In an incident similar to the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, a bystander in Dallas was misidentified in a tweet by police as a suspect in the shootings on Thursday night.
Amid what Police Chief David Brown called an “ambush style” attack on police officers, Dallas Police posted a photo of a man in camouflage and a rifle, referring to him as “one of our suspects.”
This is one of our suspects. Please help us find him! pic.twitter.com/Na5T8ZxSz6
— Dallas Police Depart (@DallasPD) July 8, 2016
The man, who identified himself as Mark Hughes, said in an interview with KTVT that he was not involved in the shootings. He turned himself in to police and was released after 30 minutes of questioning.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “The crazy thing about it is that, I was down here, I couldn’t get down to my vehicle because of the roadblock. And in hindsight, 20/20, I could have easily been shot.”
— Dr. Seema Yasmin (@DoctorYasmin) July 8, 2016
A video of the scene shows the man peacefully standing among protesters in the moments after shots were fired.
— DMN Photo (@dallasnewsphoto) July 8, 2016
Hughes said he learned that he was in the photo from a phone call, and he immediately flagged down a police officer. As people on social media searched for the man, “I was talking to police, laughing and joking with police officers,” he said.
Hughes also said he asked police to apologize for posting the photo.
“We asked them, we said, ‘Now ya’ll have my face on the national news. Are ya’ll going to come out and say that this young man had nothing to do with it?'”
In a separate interview, Hughes’ brother Cory said that Hughes was exercising his second-amendment rights. Texas is an “open-carry” state that allows licensed gun owners to carry weapons openly in public.
The misidentification of Hughes as a suspect is similar to the days of confusion after the Boston Marathon, before Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been identified as the perpetrators.
The New York Post infamously put a photo of two backpack-wearing bystanders on its front page with the title “BAG MEN.” Text below that title read: “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”
Oh dear. CBS reporting the "Bag Men" plastered on p1 of NY Post are not the persons of interest being sought by FBI pic.twitter.com/MNbNASq6Rs
— Toby Harnden (@tobyharnden) April 18, 2013
The two men, 16-year-old Salaheddin Barhoum and 24-year-old Yassine Zaimi, were onlookers at the race. They later sued the Post for defamation, and settled for undisclosed terms.
The Post argued in court that they were simply repeating that law enforcement wanted to identify the men in the photo. But a Massachusetts judge rejected that argument, saying the front page and text had clear implications.
“[A] reasonable reader could construe the publication as expressly saying that law enforcement personnel were seeking not only to identify the plaintiffs, but also to find them, and as implying that the plaintiffs were the bombers, or at least investigators so suspected,” Judge Judith Fabricant wrote.
Similarly, online sleuths on Reddit made their own high-profile mistake in misidentifying the Marathon bombers. Commenters on the r/FindBostonBombers subreddit wrongly identified Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had gone missing a month earlier, of being behind the bombings. Zealous online investigators harassed family members who were searching for the missing 22-year-old.
Tripathi was, of course, not involved. His body was found a few days later in the water in a Providence park.
Reddit apologized for the “online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.”