On Wednesday night, hours after 14 people were killed in a shooting in San Bernardino, the Daily Beast found photos it thought were of the male shooter, Syed Farook, and posted them on their website and social media accounts.
Identifying someone as a mass killer is, obviously, a grave accusation, but the Daily Beast, as preserved in this Wonkette post, seemed to have done some due diligence. A reporter went to the alleged killer’s home, where a man who said his name was also Farook answered the door and appeared to confirm the existence of the man with the last name Farook who the Daily Beast believed was the killer. Perhaps this—a man with the same name as your suspected killer answering the suspected killer’s door (be careful!)—should have been an alert to the Daily Beast that their story was not as tidy as it looked, but they went ahead with it anyway.
It would soon be revealed that the Syed Farook who killed and injured dozens of his coworkers had the full name “Syed Rizwan Farook.” His innocent brother’s name was “Syed Raheel Farook,” but both appeared in public databases as “Syed R. Farook.” The Daily Beast had found photos of Syed Raheel Farook, and gone to his home, where his father had answered the door and confirmed that yes, he knew a man named Syed.
The mistake was an honest one, but that does little to reduce its magnitude, especially considering that the Daily Beast linked to the innocent Farook’s home address. Daily Beast executive editor Noah Shachtman acknowledged the screwup on Twitter and said that the publication had deleted all of the killer’s brother’s photos from its website and social media accounts out of respect for his privacy. He also confirmed in a tweet that they had the existence of two men named “Syed R. Farook” in San Bernardino had “tripped us up.” (Shachtman later provided a longer statement explaining The Daily Beast’s reporting process to Gawker.)
@jservantez We did way more than that. The 2 "Syed R. Farooks," tripped us up. Esp when Raheel was linked to the home the police raided.— Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) December 3, 2015
But the Daily Beast is far from the only publication to have ever misidentified a mass killer in the immediate wake of the event. Publications as esteemed as Gawker.com have also bungled this exact thing in recent years, but some have been way worse than others. This is a ranking of the worst misidentifications of mass killers that we can remember, from least bad to extremely bad.
7. “Eggman and Plork”
Only two months ago, a man walked into a classroom at a community college in Oregon and killed nine people plus himself. In the race to identify the killer, the internet at-large—i.e. the citizens of Twitter and people who email websites like this one with “news tips”—discovered a thread on 4chan that seemed to allude to a shooting that would happen at a school in the Northwest. As the post got passed around the web, 4chan users caught wind of it and used the opportunity to frame two of a particular sub-board’s most infamous posters, colloquially known as “Eggman” and “Plork.”
Neither Eggman nor Plork were the killer, and the trolls seemed to be only able to fool the U.K.’s Daily Mirror—who linked to some other post celebrating UC Santa Barbara killer Elliot Rodger’s birthday from months prior—and people on Twitter with avatars of things other than their own faces. Perhaps because 4chan is a byzantine maze to any normal person, including those that make up the mainstream media, this one never rose that far above the surface.
6. Adam Lanza’s brother
Like Syed Raheel Farook, Ryan Lanza—the brother of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza—was initially identified as the perpetrator of that massacre, and some news organizations who found photos of him on Facebook quickly published them. That group included us. “Is This Ryan Lanza, the Connecticut School Shooter?” we asked, and it turned out: it wasn’t! But in this case, we—and places like CNN—believed that Ryan Lanza was the shooter because Connecticut cops themselves had wrongly identified the older Lanza brother as the shooter, which is a good reminder to not blindly believe the cops. Here is our old editor Max Read’s mea culpa for getting duped, which he is still very mad about to this day and swears was not his fault.
5. The two Syed Farooks
Because police never incorrectly identified the San Bernardino shooter, this one is slightly worse than the case of Adam Lanza’s brother. But it’s still easy to understand how the Daily Beast screwed up, even though an abundance of caution and a more thorough vetting of evidence probably would have prevented the website from posting photos and the address of someone who wasn’t a mass murderer.
4. The wrong Virginia Tech shooter
In 2007, Seung-Hi Cho killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech, but it turned out he wasn’t the only Asian student at the school who shot guns. A man named Wayne Chiang, as he told MTV News at the time, was superficially similar enough to Cho that he immediately assumed people might think he was the killer:
“I was five for five,” Chiang said, referring to the descriptions of the killer being reported in the hours immediately following the killings. “I’m Asian. I went to [Virginia] Tech. I used to live in the dorm [where the first shootings occurred]. There’s the infamous pictures of me with my guns.” Chiang also had written on his LiveJournal blog last week that he had broken up with his girlfriend.
