BY: MICHAEL LYONS
Bulletin board site Reddit describes itself as the “front page of the internet,” a sobering concept for anyone who has ever actually been on the Internet.
These days, Reddit is the newsmaker. In one 24-hour news cycle, The Guardian, Vox, Gawker and Business Insider have all written stories on completely different Reddit threads. The site has recently made famous the “Asking Me Anything,” forum where anyone from President Obama to an assortment of people who are essentially nobodies can initiate AMAs.
Reddit is a community of self-regulating users moderated by volunteers, though it was bought by mass media company Condé Nast in 2006. One of the site’s informal but top values is to “remember the human,” but what happens when the mistakes of users have a concrete and reputation-destroying impact on real people off the Internet?
The Thread is a new documentary that explores the real-life effects of Reddit’s community in the wake of the Boston Bombings on April 15, 2013. After three people were killed with hundreds more injured in a detonation near the end of the Boston Marathon finish line, millions of people turned to Reddit to follow developments of the bombing, with perspectives of many on the ground at the scene being shared on the site. Images were shared online through social media websites, with many of them eventually being analyzed and speculated over on the /r/findbostonbombers subreddit, among other websites.
Chris Ryves, The moderator of the thread Find Boston Bombers, talks of his regrets about the subreddit he set up after the Boston Marathon Bombings
The New York Times would later report on one of these mistakes; how a Reddit user posted side-by-side comparisons of a suspect photo, who would later be identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, with missing 22-year-old Brown University student Sunil Tripathi. Speculation about an FBI search for Tripathi led people to the Facebook page his family had created after he went missing. Soon the media was involved, and joined the public in contacting Tripathi’s family with claims that he was one of the Boston Bombers, despite the massive mistake.
Millions of users took to r/FindBostonBombers following the day of the bombing; they would circle spectators whom they believed looked suspicious based on their demographics and if they were wearing a backpack.
In the aftermath, many apologized for the error. Reddit General Manager Erik Martin explained in a company blog post “the subreddit started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fuelled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiralled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.” By April 23 Tripathi’s body was pulled from the Providence River in an apparent suicide. His family expressed anger and disappointment about the wild speculation over the life of a person in a fragile emotional state.
Reddit is only one of the players responsible for propagating the mistakes and unfounded speculation—in The Thread’s trailer its described as people playing Where’s Waldo? with photos of Boston Marathon crowd—but few have been held accountable, least of all those involved with “the front page of the internet.”
Redditors’ wrongly identified 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi (left), a Brown University student, as the bomber which led to his tragic suicide. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was actually responsible.
“It’s an incredibly powerful outlet, but after doing our research, we found that it was still a grey area—the vast majority of people don’t know what it is,” producer Simon Chinn said to Motherboard. “We wanted to leave people with a question: how will we deal with tech and journalism?”