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How Internet Trolls Make the Boston Tragedy Worse

Posted: 04/17/2013 12:42 pm

It's a compelling image, to be sure: a young, bespectacled girl, her blonde hair in a ponytail, running alone down a street. She's clad in a too-large orange T-shirt, and a runner's bib on the front bears the name words "Joe Cassella 5K." Below it, her entrant number, 1035.

Beside the photo of the solitary runner, the words "Retweet for Respect" and "R.I.P. to the 8-year-old girl who died in Boston's explosions, while running for the Sandy Hook kids."

Haunting, heartbreaking and utterly fake.

The unidentified, little girl in question wasn't running in the Boston Marathon for Sandy Hook or any other reason on April 15th. Marathons aren't child's play.

She did, however, run the Joe Cassella 5K race in Virginia last May, raising funds for families of sick children to help offset their hospital bills. There's a photo of her on the Joe Cassella Foundation website, taking off from the starting gate, her bright orange T-shirt and number 1035 visible for all to see.

And the Marathon was dedicated to the memory of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook shooting -- 26.2 miles, one mile marker for each victim.

That's pretty much where the truth ends on this sad story of how Internet trolls manage to take a nugget or two of the truth, combine it with a little magic of Photoshop and concoct a load of soap a carnival huckster would be hard-placed to sell.

The post -- from the "Hope for Boston" Twitter account, which was suspended after many throughout the Twitterverse decried the photo as fake -- had made the rounds hundreds, possibly thousands of times on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, seemingly before emergency workers had finished triaging and treating those injured at the scene, and long before the first victim -- eight-year-old Martin Richard, of Dorchester, Mass. -- was identified among the dead.

For every image of Mister Rogers' smiling face, reminding people to "look for the helpers" in times of trouble, and Patton Oswalt's stirring message to the people in Boston on my Facebook news feed, there was this little girl's face, shared by well-meaning friends who only wanted to feel that, in some small way, they had paid tribute to the people impacted by the tragedy.

It didn't move me. It made me angry.

I couldn't help but wonder what kind of individual downloads a photo of a cute little girl running a race, then, with the full knowledge that what they're doing is fraud, fobs it off as the victim of a heinous attack? Was it not tragic enough that we knew three people had died, dozens were seriously injured and thousands profoundly affected by what they heard and saw that someone had to scam the world with a fake victim (or victims) until we knew the faces and names of the real ones?

And (somewhat less charitably, I admit), I also wondered this: Why do intelligent people seem to fall for these charlatans over and over again?

For the record, here they are: Martin Richard, an eight-year-old who pleaded for peace in the world; Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old who lived with her grandmother and cared for her; and Lu Lingzi, a Chinese student who travelled to Boston to obtain a graduate degree in mathematics and statistics from Boston University.

Think back to the hours and days after Princess Diana died -- the massive outpouring of grief as people struggled to come to terms with what seemed to be the unimaginable loss of a woman they had never met.

Back then, the gates to Kensington Palace literally flooded with flowers, teddy bears, poems and candles. Today, those memorials would be virtual.

I'm not a big fan of that kind of thing. Some, perhaps more cynical than me, would call it grief porn, where people 'like' every memorial page for the tragic event of the week, whether it's a teen's suicide after bullying, shooting victims at an elementary school or a bombing at an event that should have been a source of joy for the 18,000-plus participants and the thousands volunteers, medics and ordinary folks who lined the route to cheer them on.

I prefer to think of it as part of a visceral need to feel a connection to something, even in a peripheral way, to help us comprehend what is seemingly incomprehensible; a kind of reaching out the digital universe in search of a cosmic hug. If it's your thing, that's great. But like online petitions where people manage to muster outrage as far as typing a few words their keyboard but won't step outside to protest in person; this type of social networking isn't my bag.

I know two people who were in Boston for the race. I was beyond relieved in the hours afterward to learn that they were not among those wounded by the shrapnel from the bombs and turned to their Facebook pages to let them know. There were others I knew of who were there -- a teacher at my daughter's high school; a cousin of another friend of mine, and I am equally glad they are coming home safe and, at least physically, sound.

If you're looking to share something on your page connected to the tragedy, share a good news message about someone you know, or a complete stranger. This is a great one.

Post a photo of eight-year-old Martin Richard, the real child killed that day, after rushing out to hug his father at the end of the race. Pray (or, if you're not that way inclined, send the universe good thoughts) for his mother and sister as they recover from critical injuries and for his whole family, as they come to terms with the loss of a child with his whole life ahead of him and for everyone left grappling with the yet-unanswered question, "Why?"

We'll never stop trolls from coming up with new, reprehensible ways to play on a shocked global community's grief. It's what they do and sadly, they do it well enough to fool even the savviest surfer among us.

When next it happens, all we can do is look for the helpers and remember that good people outnumber the trolls, and always will.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Police officers with their guns drawn hear the second explosion down the street. The first explosion knocked down a runner at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Newspapers are on sale at a stand on Newbury Street on April 16, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Security is especially tight in the city of Boston after two explosions went off near the finish of the Marathon, killing three people and injuring at least 141 others. Darren McCollester / Getty Images)

  • WARNING

    Some photos in this slideshow are graphic and may be disturbing to some viewers.

