Two bombs brought the Boston Marathon to a tragic conclusion on April 15. One day later a Reddit user created the subreddit, or forum, called “r/findbostonbombers” in an effort to crowdsource the investigation and identify those responsible for the attack.
The subreddit was created to sort through the images from the attack and pass relevant information to the FBI. This did not happen. What happened was a witch hunt.
Reddit, Twitter and other social media platforms incorrectly identified suspects, singled them out and released their personal information in the course of their amateur investigation. The media, new and old, posted this speculation, hoaxes, rumors and misinformation as fact. As both news writers and consumers we are appalled.
The Boston Bombing unleashed a raging scene of chaos that was only stoked by unceasing speculation by social media platforms and the traditional media. We saw the abandonment of journalistic ideals as new outlets fought to be the first to break the news.
According to the Washington Post, the FBI released photographs of the suspects in part as a response to Reddit and the media’s unprofessional investigation.
Reddit identified a man in a “blue robe,” a man in a white hat, a man in a blue jacket, a man with a large backpack, two men who looked a bit too military and many more. Some of these people had their personal information posted online. None of them were the bombers.
The New York Post incorrectly identified the bombers twice and declared the death toll as 12, not three. CBS, AP, CNN, Fox News and many others incorrectly tweeted news of identifications, arrests, additional bombs and bombings. Buzzfeed, among others, identified missing Brown student Sunil Tripathi as a suspect based on allegations put forward on social media.
There is a time for breaking news, scoops and exclusives. There are ways to cover tragedies and emergencies while maintaining integrity. It should never come at the expense of the truth.
The Boston Bombing is unique not because it was an attack on American soil but because it happened in a time when social media has taken a step into the domain of traditional media. Platforms like Reddit are just as capable as the traditional media at disseminating information when things go viral.
This new model of information distribution places sites like Reddit and Twitter in the realm once reserved for journalism. These sites are unbound by the old media’s commitment to verification and reporting, and it seems as though the old media is becoming unbound as well.
We do not need a social media witch hunt every time a national tragedy occurs, nor do we need media outlets that cannot tell the difference between fiction and fact.