Reddit apologizes for 'online witch hunt' for Boston bombing suspect

Last week showed the 'best and worst' of the site's potential, general manager Erik Martin says

In a testament to the issues surrounding the appropriate use of social media during a tragedy, Reddit is publicly apologizing for the role that it played last week in fueling an online witch hunt that led to identifying an innocent Brown University student as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Prior to the F.B.I.'s identification of brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev as suspects, a group of users on the link-sharing site took it upon themselves to pool their resources, poring over video footage and photographs taken at the bombing site, in an effort to identify a suspect on their own.

The result of the group's actions, which Reddit said started with noble intentions but became an "online witch hunt," led to their naming of Sunil Tripathi, an undergraduate at Brown University who has been missing since March 16. Tripathi's name went viral after a committed group of Reddit users agreed that previous photographs of him bore a resemblance to surveillance images of possible suspects taken at the scene of the bombings.

"The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit deeply regret that this happened," Reddit general manager Erik Martin wrote Monday in a blog post. The site has also apologized privately to Tripathi's family, as have various users and moderators, and "we want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure," Martin wrote.

"We hope that this painful event will be channeled into something positive and the increased awareness will lead to Sunil's quick and safe return home," he added.

Reddit enacted a policy several years ago to forbid the posting of personal information to the site. For example, the policy forbids the posting of links to public Facebook pages or screenshots of Facebook pages with the names still visible. Reddit had hoped that its crowdsourced model for gathering information "would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt," Martin wrote, adding, "We were wrong."

"The search for the bombers bore less resemblance to the types of vindictive Internet witch hunts our no-personal-information rule was originally written for, but the outcome was no different," he wrote.

Experts have agreed that while the immediacy of social media can play a significant role in getting the word out during a tragedy, users also have to be very careful about inaccurate or bogus information appearing on the sites.

Most of the ways Reddit was used during the tragedy and the aftermath -- for example, as a channel for people to stay informed and discuss and try to make sense of the events -- were positive, Martin wrote.

The site's users also organized pizza deliveries to area police and hospitals and even arranged housing and transportation for people visiting Boston who were stranded there because of the bombing, Martin wrote. Traffic on Reddit peaked with 272,000 users on the site when the second suspect was captured last Friday.

"Primarily, Reddit served as a great clearinghouse for information," he wrote. However, "After this week, which showed the best and worst of Reddit's potential, we hope that Boston will also be where Reddit learns to be sensitive of its own power."

Reddit got its start in Medford, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, according to Martin.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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