The social networking site Reddit found itself in the middle of a terrible situation this week after it fingered a missing Brown student as one of the Boston Marathon bombers.
Reddit, for those unfamiliar, is a popular site that consists entirely of user-generated content. “Redditors,” or users, can either vote a post up or down. The site’s “front page” consists of its most popular posts. Reddit’s thousands of threads on every sort of topic, called “subreddits,” are moderated by volunteers.
Last summer, in a savvy move that ratified the influence of Reddit, President Obama participated in a Q & A on the site, called an AMA (for “ask me anything”). He was on the hunt for younger voters. Some of his opponent’s strategists hadn’t ever heard of the site.
This week, a new subreddit popped up: “FindBostonBombers.” Scouring the Internet for photos and clues, redditors decided to play detective. Things soon spiraled out of control.
A young woman who said she was a classmate of the missing Brown student, Sunil Tripathi, tweeted that she recognized him as one of the bombing suspects. Though she later made her Twitter account private, which means it was inaccessible to unapproved followers, someone posted an image of her tweet on Reddit on “FindBostonBombers.”
Some redditors claimed they heard his name on a police scanner, a medium where police share tips, not announcements.
News organizations began chasing Twitter and Reddit leads. A deputy social media editor at Reuters tweeted “Dispatcher: Suspect 2 is missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.”
Strangers began posting terrible things on the Facebook page the Tripathi family had created to try to find their loved one.
Meanwhile, on Reddit, the thread’s moderators were overwhelmed. Anyone can pretty much post anything, and they were deleting hundreds of inappropriate posts with personal information and Facebook links, not just about Sunil, but about the 17-year-old high school student, Salah Barhoun, whom the New York Post had featured on its front page as a “Bag Man” sought by the FBI. Redditors were willy nilly posting links to the Facebook page of people they deemed suspicious.
“We learned how quickly witch hunts can start,” said Kevin Bauer, a UC Merced junior who helped moderate the FindBostonBombers thread Thursday. He’d never acted as a moderator before, he said. The subreddit’s moderator was overwhelmed, Bauer told me, and respected his posts.
Bauer, 20, a mechanical engineering major who had two midterms on Friday, did what he could, culling some of the bad posts created by some of the 9,000 people who were actively on the thread. He has no training in journalism, or in libel law, he said, and just used his good judgment.
His guiding principle was the Golden Rule: “It’s like, if you were put in that position, how would you feel about all of America turning to your Facebook page and attacking you, saying you’re the bomber, you killed three people and injured 180 more. That would be scary.”
On Friday, the Tripathi family, who had also created a video to find Sunil, responded with a Facebook plea: "These recent hours have been incredibly painful for our family as we continue to search for Sunil. Sunny, we love you so much. Please lend your hand. Share your love. Help us heal. Find Sunil.”
“I understand the family,” said Bauer. “It really did cross a line not only the way people blindly accused them – when the pictures didn’t even match up – but going on their Facebook page and slandering them in the comments.”
Friday afternoon, the moderator of the FindBostonBombers posted an abject apology to the Tripathi family: “I’d like to extend the deepest apologies to the family of Sunil Tripathi for any part we may have had in relaying what has turned out to be faulty informatin. We cannot begin to know what you’re going through and for that, we are truly sorry.”
The apology generated another storm of Reddit commentary, some of it defensive, but much of it antagonistic toward other redditors.
“This subreddit was also a big reason the rumor was spread around so much to begin with,” wrote one. “The majority of what this subreddit produced was useless noise or slander.”
“As a redditor who hear this information first hand from the scanner, I want to extend my apologies as well even though I believed I was acting in good faith,” wrote another.
“Sorry about skipping due process and essentially torturing you!” wrote a third.
Late Friday, the thread was inaccessible. “FindBostonBombers is no longer accessible,” said a note on the page. “Both suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombing have been identified. One suspect is dead after a firefight with police. The other suspect is still at large as of April, 19, 2013 5 PM EDT.”