Reddit has officially apologized for users accusing an innocent (and currently missing) Brown University student of being a likely suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Between the Monday afternoon bombing of the Boston Marathon and Thursday afternoon when authorities released photos of the Tsarnev brothers as the suspects identified in the bombing, users of the website Reddit attempted to ID the bombers through a crowdsourced search of video and photographs of the bombing site.
Unfortunately, according to Reddit General Manager Erik Martin, the effort became a “witch hunt” and proved to be just the sort of situation that the website had hoped to avoid.
“We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations,” Martin said in a blog post published on April 22.
As Reddit users began pouring over the videos and images of the bombing scene from just before the bombs went off, a theory began to emerge that a possible suspect might be a Brown University student named Sunil Tripathi, a student who has been missing since March 16.
Of course, by Thursday the authorities identified Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as suspects, not the missing Tripathi.
The speculation about the missing student soon went viral, something that Martin regrets. As the Reddit chief ruefully noted, “though [it] 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 Tripathi, 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 Tripathi family and their search.
Martin reminded users that the website had enacted measures to prevent too much personal information from being released on the service to avoid the very sort of “witch hunts” that fingered the missing student last week. The system, however, failed in this instance.
“This crisis has reminded all of us of the fragility of people’s lives and the importance of our communities, online as well as offline,” Martin wrote.
Martin was pleased to point out, though, that many users initiated positive actions using the service. From “donating to relief funds, having pizzas delivered to area police and hospitals, to arranging for people with dogs to bring them to a park so people could escape a bit with some cute animal therapy, and even arranging housing and transportaion [sic] for out-of-towners who were stranded in Boston because of the bombing,” Reddit’s users did much good in the aftermath of the heartrending attacks in Boston.
“We are all incredibly proud that the Reddit platform enabled this help,” Martin said.