In times of national tragedy, the media is regularly swept up in a frenzy of fear of new technology that always leads to ludicrous, detrimental or downright wacky coverage. The two bombs that killed three people and injured at least 170 at this year’s Boston marathon on Monday is no exception to the rule, and this time, the media is demonizing crowdsourcing and conspiracy-theory-gossiping happening on a website. Specifically, reddit’s subreddit known as /r/findbostonbombers.
Over the last 48 hours, hundreds of Internet users have poured over photographs and video made public by the FBI and citizen journalists in an attempt to identify anyone suspicious in the crowd. They’ve taken to circling folks carrying black backpacks with red MSPaint tools, primarily out of a willingness to help — not out of a desire to find whoever planted the bombs to beat them into a bloody pulp.
People react to national tragedies on social media in different ways. Some donated money for pizza, others “Liked” a picture expressing solidarity with the city of Boston on Facebook or uploaded a vlog on YouTube containing their emotions. Redditors (and 4channers) are currently dealing with the bombings by investigating images, trying to see patterns in the madness, and discussing theories on what is practically a message board. There is a downside to this activity if it excites an electronic mob — which hasn’t happened yet and probably won’t — but it is infinitely better than them, say, making their own bombs as copycats or trolling families of the deceased on Facebook.
Clearly written on subreddit where these (typically male) people are spending time looking for “clues” and engaging in armchair detective-work are the words: “We do not support any form [of] vigilante justice. We are not law enforcement. If you have major information about the identities of any of the bombers, please send a tip to the FBI or BPD.”
Despite all of this — and other efforts taken by the subreddit to not name actual names — media outlets have run wildly accusatory headlines distorting the forum’s activities, like Wired’s “Reddit users are hosting a witch-hunt for the Boston Marathon bomber” or the Atlantic’s “Hey Reddit, Enough Boston Bombing Vigilantism.” Everyone from the Washington Post to Buzzfeed has now covered the activities in the subreddit, which coincidentally led to an increase of 2,600 additional users subscribing to /r/findbostonbombers by the end of the day. (Only a couple hundred are actually posting, however.)
Witch-hunts are forbidden on Reddit and halted as soon as possible by site moderators. Posting someone’s personal information on the site will result in a deletion of that post too — Reddit takes “doxxing” quite seriously as it is actually one of the few rules they enforce. It is also not clear how the press came to the conclusion of vigilantism, as no one advocated harming or physically confronting any of the potential suspects — if anything, they were heeding the FBI’s call.
“The media are the ones perpetuating the witch hunt by spreading the images we’re posting, then blaming us for posting them in our small subreddit,” said the subreddit’s creator Oops777 in an interview with MSN.
In our subreddit, we have strict rules and do everything we can to make people have the right mindset about what we’re trying to achieve. When a news outlet posts the pictures we created of potential suspects, they’re increasing the chance that somebody looks for personal information. Our goal is purely to report things to the FBI.
Oops777’s flipping the witch-hunt finger has some merit; all the media scrutiny has increased the circulation of the images speculated on in the forum. The top upvoted thread in /r/findbostonbombers at the time of this writing asked the media to “please stop making the images of potential suspects go viral, then blaming this small subreddit for it” noting that until the media got involved, the photos were going nowhere “but to the FBI.”
The media’s worst case scenario — of false allegations getting out of hand — stands an even higher chance of becoming reality because of their coverage. At least while the images were solely on Reddit, they were in a semi-controlled digital environment amongst people who actively policed each other.
When the FBI asked the media “to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting,” could they have meant the over-publicizing of the thoughts and activities of a few hundred people on a web forum too?