TORONTO – Reddit General Manager Erik Martin issued a formal apology on behalf of the website Monday, denouncing its role in the “online witch hunt” for the Boston bombing suspects that resulted in spreading of false information.
“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,” said Martin in a blog post published to Reddit Monday afternoon.
“The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”
The apology stems from the subreddit /r/findbostonbomber which asked users to upload any photos or videos that may provide insight into possible suspects, in order to provide that evidence to the FBI.
The rules, listed on the homepage of the subreddit, urged users not to make suspect images viral, or post any personal information of the suspect. Despite this, the subreddit lead to many innocent bystanders being labeled as suspects, including missing student Sunil Tripathi.
Tripathi, who has been missing since March, was mixed up in the search for a suspect after scores of Reddit users claimed they heard his name used over Boston Police radio frequencies in connection to the deadly bombings.
Tripathi’s family were forced to temporarily disable their “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” Facebook page due to the volume of hateful comments that were posted after his name was passed around social media.
Once the FBI released the images of the suspects in the bombings last Thursday, who would later be identified as brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the moderators of the /r/findbostonbomber subreddit announced they would no longer allow posts that didn’t directly involve the suspects.
But most of the damage had already been done.
“We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Triphathi, as have various users and moderators,” said Marin in the blog post.
“We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure.”
The subreddit garnered negative attention from some media outlets – Slate’s Will Oremus referred to the thread as “a group if amateur sleuths,” and criticized the group’s decision to label people as suspicious on insufficient evidence.
A similar report by the Atlantic Wire poked fun at the images uploaded to the site – with circles, arrows and diagrams pointing out supposed evidence in the photographs – saying things like, “we sorta have no idea why things are being circled.”
According to traffic figures released by Martin in the same blog post, 272,000 users were logged on the site at the time of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture Friday night with 85,000 users in the subreddit /r/news alone – the first time since President Barack Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” thread that a news thread has exceeded Reddit’s front page traffic.
But, despite impressive traffic to the site, Martin notes that there is a lesson to be learned from the online aftermath of the Boston bombing.
“We hope that Boston will also be where Reddit learns to be sensitive of its own power,” said Martin.