Reddit apologizes for fueling Boston bombings online witch hunts

Police officers and others gather on Monday outside the funeral for 29-year-old Krystle Campbell, one of three people killed in the Boston Marathon bombings, in Medford, Mass.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)
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Reddit is apologizing for its role in fueling the social media witch hunts for the Boston bombings suspects.

The social news website became one of the must-reads last week for the latest news and thoughts on the Boston Marathon bombings. But it also became a place for amateur sleuths to gather and share their conspiracy theories and other ideas on who may have committed the crimes.

The online witch hunts ended up dragging in several innocent people, including Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who went missing last month. After viewing the FBI’s photos of the suspects Thursday, Redditors became convinced that Tripathi was one of the bombers, with countless posts gleefully pointing out the physical similarities between Tripathi and Suspect #2, who ended up being 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.


The growing wave of suspicion surrounding Tripathi led his family to release a statement the next day saying they knew “unequivocally” that their son was not involved.

On Monday, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin posted a lengthy apology on the site, saying the crisis “showed the best and worst of Reddit’s potential.”

He said the company, as well as several Reddit users and moderators, had apologized privately to Tripathi’s family and wanted “to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure.”

“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,” the post said. “Some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”

Reddit is a popular site that consists entirely of user-generated content. Redditors, or users, can either vote a post up or down. The site’s “front page” consists of its most popular posts. Reddit’s thousands of threads on every sort of topic, called “subreddits,” are moderated by volunteers.

The San Francisco company said it enacted a policy a few years ago to not allow personal information on the site, a move designed to protect innocent people from being incorrectly identified and “disrupting or ruining their lives.”


“We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt. We were wrong,” Martin said. “The search for the bombers bore less resemblance to the types of vindictive Internet witch hunts our no-personal-information rule was originally written for, but the outcome was no different.”

Last week’s bombings were the first major terrorist attack on American soil in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. But the watershed moment for social media quickly spiraled out of control as legions of Web sleuths cast suspicion on the innocent, shared bad tips and heightened the sense of panic and paranoia.

Boston police officials were also forced to ask overeager Twitter users to limit what they posted on the microblogging site, saying that overly detailed tweets could compromise officers’ position and safety.


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