Looking back at the social media manhunt that saw a missing student wrongly fingered as a suspect in the Boston bombings, this weekend’s New York Times Magazine asks, “Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?”
It’s a question that a lot of people, including me, grappled with at the time. But it’s worth revisiting with the benefit of some distance and some solid reporting by author Jay Caspian Kang. The rush to online judgment was, after all, what led to missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi being widely misidentified as a suspect in the first place.
In the piece, Kang sits down with the Tripathi family and finds them still scarred by the mistaken-identity fiasco. They wear the wounds of having their son and brother indelibly linked to a vicious terror attack on top of the deeper gashes inflicted by his disappearance and death. And it’s obvious they’ve thought a lot about the media mechanisms that made the screw-up possible: The Tripathis’ media criticism is more incisive than a lot of what was written by professional pundits at the time. Sunil’s sister Sangeeta told the Times:
One thing we’ve been struck by is how porous the space is between social media, the media and law enforcement. We assumed that if random people on Twitter were sitting in their pajamas saying, ‘Here’s this kid missing in Providence that’s skinny, and here’s something horrible that happened because of a kid who’s skinny,’ that speculation would be contained within a certain space.
“Porousness” seems like exactly the right diagnosis. Five years ago, it would have taken far longer for such unfounded rumors to reach the public at large—enough time that they probably could have been debunked before they did real damage. Today, they’re broadcast on Reddit one moment, amplified on Twitter the next, and have essentially become national news before a single professional reporter has picked up a phone.
Some new-media evangelists will shrug: This is the world we now inhabit, and the benefits outweigh the collateral damage. And yet Sangeeta’s expectation—that damning allegations against private individuals remain “contained within a certain space” until someone has checked them out—seems like one that should be justified, even in the instant-information age.
The question, then, is what that “contained space” would have been, ideally, and how the speculation could have realistically stayed contained there. As convenient as it would be to assign blame to a single source—Reddit or otherwise—what stands out most about Kang’s thoughtful piece is how inexorably the information spread from one node to the next to the next. The Tripathi “smear” was not the result of any single intentional act, but of a chain reaction involving dozens of well-meaning agents and spanning multiple media platforms. Here is a partial list of people implicated in the Times article as playing a significant role in turning a piece of idle speculation into national news:
- The Reddit user who set up the /r/findbostonbombers subreddit
- The Reddit user who posted to that subreddit side-by-side photos of Sunil Tripathi and the bombing suspect later identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
- All the Reddit users who upvoted that post
- The angry Reddit users who defaced the family’s “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” Facebook page, prompting the family to take the page down
- Sasha Stone of the website Awards Daily and others who tweeted the link to the Facebook page
- BuzzFeed’s Erik Malinowski, who interpreted the Facebook page takedown as a sign that Tripathi might indeed be the suspect and tweeted about it
- The 300 people who retweeted Malinowski’s tweet, including blogger Perez Hilton, who blasted it to his own 6 million followers
- The Twitter user @ghughesca, who tweeted (falsely, it turned out): “BPD scanner has identified the names. Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi”
- Local TV journalist Kevin Galliford, who passed that on to his followers
- The 1,000 people who retweeted Galliford, including BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, who followed up by tweeting, “Wow Reddit was right about the missing Brown student per the police scanner. Suspect identified as Sunil Tripathi.”
- NBC News’ Luke Russert, who tweeted a photo of Tsarnaev and added, “This pic kinda feeds the Sunil Tripathi theory.”
- “Jackal,” the man behind the Twitter account @YourAnonNews, who sent Tripathi’s name to hundreds of thousands more followers
The Times piece doesn’t mention that one of the paper’s own reporters, Bill Carter, was also among the journalists who retweeted the rumors—as were several of Kang’s Grantland colleagues. So was Slate’s own Farhad Manjoo, who wrote a thoughtful reflection on the snafu the following day. I didn’t bite on the Tripathi rumors that night, but I’m sure I’ve repeated false information at some point in my own Twitter career as well. So if you’re going to blame Reddit, you’d better be ready to blame all these other folks too—and many more.
But don’t expect them all to be apologetic. Politico’s Dylan Byers, a media reporter, defended to Kang his decision to tweet Tripathi’s name:
When I tweet that CNN is reporting that authorities have someone in custody and then 10 minutes later tweet that NBC is tweeting that nobody was in custody, I’m not saying one is right and the other is wrong. Instead, I’m using Twitter as a tool to get out what information is out there and tracing it back to the source.
And that’s the crux of the problem. Redditors see Reddit as a contained space for speculation and maintain that it isn’t their responsibility to verify information before posting or upvoting it. Tweeters see Twitter as a contained space for speculation and maintain that it isn’t their responsibility to verify information before posting or upvoting it. Professional journalists, by and large, recognize that it is their responsibility to verify information before publishing or broadcasting it—but many still view their tweets as immune to such standards.
Kang concludes that “to blame Reddit is to pretend that the platform is the problem.” But the truth is that the platform does matter. From Twitter’s 140 characters to Reddit’s upvote system to cable news’ relentless pressure to fill airtime, the medium shapes the message. In Twitter’s case, the ease and ambiguity of the “retweet” button goes a long way toward reducing the sense of personal responsibility for broadcasting information that may turn out to be false.
And yet Kang is right that blaming the platform won’t solve the problem. The real lesson is that all of us—reporters, bloggers, Redditors, the police, and the news-following public—need to be more wary of each platform’s pitfalls. No one can stop people from posting rumors on Reddit—but Redditors in general ought to be more circumspect about upvoting them. The same should apply to retweets on Twitter—and it should go double for professional journalists. To me, the key sentence in Kang’s piece is this: “If enough people with trusted media affiliations touch a bit of information on Twitter, it starts to resemble a fact.”
There is some logic to Byers’ “retweets aren’t endorsements” defense, cliché that it is. Journalists on Twitter should be free to highlight tweets that they find amusing, fascinating, or controversial without having to stand by all the sentiments therein. And the pure retweet at least has the virtue of clear attribution, as opposed to a tweet like Kaczynski’s that reads as a declaration of fact.
But uncritically retweeting explosive, unverified allegations about private individuals is a different matter. Suppose Byers were right that all the responsibility lies with the original posters of false information, and none with the retweeters and upvoters. Where would that leave us? It would leave us blaming a few obscure bad apples, like @ghughesca, while indemnifying the mechanisms that spread the rot throughout the barrel. Retweets may not be endorsements, per se. But try telling that to Sunil Tripathi’s family.