Reddit’s Role Scrutinized in Boston Bombing Investigation [Updated]

Was it a 'witch hunt' or legit efforts to help?

Headshot of Emma Bazilian

Social-news site Reddit is taking its lumps along with traditional media in their coverage of the Boston bombings.

Reddit's general manager Erik Martin has expressed regret after the site wrongly identified a man as a suspect in the Boston bombings. After Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown student, became a topic of speculation in the Reddit community because a former classmate said he resembled a bombing suspect from an official FBI photo but was later proven innocent, Martin told Adweek that Reddit moderators had deleted Tripathi’s name from the Boston subreddit, “as they should have,” but that his name had already begun to spread on Twitter and elsewhere in the media. “All of a sudden people were coming to conclusions,” he said. “Everyone feels terrible about it.”

Still, Martin defended the Reddit users who had been trying to use the community in a positive way in the wake of the bombing. “Reddit’s a place where there are hundreds of thousands of conversations taking place with millions of individuals, and they all have different responses: Some people are trying to help by supporting the fire department or police force, and some people are sifting through all the photos and data," he said. "People are trying to figure it out on the fly."

While TV and print media have been roundly criticized for making grievous errors in a story of major national importance, the Reddit incident highlighted the dark side of crowdsourcing in particular. After Reddit users Monday created a subreddit titled findbostonbombers to share photos from the Boston Marathon bombing and try to identify the perpetrators, pundits have been arguing over whether Reddit had started a “witch hunt” or was enabling a legitimate crowdsourcing effort.

Media outlets were quick to criticize users of the site. “This is vigilantism, and it's only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline that allows this to go on,” wrote The Atlantic. “A bunch of amateurs playing with photographs on their computer are tarring innocent people with potential responsibility for a horrible crime,” wrote Salon. (Plenty of Reddit users, it should be noted, also shared the same concerns. “Don't jump to conclusions based on pictures” was the title of one thread.)

Reddit, bought by Condé Nast and then spun off in 2011 as a separate subsidiary under Condé parent Advance Publications, has long enjoyed a hands-off existence at the media giant. It remains to be seen if its autonomy will be reined in following the Boston episode, though. Advance hasn't responded to a request for comment.

But others were less inclined to paint Reddit’s mission as a “witch hunt.” Slate columnist Will Oremus wrote that, by using crowd photos to try to identify the bombers, Reddit users were, “in their own way, doing exactly what authorities asked.”

Later, Oremus made the point that some mainstream media outlets—namely, the New York Post—had been spreading misinformation in a far more visible way. “As much as it rankles to see Redditors pin all blame on ‘the media’ for any harmful outcomes, there’s no denying that a few professional media outlets have demonstrated far less of a conscience than the users and moderators of findbostonbombers,” he wrote.

And while the Post stood by their front-page photo of two innocent men allegedly wanted by the FBI, Redditors, at least, have proved more willing to issue the occasional mea culpa. As one Reddit moderator wrote, “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 information. We cannot begin to know what you're going through and for that we are truly sorry.” (Tripathi's name, it's worth noting, made it onto Boston police scanners hours after speculation began on Reddit.)

UPDATE: On April 25, a Rhode Island Health Department official confirmed that a body found in the Providence River belonged to Tripathi. The body of the 22-year-old student had been discovered by rowers on the Brown University crew team on Tuesday, and was later identified using Tripathi's dental records. A cause and time of death has not been determined.

On Monday, before the discovery of the body, Reddit's Martin posted an official apology to the Tripathi family on the Reddit blog. "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."

Martin also addressed Reddit's larger involvement in the Boston investigation, writing, "During the tragedy and the aftermath, people found many different avenues to help on reddit. The vast majority of these activities were positive…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."

Although Reddit already has a rule against posting personal information on the site, the site's administrators are generally hands-off when it comes to censoring users. When asked whether a policy change is in order following the Tripathi incident, Martin told Buzzfeed, "We're thinking about it."

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.
Publish date: April 19, 2013 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT