Ferguson is just the latest example of online justice gone wrong

This image taken from a video posted by Internet hackers on the Greek Justice Ministry web site on Friday, Feb. 3, 2012, shows a figure in a Guy Fawkes mask reading a statement. Greek and Cypriot hackers from the "Anonymous" group said in a statement on the hacked web site that their action was to protest Greece's signing of the ACTA copyright treaty. They threatened with future attacks on Greek government and media sites if Greece implements the treaty. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
This image taken from a video posted by Internet hackers on the Greek Justice Ministry web site in 2012. (Petros Giannakouris/AP)

An anonymous group of hackers claimed they knew who shot Michael Brown, the unarmed teen whose death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparked local riots and protests around the country.

The group waged cyberwar on the Ferguson police department this week. They claimed they would out the officer responsible for Michael Brown’s death whom authorities have declined to identify because of social media threats.

On Thursday, one Twitter account made good on this threat. Only it got the wrong guy.

TheAnonMessage, one of several Twitter accounts associated with the loosely organized hacktivist collective Anonymous, has since been suspended — presumably for violating the social network’s terms of service that bar publication of other people’s private and confidential information.

This mistaken outing was not a first. Here are three others:

Boston bombing

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, amateur sleuths on the online community Reddit took it upon themselves to track down the bomber. They combed through photos of the day’s events and misidentified two suspects, a 17-year-old high school student and 22-year-old Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, who had gone missing a month before. His grieving family’s home was surrounded by media trucks and bombarded with phone calls. They had to suspend a Facebook page they had created for him because of comments from people who thought he was the bomber. His drowned body was found in a Rhode Island river not long after.

Redditors were at it again after last year’s shooting at Washington Navy Yard. This time though, the site shut down the thread.

Trayvon Martin and Spike Lee

As anger over the shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, reached a fever pitch in March 2012, Hollywood director Spike Lee retweeted what he thought was shooter George Zimmerman’s home address to his more than 200,000 followers. It turned out to be the home address of a Sanford, Fla., couple who said they feared for their lives after becoming the focal point of online outrage. They continued to receive threats throughout Zimmerman’s trial, they said, even after Lee apologized and asked people to leave them alone.


Steubenville rape case

After a 16-year-old girl was raped by two members of a High School football team in the tiny town of Steubenville, Ohio, a crime blogger named Alexandria Goddard published an incriminating trail of social media posts from members of the football team, including some of their names. Her work brought national attention to the case, prompting accusations that she’d created “an Internet lynch mob.”

Members of the hacker collective Anonymous also got involved, hacking student e-mail accounts and threatening to release personal information about members of the football team and their families. The town itself was targeted. Schools were put on lockdown after a shooting threat on social media. Jezebel’s Katie J.M. Baker reported that “business owners told me their livelihoods were threatened by strangers who falsely believed they were complicit in covering up the rape … kids were called rapists by an opposing Little League team … If you Google the name of a 16-year-old girl who was out of town the night of the rape, you’ll find her photo alongside untrue claims she drugged and lured the victim to the party.”

 

Related: Amid Ferguson protests, hacker collective Anonymous wages cyberwar

Related: Hackers have the names and Social Security numbers of Ferguson police. But should they share them?

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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