Faisal Shahzad Facebook mixup highlights hazards of Web journalism

Earlier today, bloggers at the Huffington Post published a photo from Faisal Shahzad's Facebook page. One problem: They got the wrong Faisal Shahzad.

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    An image of terror suspect Faisal Shahzad is seen on a TV screen as US Attorney General Eric Holder holds a briefing in Washington, on May 4. Earlier today, Huffington Post published an image from a Faisal Shahzad Facebook page. It was the wrong Faisal Shahzad.
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It was a testament to the hazards of reporting in the digital age. Earlier today, as news of the alleged identity of the would-be Times Square bomber rocketed around the Web, a reporter at the Huffington Post published a screen shot from the Facebook page of a man named Faisal Shahzad. It made sense: Shahzad, a Shelton, Conn., resident, had been identified by law enforcement after he was hauled off an airplane preparing to depart Kennedy Airport.

But the Huffington Post got the wrong Faisal Shahzad – a fact noted by several bloggers, including Glen Runciter of Gawker. "This is almost definitely not the Facebook profile of the terrorist behind the Times Square bombing attempt," Mr. Runciter writes, pointing out that the HuffPo's Shahzad was a Facebook fan of Syed Mustafa Kamal, the mayor of Karachi, and a relatively progressive politician.

"How likely is it that a wannabe terrorist is really into the secular mayor of Pakistan's biggest city?" Runciter asks. "Let's go with: Not very." The Huffington Post eventually pulled the Facebook photo from its website, as did Gawker, which had published a heavily-blurred screenshot from the same Facebook profile. (In case you were wondering: yes, the name "Glen Runciter" is a pseudonym. It was taken from "Ubik," a novel published by Phillip K. Dick in 1969.)

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In defense of the fine folks at the Huffington Post, the Faisal Shahzad Facebook page in question did show a man standing in midtown New York. Moreover, we admit to using Facebook ourselves occasionally in the course of research. Simply put, the site is more comprehensive than the Yellow Pages – and often more useful than a simple Google search.

But Facebook journalism is a tricky science, and it almost certainly should never involve the publication of photographs of a person whom you think might be an alleged terrorist, and then again, might just be a normal dude. That's the kind of thing that can put someone in danger.

[Editor's note: The original version included a quote which incorrectly characterized the ethnic background of the bombing suspect.]

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