Reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing
On April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded at the annual Boston Marathon, killing 3 spectators and injuring 264 people in total. Pictures and videos of this incident found their way to the internet soon after it had happened. The FBI led the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing, but there was another group that set up an investigation of their own: a section of Reddit (a user-generated news site) called ‘FindBostonBombers’. This section had been set up by a user of the site in order to gather information and perhaps even to discover the identities of the bombers. Previously, a Reddit user had created a comprehensive timeline of the Aurora shooting and discovered an up till then unnoticed social media account of the shooter (Chen, 2012). Many news outlets reported on this discovery. Perhaps based on this ‘success’, the users thought they could lend a helping hand. However, it turned out differently this time.
At this point, the FBI (as well as the ATF and the Boston law enforcement) were soliciting videos, pictures and other material that might help, making this the most crowdsourced terror investigation in American history (Abad-Santos, 2013). A Reddit user had set up a subreddit in order to mine through the large amount of released pictures. Though the user set up some rules, such as ‘do not post personal information’, it didn’t stop some of the users from creating their own theories and then acting upon these theories by posting personal information of their suspects. On April 18, grainy pictures of two suspects aired on live television (Shontell, 2013). Based on those pictures, and through miscommunication, rumours, speculation and sheer stupidity, members began to accuse Sunil Tripathi after a photo comparison and a supposed mention of his name on a police scanner. Many vile messages were send to his personal Facebook page, and his family was harassed as well. The FB group dedicated to finding him had to be closed. Why was there a FB group, set up by friends and family, dedicated to finding him? It was not because they thought he was a suspect that needed to be brought in. It was because Sunil Tripathi was missing at the time; it later turned out that he had committed suicide.
Using this case as an example, I want to illustrate how quickly misinformation can clutter discourse. And while the users might have had the best intentions, they were in over their heads. Crowdsourced information can be a great source for news, as the rapid growth of social media has made it easier to share pictures, videos and stories. And indeed, the news institutions more and more look to the public to help source new information (Silverman & Tsubaki, 2014). But without verifying thoroughly, misinformation will be spread.
Verification of rumours
Fear and uncertainty breed rumours. Especially in the aftermath of such an attack, with the suspects still on the loose. In times like those, verification is essential as misinformation might only increase the felt anxiety. Social media can both help, as journalists can verify info from sources, but also the other way around: for instance, users can verify a tweet with info or an article send out by a journalist. But social media can also delude the public through spread misinformation and lazy journalism. How can misinformation be countered?
Silverman & Tsubaki (2014), in the Verification Handbook, made a list of fundamentals for verifying information during a disaster (p. 11):
- Put a plan and procedures in place before disasters and breaking news occurs.
- Develop human sources.
- Contact people, talk to them.
- Be skeptical when something looks, sounds or seems too good to be true.
- Consult credible sources.
- Familiarize yourself with search and research methods, and new tools.
- Communicate and work together with other professionals – verification is a team sport.
- When trying to evaluate information – be it an image, tweet, video or other type of content – you must verify the source and the content.
This gives us a broad overview of the fundamentals one should keep in mind when verifying info during a disaster. The last bullet point is a recent maxim added in light of the increasing significance of social media. And since the example discussed above deals almost exclusively with social media, it would be madness not to include the four elements a journalist needs to check and confirm when it comes to pieces of information or content found via social media (Wardle, 2014):
1. Provenance: Is this the original piece of content?
2. Source: Who uploaded the content?
3. Date: When was the content created?
4. Location: Where was the content created?
Preventing a social media debacle
In the case of the ‘FindBostonBombers’-subreddit on Reddit, there were a couple of reasons for their investigation failing. Apart from not properly verifying their intel and not properly verifying the claims made by the user(s) accusing Sunil Tripathi (such as checking whether Sunil was mentioned on the police scanner at all, and whether this was in relation to the bombing), the community succumbed to confirmation bias. It wanted to be right, and wanted to be the first to solve the case. Reddit uses upvotes in order to get the most popular news to the frontpage, and when there’s a strong sense of community and being one front, it can lead to the formation of a hivemind of sorts. Many were upvoting because it fitted the narrative of this community outsmarting the established media. But next to that, there were also tweets like: “If Sunil Tripathi did indeed commit this #BostonBombing, Reddit has scored a significant, game-changing victory.” and “Journalism students take note: tonight, the best reporting was crowdsourced, digital and done by bystanders. #Watertown” (Madrigal, 2013). This seems to indicate that the community wanted to one-up journalists and the FBI, that they could do it better. ‘Journalism’ seems to be equated to ‘The Establishment’ in this instance, and getting a scoop is equal to a rebellious act. This seems to indicate a distrust of the media, something two ‘Redditors’ named as one of the reason to investigate the bombing on their own (Pickert and Sorenson, 2013).
Communities like this cannot be stopped, and I will not argue that they should be stopped. However, when you start an investigation like this, you also take on a responsibility. When you put someone’s personal information online, tagging someone as a potential suspect, you take a giant risk that could have a massive influence on the life of the person you’re accusing. It might have real-life consequences through arrests and harassment. To solve this, I would suggest that Reddit pays more attention to moderating these kinds of initiatives. And I believe they are capable of this. A good example of well-moderated subreddit is ‘AskScience’, where you either need to provide sources with your answers to the questions of users, or need to prove that you are an expert on a certain topic. Everything else that isn’t useful will be deleted. I think this might be the way to go for such a community: unfounded accusations and unverified info should either be debunked, removed or flagged as false. It might also be a good idea to have guidelines (such as ‘do not post personal information, go to the authorities’) and to post the verification fundamentals I shared above. Which hopefully will be used, as using those fundementals could have prevented all this. Or at the very least, it could have cut out a lot of noise distorting the facts.
Abad-Santos, A. (2013). Reddit and 4Chan Are on the Boston Bomber Case. Retrieved from: http://www.thewire.com/national/2013/04/reddit-and-4chan-are-boston-bomber-case/64312/
Che, B.X. (2012). How Reddit Scooped the Press on the Aurora Shootings. Retrieved from: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/reddit-aurora-shooter-aff/
Madrigal, A.C. (2013). #BostonBombing: The Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/04/-bostonbombing-the-anatomy-of-a-misinformation-disaster/275155/
Pickert, K., & Sorenson, A. (2013). Inside Reddit’s Hunt for the Boston Bombers. Retrieved from: http://nation.time.com/2013/04/23/inside-reddits-hunt-for-the-boston-bombers/
Shontell, A. (2013). What It’s Like When Reddit Wrongly Accuses Your Loved One Of Murder. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/reddit-falsely-accuses-sunil-tripathi-of-boston-bombing-2013-7
Silverman, C., & Tsubaki, R. (2014). When Emergency News Breaks. In Verification Handbook (pp. 7-12).
Wardle, C. (2014). Verifying User-Generated Concent. In Verification Handbook (pp. 25-34).