Reddit’s General Manager Erik Martin has posted a formal and heartfelt apology on behalf of the site and its many users for the part they played in the spreading of false information in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Of course, the most public consequence of the misinformation and false accusation swirling around on reddit in the Boston bombings’ aftermath involved a Brown University student named Sunil Triphathi. Reddit helped fuel speculation that he was identified as suspect #2 in the bombings, allegations that were quickly proven to be false. Of course, by that point much damage had already been done.
Reddit eventually shut down the r/findbostonbombers subreddit, where much of the misinformation and evidence-less speculation was occurring. They also blocked comment threads in other subreddits, like r/news, that made unfounded speculations about the bombers’ identities.
“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 Triphathi, 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,” says Martin.
In reality, reddit’s actions didn’t really become a problem until things started to get personal, and the posting of personal info prompted an online witch hunt.
“A few years ago, reddit enacted a policy to not allow personal information on the site. This was because “let’s find out who this is” events frequently result in witch hunts, often incorrectly identifying innocent suspects and disrupting or ruining their lives. We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt. We were wrong. The search for the bombers bore less resemblance to the types of vindictive internet witch hunts our no-personal-information rule was originally written for, but the outcome was no different,” says Martin.
Still, reddit was a source of information during the attacks and its aftermath. An incredibly useful source at that. During many of the events that unfolded over the course of last week, redditors posting live police radio updates were more accurate and much faster than traditional news outlets.
But the witch hunts did occur, with scary consequences. And that cannot be denied or overlooked.
Martin closes with this sentiment, in which he hopes the reddit community can learn from this misstep:
“After this week, which showed the best and worst of reddit’s potential, we hope that Boston will also be where reddit learns to be sensitive of its own power.”
And that power will only continue to grow. Martin reports that at the time of suspect #2 Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture, reddit had 272,000 active visitors, nearly a third of which were glued to the main r/news thread of the capture. That’s a lot of eyes.