Tin Foil Hats

April 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Authorities in Christiansburg can’t confirm whether or not Neil MacInnis did indeed post his warning to 4chan. Who knows what this means — that they never asked? That MacInnis isn’t talking? The world may never know. Given that we still don’t have any answers, Chris and I have been considering some of the ways that the 4chan thread/PDF might have been faked — which isn’t to say that we think it WAS, just that there remains room for (some) reasonable doubt.

For example the fact that the 4chan/shooter connection didn’t hit Twitter until after the Gawker and Wired articles (which were posted 2.5 hours and 4 hours after the shooting, respectively), and the fact that so much time elapsed between the last post on the 4chan thread (2:55pm EST) and the Wired article featuring the thread (6:51 pm EST). (relevant: at the end of their post on the subject, The Daily Dot noted that it “could not independently verify the post through 4chan or Google results.” — which is exactly right, good on them)

With enough skilled manpower, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to create a thread after the fact, post coordinated responses made by multiple users to seem as if written in real time for a total of one hour (allowing for easy time zone fake-out), save a PDF of the thread (or save as an HTML file for editing before saving as a PDF), dial back all timestamps by the appropriate increment (potentially tedious, but possible within the time frame), then send off to major media outlets.

Again, I’m not saying this did happen, just that it could have — making the subsequent eagerness of the media to shut the case closed in the same moment they open it all the more intriguing. Because why would they NOT acknowledge that amount of precedent? Why would they NOT pursue questions about online accountability and anonymity? Those are the big stories here, but they were shut down before they could even be explored.

Questions of journalistic diligence aside, I’m eager to know what actually happened. If MacInnis DID post the message, the case for online anonymity will lose a great deal of steam. And understandably so — if this is the shit that anons are going to post (and not just post but follow through on, which is what would set this case apart), then…how long do you think authorities will continue to allow these sorts of anonymous forums to flourish? If he did not, this case will call into question the very notion of “online evidence,” since pretty much everything can be doctored, a detail the media is either incapable of addressing, or unwilling to acknowledge. Plus would prove just how easy it is to hijack the news cycle for trollish ends.

In short, the implications of this story might prove to be quite serious — but we can’t know HOW serious, and in what direction that seriousness will flow (aimed at 4chan? aimed at the media? aimed at online anonymity?), until we know what happened in the runup to the shooting. And we can’t know any of that if the journalistic response is essentially to reblog the story, the online equivalent of a rubber stamp.

Update: Chris tested out our theory, and was easily able to make it look like the 4chan thread he was working on was posted in 1995.

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