In the wake of devastating events, the internet can be a powerful tool for crowd-sourcing important and helpful information, but too often the investigative efforts of large online communities only end up making things worse. This is exactly what happened Sunday night, when faulty speculation and misguided amateur sleuthing led Reddit users to mistakenly identify a 21-year-old Muslim college student as Hurricane Irma.
Yep. Once again, the internet has proven that some things are best left to the professionals.
Working feverishly late into the night to piece together tenuous bits of evidence and various unsubstantiated theories, thousands of Reddit users ultimately arrived at the consensus Sunday that the destruction wrought upon Florida and the Caribbean was being perpetrated by a University of Miami junior named Irshad Hosseini. The witch hunt initially kicked off when Redditor /u/MilkWasABadChoice92 posted security footage from his Miami apartment complex that showed a mysterious lone figure walking in the street right when South Florida residents first started reporting 150 mph wind gusts and severe property damage.
“Guys, I think I might’ve found our culprit,” posted /u/MilkWasABadChoice92, noting that the clip’s 6:11 a.m. time stamp perfectly corresponded with the arrival of flash flooding and wide-scale power outages. “Remember that there was a MANDATORY EVACUATION, so this guy was NOT supposed to be out there.”
Using image-enhancing techniques to scrutinize a gym fob and a university meal card hanging from a lanyard on the man’s backpack, other Reddit users were then able to determine Hosseini’s identity and quickly dig up more information to bolster their theory.
“I found his facebook!!!!” reported Redditor /u/xxcockgoblinxx shortly thereafter, noting that Hosseini appeared to be at a beach in his profile photo—a seemingly damning discovery, as it gave indisputable photographic proof of his physical proximity to the Florida coastline that was being ravaged by deadly winds at the time of posting. “And check out his latest post: ‘Hurricane Irma comin straight at florida, shit’s gettin real.’ If that’s not a smoking gun, I don’t know what is—the dude’s practically bragging about it. It’s like if Osama bin Laden had tweeted ‘Commercial airliners comin straight at the Twin Towers’ on 9/11.”
With all available evidence seeming to implicate Hosseini as Hurricane Irma, Redditors eagerly began exposing the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the 21-year-old’s family members in hopes of tracking him down to prevent Hosseini from flooding another coastal area with a trillion more gallons of water. Conservative media outlets Breitbart and InfoWars also posted articles that treated information from the Reddit threads as fact. In the ensuing hours, Hosseini’s photo was shared hundreds of thousands of times on Twitter, and his parents and siblings received hundreds of threatening and anti-Islamic phone calls from anonymous internet users who believed he was responsible for the unprecedented wreckage that was being inflicted on the state of Florida.
However, less than four hours after /u/MilkWasABadChoice92’s original Reddit post, the case against Hosseini being Hurricane Irma began to unravel, as a second time-stamped security photo of Hosseini surfaced that suggested he was still in Miami, when the storm itself was already hundreds of miles farther north. Hackers were able to seize additional information from Hosseini’s private medical records indicating that he was 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, which seemed to starkly differ from the meteorological analyses that measured the storm as a 300-mile-wide expanse of spiraling winds and volatile thunderstorms.
As soon as they realized their mistake, the Redditors were quick to issue a retraction and an apology, but it was too late, as the story had already spread widely across the internet and provoked the anger of millions nationwide. While Hosseini himself has yet to release a public statement addressing the situation, it is believed that he is now in hiding out of fear for his safety.
Wow, what an unfortunate series of developments. This just goes to show how quickly helpful internet crowd-sourcing can devolve into dangerous mob justice. Here’s hoping Hosseini comes out of this safely and is able to bounce back from these meritless attacks on his reputation.