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.
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.