This post is part of Reading Reddit, a Slate pop-up blog about Reddit.
On Sunday afternoon, as news broke that a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, had been disrupted by gunfire, a user on the r/Madden community on Reddit posted a link to the story. “Shooting at Madden Tournament in Jacksonville,” user rdmrdm1 wrote, along with a link to audio of the attack. In a series of addenda to the initial post, rdmrdm1 presented new information and links, culminating in a boldfaced plea to his fellow Redditors: “Unless you have a legitimate link, don’t post anything related to the subject. If you turn out to be wrong it may well ruin that person’s life.”
In the hours that followed, the world learned that the shooter was David “Bread” Katz, a Maryland man and competitive gamer who had participated in the tournament, been eliminated, and returned with murderous intent. Katz, acting alone, killed two fellow gamers and wounded others before shooting himself. The Jacksonville shooting had been inadvertently, horribly live-streamed, which meant that there was more information initially available to the public than is typical in mass-shooting situations. Still, in the immediate wake of the attack, questions persisted about the number of shooters, the number of victims, the identities of the victims and the shooter, and the shooter’s motive. There was good reason—particularly for any responsible Reddit moderator—to be cautious with the details.
When an information void exists with respect to a recent news event, you can always count on Reddit to fill that void with shock, sorrow, speculation, and very stupid commentary. “I hope the city realizes this seriously fucks up their planning for tourism. Why revitalize the urban core if people are scared of having their lives taken,” wrote one poster on the main shooting thread of the r/Jacksonville subreddit. On r/greatawakening, a subreddit for enthusiasts of the QAnon conspiracy theory, users pondered whether the shooting was a deep state ploy meant to deflect attention away from the death of Sen. John McCain, who was a longtime QAnon obsession. (Not all posters subscribed to this line of reasoning. “This has nothing to do with DS or McCain or Q. Not everything that happens is because of Q drops, geez,” wrote one exasperated QAnoner.)
But certain subreddits filled that information void responsibly. I spent a lot of time Sunday afternoon and evening on r/Madden, a subreddit for fans of the Madden NFL video game franchise. The Madden subreddit had news of the shooting almost as soon as it happened, and I was struck by the care with which the initial poster and others tried to correct possible misinformation, dissuade speculation, and encourage users to wait until information had been confirmed by law enforcement or respectable news sources before reporting anything as fact. The subreddit did everything you’d want a mainstream news outlet to do in a breaking-news situation: Stick to the facts, minimize irrelevant commentary, and try very hard to “not make jokes about this.” CNN would be proud.
Speculation always abounds in breaking-news scenarios, and the Madden subreddit was no different on Sunday. But the Madden posters were very conscientious about limiting the parameters of the discussion while still allowing room for discussion. When users argued over whether a red dot that appeared on one victim’s chest prior to the shooting—as seen on the Twitch livestream—was a laser gunsight or simply ambient lighting from the venue, others jumped in to slow things down. “Please don’t mislead people by representing speculation as facts,” wrote one user in response to another’s insistence that victim Eli “Trueboy” Clayton had been targeted by a laser sight. When some users speculated on whether a loud, live-streamed argument during the previous day of the tournament had precipitated the attack, others chimed in with words of caution. “Before reddit detectives get carried away, remember what happened after the Boston marathon case. Best just leave these things to the authorities,” wrote another user.
As of Monday afternoon, the thread is riddled with since-deleted comments that presumably engaged in speculation as to the identity and or motive of the shooter; all that remains of these threads is rdmrdm1 urging his fellow posters to stick to the facts.
Reddit wasn’t always this cautious. In April 2013, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, a group of Reddit users came together to play Sherlock Holmes. In a subreddit called r/findbostonbombers—the subreddit is now a private community—Redditors pored over publicly available images, pooled their speculative efforts, and exulted in the notion that they might solve the case that had thus far stumped the FBI. They didn’t. Instead, the amateur detectives there spent a frenzied several days fixating on people who turned out to be innocent bystanders, such as “Blue Robe Guy,” who seemed like he was “trying to look nonchalant,” and two men who where holding striped backpacks. One photo parsed on FindBostonBombers even ended up on the front page of the New York Post under the erroneous headline “BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The two men in the photo turned out to be a local high school runner and a track coach.
The case reached its nadir when Redditors mistook a photo released by law enforcement of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for one of Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had gone missing that March. This misbegotten theory took on new life when Twitter users erroneously reported that Tripathi’s name had been mentioned on the Boston Police Department scanner as a suspect in the case. It hadn’t, and he wasn’t, but that didn’t stop FindBostonBombers—and the many, many reporters who had been following the subreddit all week—from crowing over their investigative prowess, amplifying the false report, and bringing great pain to Tripathi’s worried family. Tripathi’s body was found in a river near Providence, Rhode Island, several days later; his death was later deemed a suicide. By that time, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been arrested, and the hapless efforts of the Reddit mystery team had become an embarrassing subplot in an American tragedy.
“Overall, it was a disaster,” the subreddit’s anonymous creator later told the Atlantic later. “It was doomed from the start when you look at it in hindsight, because not one of the images that were available on the Internet actually had the bombers in it. I also fully admit that I was naive to think that everyone would listen to the rules and keep the posts within the subreddit.” A project that began as a giddy adventure had ended up irresponsibly smearing innocent people and had helped impede the flow of factual information in a time of national crisis.
Five years later, the shadow of the Boston Marathon debacle loomed over r/Madden’s efforts to parse the shooting. Immediately below rdmrdm1’s initial post, one of the Madden subreddit’s moderators chimed in, exhorting posters to maintain civility and not politicize the tragedy. The moderator also reiterated rdmrdm1’s initial message: “Please also refrain from posting rumours about who was responsible etc. until we have something definitive from a reputable news source. Let’s avoid a Boston Marathon fiasco.” Variations on that same refrain abounded in the subreddit on Sunday.
I think we can call this a sign of growth. The caution shown by the Madden posters on Sunday is a tacit recognition that, for many people, subreddits can function as news sources, and that it is therefore incumbent on them to be as factual as possible when news breaks. “The junior detective shit is really annoying,” wrote user Matt24BB. “Let the authorities sort it out, the info will eventually come out.” A motto to live by.