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Security & Privacy

Does Citizen Sleuthing Lead to Smears?

A revealing New York Times Magazine article by Jay Caspian Kang sheds more light on the dark side of citizen journalism and what happens when the crowd gets it wrong.

It all started on April 19 on Reddit, where photos of 22-year-old missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi were posted alongside images of Suspect #2 in the Boston Marathon bombings (later confirmed to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev). The “news” of an identified suspect spread like wildfire, cycling through Twitter and Facebook and quickly being picked up by major news media, including NBC, until the FBI eventually stomped it out by denying that Tripathi was a suspect.

Tripathi’s family, meanwhile, had just returned home from organizing the search for their missing son and brother, who had last been seen on March 16 in Providence, Rhode Island. The false accusations derailed their search efforts and made a traumatic situation even more painful. (The following week, Sunil’s body was recovered from the Providence River.)

Since then, Reddit has come under fire as the culprit for spreading the misinformation. But Kang writes that the net of culpability should be cast much wider:

“To blame Reddit is to pretend that the platform is the problem….  Now that traffic has reached 70 million visitors a month, asking ‘Reddit,’ whatever that might mean, to police its own news content seems to misunderstand the problem. The Sunil Tripathi debacle isn’t really a “new media” problem, much as those who think of themselves as members of the “old media” might like to see it that way. This is what media is now, a constantly evolving interaction between reporters working for mainstream companies; journalists and writers compiling and interpreting news for online outlets; and thousands of individuals participating on their own in the gathering and assembling and disseminating of information. It’s a tremendously messy process, at times thrilling and deeply useful, and at times damaging in ways that can’t be anticipated. How it all gets straightened out, how some rules might become codified, is going to take a while.”

In the meantime, questions still remain: Who picks up the pieces when the crowd gets it wrong? And, as speed will likely continue to trump accuracy—at least for now—whose information can you trust?

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