Boston, mobsourcing and the Reddit effect

by Toby Manhire / 24 April, 2013
The social news site apologises for “witch hunt” after error-strewn frenzy to name Boston bombing suspects.
The Reddit sleuth army.

“Imagine seeing your missing son’s face and name associated with a deadly atrocity. Imagine that.”

So reads the message welcoming visitors to the Facebook page of Sunil Tripathi.

It was put there by a relative of the 22-year-old Boston student, who went missing last month, and had been wrongly named by users of the social news site Reddit, and by Twitter, and by various mainstream media, as one of the two suspects sought in relation to the Boston marathon bombers.

The intoxicated flurry of activity on Reddit, and Twitter, and plenty of other places online, was a blunt reminder of the limits of “citizen journalism” or “crowdsourcing”.

It quickly became something more like mob-sourcing, as “a series of false reports naming suspects in a terror investigation” were bandied around, “with their foundations in internet sleuthing,” writes Rebecca Greenfield for the Atlantic Wire.

It created a frenzied “Reddit-to-mayhem-to-Twitter-to-press domino effect”. And, “as a truly chaotic police situation unfolded, the seedy underbelly of the internet left some good names maimed in public.”

Reddit, as Matthew Ingram notes at PaidContent, did plenty of things right, and others reckon it has been unfairly blamed, but there’s little doubt that its reputation – actually, it’s likely many hadn’t heard of the site until recent days – took a knock.

That much is acknowledged by Reddit’s general manager, Erik Martin, who has blogged an apology:

After some reflection we want to share our thoughts about the reddit activity during the recent crisis in Boston. We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations.

During the tragedy and the aftermath, people found many different avenues to help on reddit. The vast majority of these activities were positive. They provided a way for people to stay informed, as well as a place to just discuss, cope, and try to make sense of what happened ...

However, though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened. We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Tripathi, as have various users and moderators. We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure. We hope that this painful event will be channeled into something positive and the increased awareness will lead to Sunil's quick and safe return home. We encourage everyone to join and show your support to the Tripathi family and their search.

This seems a sensible response. And the redditors can be comforted at least by this: they are left looking much less arrogant and stupid than the New York Post.

Related content: Could Twitter have put a handbrake on the rush to war in Iraq?
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