Reddit and the Dangers of the Crowd

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Reddit and the Dangers of the Crowd

For Reddit, it was supposed to be a shining moment. In the wake of Boston tragedy, over a quarter-million people gathered on the crowdsourcing site to search for the bomber. Surely, if anyone could help parse through the FBI footage and find those that killed three and left hundreds injured, they could.

The hunt was on. On Thursday afternoon, the FBI released the grainy footage. By late evening, they fingered one person in the footage: Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who had gone missing in March. The power of the Internet analyzed, interpreted and acted upon those raw bits of data, beating out law enforcement and news agencies to the truth.

Except they got it wrong.

Before the Internet, or even TV, news of the Boston bombings broke differently: first, papers would print stories with headlines like “Bombs Explode at Boston Marathon, Kills Three.” Then, over the next few days, follow-up articles would name suspects, their motives and background, even give updates on survivors — each painstakingly vetted, crafted and researched by a cadre of reporters that verified the accuracy of each fact. In short, you knew stories were accurate. You trusted the newspapers.

Even with the introduction of broadcast TV, and then cable, organizations like CNN, Gallup and Reuters — storied companies with international networks of reporters and editors trained to hunt down stories — filtered through the news. But not anymore. The Internet, like all things, broke the mold. Now, you get news differently: as unfiltered bits of information, streamed to your Facebook or Twitter in real-time, riddled with inaccuracies, uncertainties and, on occasion, the truth.

Boston revealed the influence social media, crowdsourcing and real-time technologies have on the way news is crafted and consumed — resulting in an emphasis on timeliness over accuracy, often at the cost of comprehensive meaning. In that absence of cohesion, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of rumors. But instead of a story, you get a swarm, a decentralized hive buzzing with an onslaught of data — one that veers out-of-control, unaccountable for its actions.

Raw and Real-Time

In a sense, it began with the decision to release the footage to the public in an appeal to find the suspects. It kicked off, perhaps, the first investigation to effectively lean on crowdsourcing — “Investigation 2.0,” as it were. But it didn’t resemble old-school Crimestopper ads, where local police released pictures and asked the public to call a hotline if they had tips. Nor was it like the “Wanted” posters of the Old West. The biggest difference? The raw and viral nature of broadcasting information over the Web.

Now, sketchy, raw bits of events trickle over multiple outlets at their own pace. You follow those big, unfolding events on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit in real-time — first from citizen reporters on the ground — giving you a sense of almost addictive immediacy.

While that keeps you up-to-date, the lack of a cohesive story — and a sense of its meaning and impact — creates a vacuum for inaccuracies, prejudices and strong emotions to fill the gaps. That makes room for others, beyond traditional reporters and news organizations, to swarm in with their own agendas and viewpoints — but without the stringent standards of accuracy or accountability. Citizen reporters are often neither trained, nor interested, to “get it right.” Instead, they rush to “get it first” with sometimes tragic effects.

That was the case with Reddit. The site, founded by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, 22-year-old graduates of the University of Virginia in 2005, had a simple concept: let people submit stories, which are voted and ranked by members. The open nature of the project, and the diverse communities it attracted, boosted its traffic. A large following started to develop, as dedicated members began to devote hours of essentially unpaid labor for its growth.

Of course, Reddit, headquartered in Medford, Mass., a stone’s throw from Boston, was a natural gathering place to investigate the bombing. Just hours after the bombs went off, members posted pictures of the event, picking out bystanders with backpacks and bags. When the FBI released photos of the suspects, they identified the brands of hats, according to the New York Times.

With hundreds of thousands on the case around the clock, you couldn’t find a group of more devoted newshounds. Each discovery emboldened them more, giving an added surge to their investigative momentum. As they listened in on police scanners — all you need is a smartphone and an app — they shared what they heard on Reddit’s “FindtheBostonBombers” thread — dissecting and disseminating the so-called facts.

In the moments leading up to the identification of the suspects, they corralled those raw bits of data into a compelling case on one of the alleged bombers: Sunil Tripathi. Greg Hughes, who had followed the speculation, tweeted, “BPD has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi,” garnering over a thousand retweets, spreading this misinformation into the social media stratosphere, according to The Atlantic.

Dangerous Speculation

In a way, nailing Tripathi was an easy mistake. The FBI was involved with the missing-person search on him, after he’d left a note in his apartment. Members even heard his name mentioned over a Boston police scanner. It spread like wildfire, and by Thursday afternoon, Tripathi was a top trend on Twitter. His family, meanwhile, who’d started a Facebook page to find him before the bombings took place, took it down after people posted accusations and attacks. It didn’t stop until the FBI released the names of the true suspects, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Despite Reddit’s best intentions, their members were wrong, and the mistake took its toll, not just to Tripathi and his family, but on media — both social and broadcast.

“The last eighteen hours have generated tremendous and painful attention — on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, as well as from television media inquiries — linking [Tripathi] to the video stills released by the FBI yesterday afternoon,” Akhil Tripathi, Sunil’s father, said in a family statement, WPVI-TV reported.

Reddit issued an apology, regretting what general manager Erik Martin called “dangerous speculation” that “spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.”

“We have apologized privately to the family of the missing college student, as have various users and moderators,” he wrote in the blog post. “We want to take this opportunity to apologies publicly for the pain they have had to endure.”

Those well-intentioned, but often less-than-rigorous, practices can spread misinformation like wildfire. Reddit, no doubt, had noble intentions, but with the swarm of news, who’s accountable if it goes awry? Of course, even good reporters with solid sources can end up with bad stories. But organizations like CNN and the New York Times are held accountable if they’re wrong. With crowdsourcing, nobody takes the fall for inaccuracies. “We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations,” Martin wrote. With crowdsourcing sites like Reddit here to stay — and rising in power — self-examination is needed.

In many ways, watching real-time data on unfolding events is empowering. It’s liberating to see from the sources yourself, without opinions, filters or biased perspectives. But that flurry of data can overwhelm the way you process the developing story, which can disrupt how you, and the community, understand and act upon the news. Crowdsourcing has sped up the way we receive news, but it’s breaking down the national storyline that binds us together.

Instead, raw data merely reinforces our bias, narrowing our window into the world. At its most dangerous, it can lead to serious consequences — which police were aware of as they implored Twitter to stop live-tweeting its locations while on the hunt for Tsarnaev.

In the end, what about Tripathi? Tragically, his body was found off India Point Park in Rhode Island. Identifying the body by dental records, authorities have yet to determine how he died — no signs of trauma were found. Reddit hasn’t taken on the task of looking into his death, and any investigation could take months. But it should be accurate.

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Exploring the human and social side of the digital revolution, and how everyday people use technology in new and extraordinary ways.
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