Social Media Vigilantes and the Boston Bombings

The terrible events of last week in Boston played out like a TV series across the entire week, with each day bringing new information and speculation to the public. By the final hours, 250,000 Bostonians were ordered to “Shelter-in-place” as all public transit was shut down, and large swaths of the city were cordoned off for searching by a number of local police departments and their special units, the Massachusetts State Police, and their special units, several regional and national units of the FBI, the Massachusetts National Guard, the U.S. Air Force, multiple agencies under the Department of Homeland Security, the BATFE, the USSS, the DSA, the DSS, and several other “Alphabet Agencies”. Yet up to 85,000 simultaneous users of the content aggregator tried to join in to help. While most had only noble intentions, reeling in the wake of the largest terrorist attack on American soil in over a decade, what happened later resulted in a witch hunt that quickly spiraled out of control as multiple information cascades occurred, and several innocent people were accused of terrorist acts. Several users accused multiple people of being the bomber solely because they were wearing a backpack, or even worse wearing a backpack while having dark skin. After this individual was reported by one reddit user to have been mentioned by name on a police scanner (later proven to be false), many users began to congratulate each other, as this would seem to verify the results of their information cascade. This individual was then featured on the cover of the NY Post, perhaps because of reddit. The reddit vigilante group then “erupted in smug self satisfaction that they had “been right” about a man they called a terrorist to his mother’s face and left a record of their libel of online.” as user “Thirydegrees” put it. 

In the end it’s important to remember that we are all just people with a computer and an internet connection. Reddit is not a news organization that investigates crime or can make an official statement about an event. It is just a bunch of people talking to each other, like friends commenting on the news at a bar. Most of it is wild speculation. This on its own is not a problem, but when an actual news organization takes this speculation and runs with it, this leads to accusations, lies, investigations, and has the power to ruin lives.