The internet can be a place of community and, as we have seen more recently, can also help criminal investigations by gathering large amounts of information and reaching vast numbers of people easily. But that kind of internet detective work can turn sour just as easily and mob mentality is quick to take over, as Toledo resident Chad Lesko knows all too well.
This week, on a stroll through a park in his neighborhood, Lesko was confronted by an angry man who told him in no uncertain terms to leave the area. The stranger was under the strong impression that Lesko was a rapist. Lesko was bewildered at what he perceived to be an entirely random accusation, but he left. Later, church members called the cops on Lesko, and even after the police released him after running his name, he was pulled over by an officer on his way home and bodily slammed into the ground.
Lesko was utterly baffled at why he was being treated like a criminal — until he found out that there was a seemingly legitimate "Wanted" poster on Facebook with his picture on it, labeling him as a child molester and going viral with over 30,000 shares — putting Lesko's very life in danger.
Here are four other people who have also been victims of rampant internet speculation:
A picture and description of 23-year-old Jeffries was posted anonymously on a Facebook page that was attempting to identify the Kensington Strangler, a serial killer who raped and strangled multiple women in Philadelphia. Within hours, an unsuspecting Jeffries had received countless threatening phone calls and text messages, while people began posting flyers with his name and information around the city. At one point, Jeffries' house was surrounded by an angry mob and, fearing for his life, he called the police, who declared his innocence after running his DNA. Still, Jeffries was not able to breathe easily until the real Kensington Strangler was caught a few months later.
A 48-year-old father in Britain was on his Facebook when he saw a 14-year-old giving out her contact information to someone he suspected was a pedophile. He commented on the post, telling her to be careful in giving out personal details. In a tragic twist of irony, someone took the information from Rudderham's profile and posted it on Facebook, labeling him as a "dirty perv." Within 15 minutes, the post had gone viral and Rudderham was already receiving death threats. Three days later, the police found his body hanging in a graveyard, the victim of a suicide caused by the social ostracism from a single false Facebook accusation.
Lest you think that this is only a Western phenomenon, 12 tourists (eight Americans and four Koreans) in the state of Kashmir, India were almost attacked by a mob that accused them of forcibly converting their Muslim children to Christianity. Their ire came from a post on the Facebook page "Gulmarg News" that gave a false testimony of a young boy who was given chocolate in exchange for recanting Islam. The attached image looked similar to some of the tourists. Thankfully, police intervention prevented any actual violence from occurring.
The Reddit search for the Boston Marathon Bomber is the most vivid and recent example of a witch hunt gone viral for all the wrong reasons. While many people at the scene were bandied about as potential suspects, three were singled out and vilified. First, there were reports that the attack was the doing of a 20-year-old Saudi man who turned out to be nothing more than a victim of the bombings himself, a fact noted only after a "phalanx" of police ransacked his apartment. The other was a 17-year-old high schooler who had just been watching the marathon, and the last was, perhaps worst of all, a missing Brown University student, whose body was discovered days later at the bottom of a lake.