20 April 2013

The embarrassing failure of Reddit users

[ updated 22 Apr 2013 ] Reddit admins comment on the issue.

Reddit did some things right during the Boston Marathon bombings manhunt. A few users dedicated their time to post minute-by-minute events to a Live Boston Update Thread (eventually growing to nine separate threads spanning 4 a.m. to 9 p.m.). The thread updates include summaries of information taken from scanners and, apparently, direct observation. Links to map locations and source tweets provide reference material. This type of reporting had been done for previous events, and it creates a more robust ticker than feeds from other sources.

Unfortunately, quick updates to a high profile site can also create virulent mistakes. Users of Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter contributed to misidentification of suspects and broadcast the same personal information that they rightly excoriate traditional media for broadcasting (e.g. the Centennial Olympic Park bombing suspect). Here's a list of some of the articles that attempt to summarize how it all went wrong:

  • It Wasn't Sunil Tripathi: The Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster from The Atlantic - Attempt to piece together when the first misidentification occurred and how it spread. The author leans further to the "people must have misheard" explanation than the "people wanted to be first" one. I lean towards the latter. One paragraph illustrates the hubris best:

    The next step in this information flow is the trickiest one. Here's what I know. At 2:42am, Greg Hughes, who had been following the Tripathi speculation, tweeted, "This is the Internet's test of 'be right, not first' with the reporting of this story. So far, people are doing a great job. #Watertown" Then, at 2:43am, he tweeted, "BPD has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi."

    The BPD identified neither.

  • When crowdsourcing goes wrong: Reddit, Boston and missing student Sunil Tripathi from NewStatesman. Reddit had set themselves the task of finding a needle in a haystack, but failed to take account of the fact that they had no way to tell for certain whether they'd found a needle or a needle-like piece of hay.
  • 4Chan plays racist Where's Wally to find the Boston bomber also from NewStatesman.
  • Reddit Moderator Apologizes To Sunil Tripathi's Family from Huffington Post. From the apology: Out of respect for Tripathi and his family, I ask that users here please remove any and all links about him. Thank you. A common source of humor online is when a clueless politician or publisher demands something be "removed from the Internet" (see Beyonce's unflattering photos or any celebrity's naked pics).

Several of the articles link to the Reddit thread Is missing student Sunil Tripathi Marathon Bomber #2? as patient zero. That link now 403s [ updated 12 May 2013 ] Link has reappeared, but Google cache still offers it up and I've cached it here for reference. Posted by user pizzatime but no longer exists in their history either. Sample responses: Great job. Wow, historical thread. HOOOOOLLLY Shit. Police scanner just confirmed that marathon bomber #2 IS Sunil Tripathi. (this is refuted by the articles above after reviewing scanner records) according to Boston police scanner (via twitter) - the answer may be yes. (linked tweet no longer exists).

The deleted mistakes risk that they be forgotten and unheeded during the next high-profile event. Reddit, at it's worst, can be defined by attention-seekers hoping to prove their superiority. These failures can cure such hubris.

[ posted by sstrader on 20 April 2013 at 10:26:07 AM in Internet ]