Reddit, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and Collective Online Moderation in Crisis Situations

In an extensive New York Times report, Jay Kaspian Kang examines Reddit’s reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing and how the site’s spread of misinformation affected the search for missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.  Erroneous reports that Sunil was one of the bombers gained exponential attention on Reddit, which negatively impacted the Tripathi family’s efforts to search for their son.  Sunil’s body was found in a Providence river about one week after the bombing.

A large part of Kang’s article consists of a thorough overview of Reddit that most of RM’s readers will find superfluous.  But his profile of the Tripathi family is deeply affecting, as is his reporting of how the magnification of unsubstantiated online rumors had painful consequences for Sunil’s loved ones.  Sangeeta Tripathi, Sunil’s sister, had this to say about the aftermath of the negative coverage regarding Sunil’s supposed involvement in the attack:

Almost every news outlet that came to us said the same three things,” Sangeeta added. “The first was, ‘How was that night?’ The second was, ‘Is Sunny still missing?’ And the third was, ‘This is a silver lining because now you’re getting his name out.’ It was interesting to see how formulaically they processed that arc. The costs to somebody who is in a fragile state are immense and not undone by a casual apology,” she said. “This is precedent-setting for what will happen for other individuals.

The title of the article, “Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?” belies the more pressing questions that the article raises.  It’s very difficult to assign meaningful “blame” to an anonymous collective group that, although acting with information later proven to be false, was legitimately trying to assist in catching the bombers.  But it is important to consider how the consequences of Reddit’s stumblings can shape future events in which the quality of available information is dubious.  This is applicable not just for Reddit but essentially any online community or forum.  How can incomplete or rash conclusions and their subsequent effects be avoided in times of crisis?

Mr. Kang notes that a number of efforts are already being taken to ensure this circumstance does not take place again:

Marcus DiPaola, a freelance journalist who happened to be on the ground in Cambridge and Watertown during the early morning hours of April 19, posted a set of journalistic guidelines that he hoped would help his fellow Redditors exercise more caution in the future. As of this printing, DiPaola’s guidelines are still the most upvoted comment in the thread.

This is a good start and one that will probably exert influence across subreddits beyond the specific thread in question.  But it doesn’t entail a top-down suggested set of standards for posters to follow when an event is still unfolding and information is scarce or volatile.  Reddit’s informal guidelines for posting lack specific standards for when events are occurring in real-time, and although another bullet point on their guide list isn’t an all-encompassing solution, it could help codify an attitude of caution and restraint.

The bigger issue that needs to be addressed is how we can effectively mediate online group mentalities that naturally arise when a threat is made manifest.   All online communities have the potential to devolve into echo chambers, especially when horrific events occur.  The subsequent feelings of unification that result generally preclude meaningful dissent, even if this dissent is emphatically warranted as a means to step back and examine the situation with level-headedness and a cool frame of reference.  Questions like “Should we really be progressing so quickly with the information we have at hand?” need to be asked and often aren’t.  It was inspiring and invigorating to see the nation’s collective resolve after 9/11, but this spirit likely facilitated some policy decisions that should have received greater critical analysis.  Twelve years later, real-time discussion allows for immediate commentary and reaction to events that can actually influence how those events proceed.  Restraint and moderation is all the more critical to ensure measured responses are taken.

Jaron Lanier, among other web commentators, argues that internet communities inherently encourage group-think mentalities that subjugate individual opinions and dissent.  I’m disinclined to believe this a categorical status quo, especially when online hubs like Reddit theoretically bring together diverse groups that can lead to opposing viewpoints and constructive problem-solving.  Kang correctly notes how Reddit acted as a critical forum for news and information about the Aurora movie theater shooting last year, and even more can be said of how Reddit provided a dedicated and comprehensive hub for news about the Boston bombings.  Online communities are not inherently the problem; excessive individual reactions, particularly in response to inflammatory events, encourage threads that seek retaliation.

Kang acknowledges that this is the case, and he contextualizes it in the debate over how media coverage plays out today in general:

To blame Reddit is to pretend that the platform is the problem. A hive mind may have existed on Reddit during the early days when the community was small and self-selecting, but now that traffic has reached 70 million visitors a month, asking “Reddit,” whatever that might mean, to police its own news content seems to misunderstand the problem. The Sunil Tripathi debacle isn’t really a “new media” problem, much as those who think of themselves as members of the “old media” might like to see it that way. This is what media is now, a constantly evolving interaction between reporters working for mainstream companies; journalists and writers compiling and interpreting news for online outlets; and thousands of individuals participating on their own in the gathering and assembling and disseminating of information. It’s a tremendously messy process, at times thrilling and deeply useful, and at times damaging in ways that can’t be anticipated. How it all gets straightened out, how some rules might become codified, is going to take a while.

I look forward to reading possible solutions to this problem from group psychology experts and net theorists who are much more informed on this topic than me.  But it does seem that a greater degree of self-awareness, especially when commenting on crisis situations, would do a world of good in ensuring tensions don’t escalate unnecessarily or misinformation is accelerated to other channels.  When I was browsing Reddit in the early morning of April 19, I was struck not only by the exhilaration that came from following the manhunt,  but by how many posts were self-congratulatory in nature, including ones that celebrated Reddit’s role in identifying Sunil as a suspect.  It seemed that a number of posters considered the thread as a narrative that played into their roles as commenters on Reddit rather than a way to better inform oneself in the story’s developments.  To my mind, this was exemplary of the most dangerous kind of echo chamber: where an information exchange devolves into self-congratulatory comments that makes the attitude of “We’re right!” the center of the discussion, rather than a drive to see how the community can assist in a cogent solution.

I’d like to emphasize once again that this attitude is not indicative of the greater Reddit community as a whole, nor of any particular online community that engages in discussions of hot-button issues.  It’s also an understandable byproduct of a live-action event whose uncertainty and unprecedented nature created a groundswell in fervor and support.  But this specific case demonstrates the need for tempered commentary and reactions in online settings, especially in those that have proven to be as powerful and influential as Reddit can now claim.  Credit to those Redditors who recognize this power and leverage it to try and right a collective mistake.

(Note: I believe the thread where Sunil’s name was originally mentioned has been made private, but I’ll gladly post the link if someone sends it in.  Jay Caspian Kang did an AMA about his article with some follow-up conversations that’s available here.)