Reddit and Crowdsourcing: Valuable or Problematic?

In the mad scramble to figure out who was behind the Boston Marathon bombings, there's been a lot of praise and scorn heaped upon Reddit -- and crowdsourcing in general -- for its attempts to play detective. Reddit is deserving of both.

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In the mad scramble to figure out who was behind the Boston Marathon bombings, there’s been a lot of praise and scorn heaped upon Reddit — and crowdsourcing in general — for its attempts to play detective.

Reddit is deserving of both. While the social news site did unearth some useful information, such as a photo of one of the suspects that originally appeared on Facebook, it also named the wrong man as a suspect and later apologized.

This may seem like an incredibly wobbly stance to take (Reddit is good! It’s also bad!) but the reality is that crowdsourcing is valuable for certain things, and problematic for others. As we follow along with major news events, readers and news organizations alike need to be mindful of what Reddit’s strengths and weaknesses are so we can stay informed while steering clear of bad info.

Reddit Is Great at Gathering…

When thinking about Reddit’s role in crisis situations, my mind jumped back to the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., last year. As soon as the news broke, Redditors began compiling information in real time, and the result was a comprehensive timeline of what happened.

The information on that page outshined any website story or TV news broadcast you could find at the time. There was no filler, no noise, just hard data updated regularly. Want more? Refresh the page.

This is standard procedure for Reddit during huge, breaking news events. Here’s a timeline for the Boston Marathon explosions, and here’s one for the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion.

Reddit isn’t just good at compiling what’s already known. It’s also good at digging up new points of interest. After the Aurora shooting, one Redditor who was in the theater offered a first-hand account of the events. This thread led to other first-hand information, such as photos of the scene. Once the suspect was identified as James Holmes, Reddit uncovered information from an adult dating site that the mainstream media missed.

Reddit’s strengths are inherent to its nature. As a massive community on the hunt for interesting things, it can canvas the Internet in ways that a single news organization or reporter cannot. I wonder how many reporters watch those Reddit threads to see if they missed anything.

…But It’s Not So Great at Figuring Things Out

The problem comes when a crowd of Internet users tries to draw conclusions (or, put another way, point fingers) based on the information it’s come up with. See, for example, Thursday’s Reddit post where a user wonders aloud whether a missing Brown University student is a suspect in the bombings. Another user attempted to answer: “according to Boston police scanner (via twitter) – the answer may be yes.”

Let’s break down what happened: one Redditor tried to draw a line between a missing student and an unidentified bomber, seemingly without evidence. As this post gained traction, a second user insinuated that the student was a suspect, based on police scanner activity. Both users tried to draw conclusions based on tenuous information. Reddit then amplified that bogus conclusion, eager to trumpet its own detective work.

To be clear, I’m not trying to pin all the blame on Reddit for spreading false information. Major news organizations have also done their fair share of bad reporting, and deserve even harsher criticism for doing so. If anything, news organizations should be filtering out unverified information from sources like Reddit, not amplifying it.

But given Reddit’s ability to provide breaking news faster, and more thoroughly, than mainstream outlets, we need to be savvy about the information it provides. There’s a huge difference between sober fact-finding, which Reddit is extremely good at, and finger-pointing, which it is not. The site is still invaluable during major news events, but readers and the press should be deeply skeptical of crowdsourcing’s ability to actually solve crimes.

7 comments
C2Case
C2Case

The issue isn't crowdsourcing, social media or the technology. The issue is the relationship between the police and the public. In the first 48 hours after Boston it was the Police (law enforcement, FBI, etc.) who had the information. In order the help, the public needed the information. In the absence of facts, 4chan and Reddit became self-appointed investigators - something they are not qualified to do. As a result - they all got it 100% wrong. Here's how to get it right: goo.gl/Ossy5 (Our take on it from real law enforcement professionals and the former production unit of America's Most Wanted) and real results: goo.gl/ZMf3C. Once the police give the public the information- the facts - then it is the public who 'has' the information needed to help solve the case and the police who 'need' the same information. It's called community policing - a partnership between the police and the public to solve a common problem. Crime is not a police problem - it's a community problem. Connected To The Case - www.c2case.com - and on Facebook - https://www.Facebook.com/ConnectedToTheCase.

maxxg
maxxg

The biggest problem isn't Reddit or 4chan... its the "credible" news sources that are being lazy and not taking the time to do their own research and taking whatever is posted on those sites as fact. Reddit can do all the speculation they want, but the news sources have no right to plaster someones face on a newspaper or website without confirming anything is true. Im not saying that the users at reddit or 4chan are innocent, they should carry some of the burden as well of makin things public as well, but the newspapers and big news sites should hold most of the blame

LillithAdams
LillithAdams

I watched twitter for hours 4/18-4/19 and saw a cycling swill of redundant misinformation.  This swill infected Reddit and cross-infected Twitter again and again.

Vvhome
Vvhome

Providing the dots in one thing and connecting them is a whole different thing. When the anonymity that is provided by the crowd is taken advantage of by reckless commenters, the damage done is real. An apology cannot undo the damage they cause. They should be accountable and, where applicable, liable for their actions. The fact that larger news organizations too make mistakes cannot be an excuse.

5432142
5432142

Fair. Just remember that reddit is not a news reporting site, but a method of sorting people's links and comments into a democratically decided order. You can't analyse the comments that are wrong, then make a judgement about reddit's reliability. When is reddit valuable, and not problematic? When you think for yourself, and make an informed, contextual judgement about the specific issue, comment, or link at hand. People are unique, and reddit is powered by people.


tremonteccles
tremonteccles

@5432142 too many folks dont make informed contextual judegment, they accept it all as fact.. and the damage done to the innocent cannot be fixed.  It is like driving nails into a board, then pulling those nails.  Is the board ever the same?  No, it is scarred for life.  Who does one go see at Reddit to get a reputation back?

builder7
builder7

@tremonteccles @5432142 Maybe they aren't following the old hashed out news media for their information, so the results of their decisions may be different than what you think they should be.  When a group of people decides that they want to destroy a person's reputation there isn't much that can be done except that they should stand up for themselves always.  Look at what the government and corporations do to people's reputations if they so decide - what is the difference!