Reddit's False Boston Bombing Suspect IDs Show Limits Of Crowdsourcing

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Should the Internet hive-mind really be getting into the crime investigation business?

Whereas Twitter and other kinds of social media are open firehoses of information, massive Internet forums like Reddit provide a community platform for dissecting information. At first blush, that might seem like a great idea.

Reddit’s vast crowdsourcing power and position in the media spotlight, combined with a certain game and nerdy esprit de corps, has certainly led to some good deeds: money raised for charitable causes, lost items returned to owners and even counseling for people in need. Many Reddit users offered their homes to stranded runners and spectators after the Boston bombing.

But when Reddit’s powers were turned to finding the suspects, the hive-mind’s work took on a bit of a nasty turn.

At a subreddit devoted to finding the Boston bombing suspects, people posted all kinds of leads and photographs, looking for clues. But all of the leads that garnered attention fizzled out. On Thursday, an FBI spokesman in Boston effectively scolded the crowdsourced efforts, saying that the agency’s footage was the highest priority in the investigation, and other photos shouldn’t be deemed legitimate.

Meanwhile, two innocent high school students were identified as people of interest and later wound up on the front page of the New York Post. Reddit users soon focused their attentions on a missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who also turned out to not be involved. As the week wore on, many dissident users called the subreddit an embarassment.

“You just helped terrorize a family who lost a son and brother, along with an innocent high schooler and some other random people,” one Reddit user wrote.

Crowdsourcing a crime investigation may turn up lots of leads, but it’s unclear if it’s as essential, as some Reddit users seem to believe. And many critics warned of opening the door to vigilante justice.

“What can 4chan and Reddit bring to the task of finding suspects that the police and FBI can't?” Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur wrote Friday. “Only… cognitive surplus. But even there they are limited by the data they've got access to: public pictures and databases.”

The episode illustrates the strange position faced by an online forum with a massive media spotlight. Reddit's crowdsourcing  power has frequently been at odds with its stated commitment to online privacy.

Ostensibly, Reddit discourages hunting for and disseminating personal information (“doxxing”). Moderators for the subreddit devoted to finding the Boston bombers have been pleading for users not to divulge personal information about the people scrutinized, but it’s hard to keep a tight lid on every thread and comment.

Plus, the application of the anti-doxxing policy on Reddit has historically varied according to the target. Reddit users crowed over outing Alois Bell, a pastor that wrote a nasty message on a receipt to an Applebee’s server. But when Gawker writer Adrian Chen revealed the identity of long-time Reddit user Violentacrez, the reaction was swift and harsh: Many subreddits banned all links to Gawker Media sites.

“Why is it right for Reddit users to identify Bell by name, inflicting real-world consequences on her, but wrong for Gawker to identify Violentacrez, inflicting real-world consequences on him?” a writer for the legal blog Popehat wondered.

The privileged position the Reddit community affords to conjecture and investigation by its own users, versus the outcry over outside scrutiny, speaks to an insular group dynamic. And any close-knit confederation is in danger of becoming a victim of groupthink, in which well-meaning intentions can spiral into unintended consequences.

“When concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup ... it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action,” Yale University psychologist Irving Janis, who pioneered research on groupthink in the 1970s, said.

The impetus to identify a suspect in a terrible crime is incredibly compelling and not exclusive to Internet forums -- witness the false reports of suspects in custody that spread throughout the media earlier this week. But online crime investigation has a dark side, as the family of Sunil Tripathi found out.

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