How the Media Botched a Story, and Scared the Hell Out Of Google Users


Forbes writer Michele Catalano said that her husband recently found himself face-to-face with six armed police officers after he had been searching “backpacks” online at the same time that she was looking up “pressure cookers.” Apparently, members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) showed up at the couple’s house to check if they were building a bomb.

Following the recent NSA leaks, it is no surprise that this story gained instant media attention and uproar from opponents of the surveillance programs. But this story is a perfect example of how so many media outlets dramatize a story instead of getting the facts right.

Apparently, Catalano and her husband had looked up before how pressure cooker bombs were made. Then, they Googled "backpacks" and "pressure cooker" at the same time. So, it must be the NSA, right?

The story was re-told by media outlets as a dramatic tale, as if a full tactical unit had been deployed to the couple's house, when in reality, the officers didn't so much as open a drawer. The Atlantic Wire went so far as to put an image of a SWAT team entering a house in Watertown, Mass., during the search for the Boston bombers. It was extremely misleading.

Several news outlets, including the Atlantic Wire and Gizmodo, left out the one tiny, important detail that changes the whole story.

Catalano had previously posted publicly available pictures of explosives to Facebook. Also, it was discovered that she had searched terms like “pressure cooker bomb” from a workplace computer. Oops?

On her Facebook profile, she posted this public picture of a M-66 explosive.

Now, I know that M-66 explosives are used as fireworks and the picture was posted on July 4, but some people might find the image threatening. But the claim that a federal agency was following her Google searches is far-fetched. On the other hand, the possibility that a person could have sent the local police department a publicly available image that they found threatening is realistic.

In fact, we now know that Suffolk County police received a tip from a computer company regarding the suspicious searches. The FBI made a statement that none of its agents were involved in the questioning. Police departments are known to pursue individuals who post threatening things on social media outlets, as seen here in this PolicyMic article.

The media's suggestion and perpetuation of the idea that there is some larger conspiracy is irresponsible.