Reddit Apologizes for Boston “Witch Hunt,” But What’s to Stop It From Happening Again?

Reddit won an award for "Best Social Impact" at this year's Crunchies tech awards in San Francisco.

Reddit won an award for “Best Social Impact” at this year’s Crunchies tech awards in San Francisco.

Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for The Crunchies

A big reason for Reddit’s popularity is the site’s freewheeling spirit. Under cover of anonymity, its users can say and do what they like, even if it’s politically incorrect or might hurt someone’s feelings. Almost anything is in-bounds, as long as no one gets doxed—i.e., has his or her personal information revealed. The prohibition against posting personal information is one of only five core rules of Reddit, and it’s the one that gives the site its character.

So what to make of a week in which well-meaning Redditors rushed headlong into the hunt for the Boston bombers, only to focus the public’s attention and suspicion on one innocent bystander after another?

On Monday, the site’s general manager, Erik Martin, wrote a blog post titled “Reflections on the Recent Boston Crisis.” After extolling all the ways in which the site’s users helped out during the tragedy and aftermath, Martin stated that, “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.” And he briefly explored the purpose and limitations of the site’s no-personal-information policy:

A few years ago, reddit enacted a policy to not allow personal information on the site. This was because “let’s find out who this is” events frequently result in witch hunts, often incorrectly identifying innocent suspects and disrupting or ruining their lives. We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt. We were wrong. …

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. These communities and lives are now interconnected in an unprecedented way. Especially when the stakes are high we must strive to show good judgement and solidarity. One of the greatest strengths of decentralized, self-organizing groups is the ability to quickly incorporate feedback and adapt. reddit was born in the Boston area (Medford, MA to be precise). After this week, which showed the best and worst of reddit’s potential, we hope that Boston will also be where reddit learns to be sensitive of its own power.

The first time I read this, I was nodding my head. Then I got to the end and thought, Wait—that’s it? The action verb in Martin’s final sentence is hope. He hopes the site “learns to be sensitive of its own power.” But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that the site’s users should get out of the amateur-detective business? Does it mean that they should create special private forums for that purpose? What would a “sensitive” crowd-sourced investigation look like? Is such a thing even possible?

Those same questions bothered Gawker’s Adrian Chen enough that he took to Reddit this afternoon to ask users directly: “This is a nice sentiment but I’m curious what measures, if anything, administrators are taking to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” The responses so far are almost uniformly defensive. Several imply that Chen lacks the standing to render ethical judgments. But it’s a valid question, no matter who’s asking it. I’ve emailed Martin for his thoughts and will update if he writes back.