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    In this photo provided by The Daily Free Press and Kenshin Okubo, people react to an explosion at the 2013 Boston Marathon in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria of the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (Kenshin Okubo / The Daily Free Press / AP)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A woman kneels and prays at the scene of the first explosion on Boylston Street near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Victims are in shock and being treated at the scene of the first explosion that went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    People tend to an injured woman on the corner of Exeter and Newbury Streets after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Bill Greene / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Bystanders help an injured woman at the scene of the first explosion on Boylston Street near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Medical workers runs an injured man past the finish line the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria of the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (Charles Krupa / AP)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Police and federal officials exit an apartment complex at 364 Ocean Avenue with a possible connection to the earlier expolsions during the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 in Revere, Massachusetts. Three people are confirmed dead and at least 141 injured after two explosions went off near the finish line to the marathon. (Darren McCollester / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A victim of the first explosion is helped on the sidewalk of Boylston Street, after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Unclaimed finish line bags are viewed near the scene of a twin bombing at the Boston Marathon, on April 16, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Three people are confirmed dead and at least 141 injured after the explosions went off near the finish line of the marathon yesterday. The bombings at the 116-year-old Boston race, resulted in heightened security across the nation with cancellations of many professional sporting events as authorities search for a motive to the violence. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A heavily armed Boston police officer (R) and a National Guard soldier (L) stands guard in front of the Taj Hotel April 16, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts, in the aftermath of two explosions that struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon April 15. A massive probe was underway Tuesday after two bombs struck the Boston Marathon, killing at least three and wounding more than 100. Monday's blasts near the finishing line raised fears of a terrorist attack more than a decade after nearly 3,000 people were killed in suicide airliner strikes on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. US President Barack Obama went on national television to warn against "jumping to conclusions" but a senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said such an attack was "clearly an act of terror." (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A man comforts a victim on the sidewalk at the scene of the first explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Emergency personnel respond to the scene after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Boston Police look at blown out windows at the scene of the first explosion on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: Police officers with their guns drawn hear the second explosion down the street. The first explosion knocked down a runner at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Injured people lie on the sidewalk near a barrier at the scene of the first explosion that went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: Emergency personnel respond to the scene after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Passersby put pressure on a victim's leg to try to stop the bleeding at the scene of the first explosion near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    The marathon finish line bridge is seen on Boylston Street on April 16, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. on April 16, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Security is especially tight in the city of Boston after two explosions went off near the finish of the Marathon, killing three people and injuring at least 141 others. (Darren McCollester / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Blood from victims covers the sidewalk on Boylston Street, at the site of an explosion during the 2013 Boston Marathon in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. At the right foreground is a folding chair with the design of an American flag on the cover. Two explosions shattered the euphoria of the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (Charles Krupa / AP)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A runner reacts near Kenmore Square after two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two people are confirmed dead and at least 23 injured after two explosions went off near the finish line to the marathon. (Alex Trautwig / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: (EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IMAGE CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT) A person who was injured in an explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon is taken away from the scene in a wheelchair. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A runner passes a police officer dressed in tactical gear, who blocks a road leading to the Boston Marathon route, the morning after explosions killed three and injured more than 140 in Boston, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. The bombs that blew up seconds apart at the finish line of one of the world's most storied races left the streets spattered with blood and glass, and gaping questions of who chose to attack at the Boston Marathon and why. (Charles Krupa / AP)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A person who was injured in an explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon is taken away from the scene in a wheelchair. (David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Carlos Arredondo, who was at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon when two explosives detonated, leaves the scene on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two people are confirmed dead and at least 28 injured after at least two explosions went off near the finish line to the marathon. (Darren McCollester / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: (EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IMAGE CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT) A person who was injured in an explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon is taken away from the scene on a stretcher. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Officials react as the first explosion goes off on Boylston Street near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    First responders tend to the wounded after two explosions occurred along the final stretch of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday, April 15, 2013. (Kelvin Ma / Bloomberg / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria of the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: Two officials run away from the first explosion, right, on Boylston Street at the 177th Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A person who was injured in the first explosion is wheeled across the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Explosions At 117th Boston Marathon

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: (EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IMAGE CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT) A person who was injured in an explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon is taken away from the scene on a stretcher. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Neighbors hug outside the home of the Richard family in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. Martin Richard, 8, was killed in Mondays bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (Michael Dwyer / AP)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    First responders rush to help injured people after two explosions occurred along the final stretch of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday, April 15, 2013. Two powerful explosions rocked the finish line area of the Boston Marathon near Copley Square and police said many people were injured. (Kelvin Ma / Bloomberg / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Emergency workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    There was smoke and panic in the street as emergency personnel responded to the scene after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: (EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IMAGE CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT) A person who was injured in an explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon is taken away from the scene on a stretcher. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A Boston police officer wheels in injured boy down Boylston Street as medical workers carry an injured runner following an explosion during the 2013 Boston Marathon in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria at the marathon's finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: Emergency personnel respond to the scene after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: A man lays on the ground after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    BOSTON - APRIL 15: Two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Medical workers wheel the injured across the finish line during the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria of the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • An unidentified Boston Marathon runner, center, is reunited with loved ones near Copley Square following an explosion in Boston Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Medical responders run an injured man past the finish line the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria of the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    Medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Boston Marathon Explosion

    A Boston police officer clears Boylston Street following an explosion at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria at the finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

 

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