Don’t Blame All of Reddit for Boston Bombing Witch Hunt
An attempt by a handful of Reddit users-cum-wannabe digital forensics experts to find the perpetrator of last week’s fatal Boston Marathon bombing has been rightfully criticized as unhelpful by multiple commentators, including many reporters and the FBI itself.
However, many of those critics have unjustly targeted Reddit as a whole, as opposed to the small but suddenly highly visible minority who engaged in the digital witch hunt. Those who would make such widespread accusations are ignoring several key points about Reddit’s structure.
1. Reddit Isn’t One Community, It’s a Community of Communities
There is a vaguely felt camaraderie among Reddit users. It’s what draws many users to the site in the first place. That “Reddit community,” however, is not one giant, homogenous group. It’s more analogous to the “American community,” which is actually made up of smaller communities based on socioeconomic status, gender, race, religion, sports team allegiances, Star Trek vs. Star Wars fans and so on. Some of those communities overlap and interact, but none represent the United States as a whole.
The same is true on Reddit. The r/TrueReddit group is much different in content than r/WTF, and Redditors who post only on r/TrueReddit might never interact with Redditors who post only on r/WTF. As in real life, there’s overlap between communities where Redditors post on various subreddits and typically change their behavior accordingly: “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote. Sociolinguists call it “style-shifting.”
The subreddit r/FindBostonBombers, one of the hotbeds of the Boston Reddit activity, had only a few thousand subscribers (though admittedly many times more observers) at best before it was shut down — a meager subset of the larger Reddit userbase. As that small handful of Redditors were hunting for a suspect, others came into the group only to point out that what was happening was perhaps not such a great idea. Still other Redditors were posting indisputably helpful information about blood donations and collecting donations of money and food for victims and law enforcement.
My main point: criticizing all of Reddit for the work of a few misguided users in one subreddit is like criticizing Facebook for your distant cousin’s constant Obama birther posts: absolutely ridiculous on its face.
2. Redditors Are Not Journalists and Reddit Is Not a Typical Media Outlet
Online crowdsourcing, including some of what happens on Reddit, can be a legitimate act of journalism.
However, individual Redditors are not journalists and, as they often post under anonymous usernames, are not held to the same ethical standards as professional journalists. Some of the Redditors who chose to take part in Boston bomber hunt committed ethical and journalistic sins that would demand punishment in any credible newsroom, punishment made impossible by their anonymity: They publicly accused several people of being involved in the deadly attack, including a still-missing college student, based on race and other elements of their appearance and exhibited the worst aspects of a mob mentality.
These callous mistakes, which may have otherwise been contained in a small Reddit community, were amplified when r/FindBostonBombers got swept up in the mainstream media’s recent infatuation with Reddit as a whole. Among the worst was when the New York Post ran Reddit photos of “suspects” on its front page with scant evidence to back up the suggestion. We now understand those seen in the photo to be innocent.
Some think of the New York Post and Reddit as more or less identical. That is wrong, and one of the most commonly repeated Reddit fallacies.
Despite being owned by Condé Nast’s parent company, Reddit is not a top-down media organization. The Redditors who chose to engage on r/FindBostonBombers were not directed to do so by an editor. None of the information or accusations posted on Reddit last week were vetted by an editor. Volunteer moderators had a hand in lightly managing r/FindBostonBombers, but nowhere near to the extent it would have happened in a newsroom.
Indeed, the journalistic content most commonly found on Reddit comes in the form of links to other outlets; only in times of crisis does it tend to kick into citizen-journalism mode, for all its advantages and faults.
All of this means that the New York Post and other organizations who used Reddit content willy-nilly committed a graver sin of journalism. Editors and reporters at those outlets should have applied their professional skills and vetted the content appropriately before printing any of it.
3. Redditors’ Proper Role
The Redditors who engaged in the witch hunt for the Boston bombing suspects were no doubt misguided: such an investigation is best left to trained professionals. Arguments that more eyes on evidence will turn out better, quicker results fail to consider the consequences of investigations conducted in public: As evidenced by r/FindBostonBombers, they can quickly turn into rocky, racism-laden affairs of public accusation, mob mentality and privacy violations.
Instead of examining evidence, Redditors would have been more useful to the investigation in a purely evidence-crowdsourcing capacity, as the ultimately damning evidence that identified the suspects wasn’t even made available to the public. A post to the effect of “let’s collect everyone’s camera phone footage here, and send it to the email address the Boston Police Department just tweeted” would’ve been far more helpful than the fool’s quest that unraveled on r/FindBostonBombers last week.
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