzhokhar_ as being identified as Tsarnaev's "real Twitter account, where he advocated gun control in America." Not only did this violate journalistic Twitter best practices to avoid unverified speculation—it did so in the worst possible way: as an effort at political point-scoring that underlined that specific news outlet's ideological bias.

Still, if all @Dzhokhar_ accomplished with his idiotic Twitter ruse was to prove that the Daily Caller is not the most scrupulous news organization, he will not have showed us anything we didn't already know. And in the meantime, he may have done real harm.

If Internet sleuths want to gain clues from allegedly real accounts, maybe they should do some real reporting.

UPDATE, 3:58 p.m.: Coglianese sent a tweet to me saying that he did not mean to endorse the claim that this was the suspect's real Twitter account. He also noted that both he and the Daily Caller were quick to correct the record, offering a correction within 15 minutes of the original tweet. The point still stands, though, that the speculation and political posturing should never have been sent in the first place.

Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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