Aaron Pabon/Staff Writer
On April 15, I was sitting in the Beacon Newsroom with coworkers when we first heard of the Boston Marathon Bombings. Instead of checking the various news websites that are available, I was compelled to check out Reddit.com.
Reddit.com is a social news and entertainment site where users submit websites as a post and other users can vote the submission up or down. Reddit utilizes a large number of sub-reddits to group together different subject matters, like animation, movies, news, pornography, or sports.
While on the News sub-reddit, I noticed the time stamp for the first posting of the explosion was five minutes older than CNN, Fox or MSNBC, thus breaking the news first.
Within seconds, there was a flood of posted links leading to news updates and breaking news. A surge of Boston related sub-reddits were also being made, like “Boston Bombing Updates” and “Boston News.”
Among these was a sub-reddit titled “Find Boston Bombers,” which was founded by amateur detectives and cyber-vigilantes. The idea was to use Reddit as a platform and analyze photos that were posted online to find out who perpetrated the attack.
Along with other social-media websites, this became the most crowd-sourced terror investigation in modern history. Unfortunately, this would also turn into the largest online witch hunt to date.
The amateur deductions led to misinformation which in turn led to innocent people being misidentified as suspects, such as 17-year-old athlete Salah Barhoun and 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student.
The misinformation spread through social media sites and was inevitably picked up by a few news outlets as factual news.
This was not the first time social media was used by news outlets to gather information, which can explain why they looked there for possible leads.
The first time it worked successfully was during the Virginia Tech Massacre, which involved Virginia Tech students posting what they saw or heard on Facebook, Myspace and Twitter.
Since then, many news services have looked at social media as possible credible sources; it just wasn’t as successful this time around.
The New York Post, for example, showed Barhoun and his track coach on its front page on April 18. It was reported that they were being pursued by the authorities.
The presence of misinformation was not all that bad as it did lead to positive outcomes.
It had forced the FBI to not only release photographs of suspects Dzhokhar Anzorovich “Jahar” Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Anzorovich Tsarnaev, but to also give clearer updates to the media every hour or at best convenience.
In spite of the inaccurate information posted by many Redditors on the “Find Boston Bombers” sub-reddit, the moderators and members of the sub-reddit did something that impressed me: they apologized for their mistakes.
“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,” said General Manager Erik Martin in a blog post on April 22. “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.”
I have always believed that people should hold themselves accountable for their actions, mistakes and failures. For an entire group to apologize instead of just deleting what they typed and posted shows me that there are people that follow a similar principle.
If this misinformation or witch hunt were to have its origins from CNN, Fox, or MSNBC, there would be the possibility that they would have swept the mistake under the rug, hoping many would forget about it.
Reddit.com further impressed me by pushing for the most accurate and updated information before making a post. As what a true journalist would and must do, any information they received from any source would be checked for accuracy. The information would then be posted when deemed factual, along with a link and time stamp; in many cases, it was posted before any news service reported it.
Despite the effort to have accurate information of the Boston Marathon Bombings on Reddit, we still need to be cautious of any information we read or hear about on the Internet, especially during breaking news situations where accuracy and time is of the essence.
1. “New York Post’s Boston ‘Bag Men’ Front Page Called ‘A New Low,’ ‘Appalling’,” via Huffington Post
2. “Reflections on the Recent Boston Crisis,” via blog.reddit.com