Imagine waking up one day to find your social media accounts swamped with vitriolic messages mistakenly denouncing you as a hate-mongering racist.
What would you do if strangers publicly smeared your name across the reaches of the internet for your friends, family and colleagues to see? What if you had to flee your home because you no longer felt safe?
This is exactly what happened to Kyle Quinn, a professor at Arkansas University, who was mistakenly targeted by internet vigilantes attempting to hunt down white supremacists who attended the Charlottesville rally in August. He bore a slight resemblance to one of the attendees who was sporting a shirt that read "Arkansas Engineering," which was apparently enough to illicit the vitriolic response. Quinn, of course, was nowhere near the rally at the time, having spent the evening at a restaurant and art museum with his wife and colleague over 1,000 miles away.
"Around Charlottesville, we've seen a lot of shaming around people in attendance, and unfortunately, at the same time, a lot of misidentification of others, which has further complicated their own lives," Ben Decker, a research coordinator at Storyful, told Circa.
Decker and his team comb through raw information, videos and images on the internet and social media to verify their accuracy for newsrooms across the country. It's a skill set that requires meticulous attention to detail and investigatory experience. Unfortunately, the same networks that allow Storyful to provide quality information can also be misused by those who do not have the same ethics or expertise.
It's a problem that has been going on since the advent of social media. One of the first notable examples involved Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who was accused of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Tripathi had been missing for some time, and friends and family were trying to use social media to help find him. Instead, armchair sleuths used grainy photos released by the FBI to suggest he may be one of the bombers. Some journalists even mistakenly made the connection. Tripathi was later found dead near Providence. He had never been near the streets of Boston on that fateful day.
"It's truly tragic for the family," noted Decker. "I think one of the biggest differences between the Boston bombing and Charlottesville was the internet was at a much more premature and adolescent stage."
The same cybersleuthing was seen during the Las Vegas shooting as well, as social media users were quick to speculate on the gunman's motivation and possible affiliations.
Decker's team is comprised of intelligence analysts, journalists and technologists who have developed their investigatory skills over years. Decker himself is a former private intelligence analyst. He and his colleagues use their skill sets to ensure they are correct every time. Be wrong about something found on the internet once, and the company's reputation is at stake. But it goes beyond tradecraft. Decker explained that he and his team also debate the merits of what they are doing, and take into consideration the consequences and relative value of the information.
People attempting to to out others over political issues only adds to the continued polarization of the current climate, Decker said.
"If I hate their opinions, the best thing I can do is try to understand them, try to understand their viewpoint so that we can move forward as a community and as a society together," said Decker. "The best thing we can do is behave in a civic manner and speak to each other as fellow Americans."
Editor's note: Circa attempted to contact Kyle Quinn but he did not respond by the time of publication.