In the days after the Boston marathon violence Reddit users sprung in to action to do their own investigating in hopes of identifying the bombers. The site’s online community quickly identified a number of suspects in posts published on the site, including one that thousands of users “up-voted” to get on the front page of the site so hundreds of thousands of visitors would see the story.
One of the more popular posts on Reddit falsely identified Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old student at Brown University who’s been missing since last month. Tripathi has an Indian father and an American mother and that seemed to be enough to make him the most wanted man on the internet for a couple of hours.
Within minutes of Tripathi being labeled on social media as a suspect his family began receving hate messages and were forced to take down a Facebook page they had started to help find their missing son. News reporters also gathered in front of their home looking to speak to the family of the supposed bomber.
“It seems this is just the ugly underbelly of viral social media,” sister Sangeeta Tripathi told NBC News. “But a lot of stir can be created through just a complete accusatory and unsubstantiated effort.”
In a post on the reddit blog titled “Reflections on the Recent Boston Crisis” Martin apologized on behalf of the Reddit community for misidentifying suspects. His blog posts also notes Reddit reached out to the Tripathi family to personally apologize:
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.
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.
This crisis has reminded all of us of the fragility of people’s lives and the importance of our communities, online as well as offline. These communities and lives are now interconnected in an unprecedented way. Especially when the stakes are high we must strive to show good judgement and solidarity. One of the greatest strengths of decentralized, self-organizing groups is the ability to quickly incorporate feedback and adapt. reddit was born in the Boston area (Medford, MA to be precise). 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.
Reddit users have now started several threads on the site to help the Tripathi parents find their missing son. “We Owe Sunil Tripathi’s Family an Outpouring of Love and An Apology. We Brought Unintentional Pain To Them Tonight. Let’s Find Their Son,” reads one headline that’s been up-voted close to a thousand times.