There's no way around it: As well intentioned as Reddit's power sleuthers may have been in their desperate, amateur efforts last week to track down the Boston Marathon bombers, they failed. And, yes, even the user behind the subreddit followed 'round the word is now admitting, in an interview with The Atlantic Wire, that his communal photo hunt was "doomed from the start" — while somewhat distancing his fellow Redditors from the media debacle they may have fostered, and taking "some responsibility for speculating about the possibility" that at least one suspect was someone he was not.
It seemed like a good idea at the time: get people who spend the majority of their time on the Internet to help with the most crowd-sourced terror investigation in American history. But /r/findbostonbombers — the page that vanished from the user-powered site this weekend almost as suddenly as Reddit became a household name when the FBI released suspect photos in the climax-to-the-climax-to-the-climax of last week's events in Boston — was "a disaster," says Reddit user "oops777." He started the subreddit last Wednesday — to mine through a massive amount of photos that had surfaced, including those posted on Flickr by Reddit users and published in a massive Google Doc titled "Boston Bomber Info Spreadsheet" — with seven rules (cached online here), including one in all caps: DO NOT POST PERSONAL INFORMATION. And while it helped shed light on a Facebook photo the FBI hadn't found as of its photo release Thursday night — a photo that made its way to The New York Times — the Reddit page was being so closely watched by the media and social media users that it sparked several false witch hunts for innocent people. The founder, who refused to be identified by his real name, admits that it was "naive" to think the theories from within the photo page wouldn't spread beyond Reddit, as so much of Internet news already does. He denied that the New York Post's front-page photo of two men was spawned on Reddit, but he did say he was "truly sorry" for the outing of a 22-year-old missing Brown University student, which took hold early Friday morning when members of the media connected a Reddit thread to an apparent blip on the Boston police scanner. The family of the missing student was immediately harassed, and the "Find Boston Bombers" founder says he stayed up all night deleting threads. He also said that "Reddit should never ever ever be used as a source, unless there's actually some proof there."
Such is the power of Reddit, which has long been a key Internet influencer but reached peak appeal in a case that gripped the nation — and which law enforcement officials now admit led to the FBI's public release of the images of the suspects, "in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet." On Monday, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin admitted in a company blog post that the Boston subreddit "showed the best and worst of reddit's potential." The apology continued:
However, 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. The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened. We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Triphathi, as have various users and moderators. We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure. We hope that this painful event will be channeled into something positive and the increased awareness will lead to Sunil's quick and safe return home. We encourage everyone to join and show your support to the Triphathi family and their search.
As for the "Find Boston Bombers" founder, he's still seeking answers, not about the ongoing investigation but about what went right and what went so very wrong in the second biggest week for Reddit ever. Here is our email exchange with him Monday, lightly edited for clarity and to remove the name of the falsely identified student at Brown:
Do you think r/FindBostonBombers was successful?
Overall, it was a disaster. It was doomed from the start when you look at it in hindsight, because not one of the images that were available on the Internet actually had the bombers in it. I also fully admit that I was naive to think that everyone would listen to the rules and keep the posts within the subreddit.
What were your goals for the subreddit, and how did reality measure up?
My goals were to consolidate all the speculative images and "who did it" posts into one subreddit (they were all over other subreddits), with specific rules regarding personal information. I tried to create a subreddit that would purely look through images and send suspicious things to the FBI, which is what the rules I wrote reflected from the start. This was, of course, pretty naive — as pretty much every post made it to Facebook, Twitter, and even mainstream media.
Do you think Reddit was responsible for the mixup with the missing Brown student?
Reddit users, in general, definitely hold some responsibility for speculating about the possibility — maybe all of the responsibly for the speculation part. I think it was a top rated post on /r/news. My particular subreddit never allowed posts about him — they were immediately deleted, as a name is personal information. But things changed when @NewsBreaker on Twitter tweeted that he was confirmed a suspect on the police scanners (since deleted).
When this happened, social media went crazy. It was retweeted thousands of times, it made the front page of /r/news and /r/boston and was posted so many times in /r/FindBostonBombers that I had to stay up the entire night deleting them. The attitude within the subreddit also changed: all of the users turned against the mods [moderators], and there were multiple posts telling mods to stop censoring things, or as they called them at the time "facts." If the subreddit did play any part in the mixup, then I am truly sorry, but I think there are a few articles that appear to be blaming entirely that subreddit — and that's not fair.
Are there any positive takeaways from the week on Reddit?
I think the fact that a group of strangers can come together with a goal and work off each others theories is pretty incredible. People were creating new websites and ideas for ways of gathering and organizing information which could be very useful for other things.
What do you think the Reddit community could have done better?
No names or personal information should have ever been posted. The posts, pre-police scanner, about [the Brown student] were just ridiculous — there was nothing to suggest he was one of the suspects, and in my opinion he didn't even look anything like them. I think the zoomed-in photographs, with the red circles, should have had the faces blurred out, if the person was deemed suspicious enough — just send the un-blurred one to the FBI and post the blurred one.
What would you like people to know about Reddit that everyone may be glossing over?
The fact that the New York Post's front page image of the "blue jacket and white hat" guys didn't come from Reddit, or even the Internet. They admitted themselves that the image came from law enforcement agencies. We had never even seen a picture that so clearly showed their faces and what they were wearing — all the images we had were from above, whereas the front-page image was from the ground.
Also, Reddit shouldn't be grouped into the same category as media outlets. When someone on Reddit says something is suspicious, it's no different from someone on the street saying it. There's a big difference between journalistic integrity and the opinion of some guy on Reddit. Reddit should never ever ever be used as a source, unless there's actually some proof there. It's no different from a newspaper printing "a guy on the street said, 'My mate told me that this guy is a bomber.'" The media also seems to be blaming "Reddit" as if Reddit is some singular entity. I think there's something like 8 million visitors a month to Reddit, so to talk about anything being "Reddit's fault" is just being disingenuous.
In regard to "Find Boston Bombers," I think the media is talking like everything to do with the Boston bombers was posted there, when it's clearly not true.
(Illustration above via ficusdisk/Flickr; photos via Reddit's r/findbostonbombers thread, since removed, though the photo at top left was acknowledged by officials to be accurate.)