“It sure sounds like me,” he said evenly. “I joked about it with a friend online. I didn’t think it would go anywhere — but obviously, it did.”
Despite Chiang’s apparent acceptance that he sure seemed like a mass murderer, just assuming any Asian dude who posed with guns is the same guy who killed nearly three dozen people is pretty classically racist. And wouldn’t you know, look who picked the story up:
At around 10:30 p.m., after hours of online silence, Chiang finally posted on his LiveJournal page. “This situation has now spiraled out of control,” he wrote. “I am now confirming that I am not the shooter.”
At around the same time, though, on the Fox Network, Geraldo Rivera broadcast Chiang’s Facebook page — though not his name — stating, “people might suspect that this might have been the perpetrator.” Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly then explained how, upon discovery of Chiang’s profile, the channel searched for him.
3. “THUG IN A TUB”
Just, uh, several weeks ago, French police raided an apartment in a Paris suburb in connection to the attacks across the country that killed over 130 people. In that raid, it was initially believed that a female accomplice of the terrorist ringleader detonated a suicide vest, sending her head flying across the street. The Daily Mail published what it said were exclusive photos of the woman, which the New York Post picked up and pasted onto their front page with the instantly infamous headline “Rub a dub dub... THUG IN A TUB.”
Well, as we wrote, essentially none of that turned out to be true. Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the woman who died in the raid, was not a suicide bomber—she died when Abdelhamid Abaaoud detonated his suicide vest. But the Daily Mail and New York Post didn’t even have photos of Boulahcen. They had photos of Nabila Bakkatha, a Moroccan citizen with no connection to terrorism who had her pictures sold to the Daily Mail by a very, very shitty ex-friend. Neither the Mail nor the Post has apologized for calling an innocent woman—who eventually feared for her own safety—a suicide bomber, but the Mail has at least erased any trace of the photos from their website, which has to be some small consolation.
2. Sunil Tripathi
Sunil Tripathi was a Brown University undergrad who went missing in March of 2013. On April 15, 2013, two brothers detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring over 250 others. After the bombings, Reddit users fashioned themselves detectives and started a subreddit aimed at uncovering the identities of the bomber or bombers, who were at that point still unknown. Quickly, they narrowed in on a promising suspect: a student named Sunil Tripathi, who had mysteriously gone missing in... the New England area... a month prior... and whose name... sounded like a brown person’s name.
As Jay Caspian Kang wrote in a New York Times Magazine feature about the incident, the Tripathi family began to receive inquiries about their missing son without even knowing why. They eventually caught wind of the theory that their son was involved in the first terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11, and removed the Facebook page dedicated to finding him. That heightened the suspicions of reporters on Twitter—including several Buzzfeed staffers, plus equally esteemed journalists Perez Hilton and Luke Russert—who boosted the Tripathi theory to their hundreds of thousands of followers.
“A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours,” read a message posted to a Facebook group.
“Now more than ever our greatest strength comes from your enduring support.
“We thank all of you who have reached out to our family and ask that you continue to raise awareness and to help us find our gentle, loving, and thoughtful Sunil.”
Tripathi’s body was eventually found in the Seekonk River in Rhode Island a month later.
1. The New York Post’s bag men
Tripathi was not the only innocent brown person caught up in the media’s race to identify the Boston Marathon bombers even before the police did. Two days after the incident, Boston police said that the attackers had carried the bombs in nylon bags or backpacks. This allowed every amateur sleuth to sift through photos of the Marathon to locate vaguely suspicious men carrying backpacks, and the New York Post was so intrigued by their own findings that they put a photo of two men holding duffle bags on their front page.
“BAG MEN,” the page screamed. “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” It’s unclear now if the authorities were indeed looking at these two men—who turned out to be 16-year-old Salaheddin Barhoum and 24-year-old Yassine Zaimi—though if they were it’s because the investigation necessitated casting a very wide net and not because they actually believed these guys were the bombers (the Feds certainly already knew that no blue bag was used to conceal a bomb.)
The Post eventually settled a lawsuit regarding this cover, which is now the standard for insanely bad and damaging newspaper misidentifications, though with as frequently as mass shootings now occur, every day presents a new opportunity for us in the press to fuck up even worse than this.