Those who fear that crowdsourcing may soon make professional journalists obsolete should take a look at some of the links below related to an amateur sleuthing experiment on the popular Reddit social news site that went horribly awry last week.
The goal was commendable enough. A “subreddit” was set up to enlist the members of this massive community (14 million monthly visitors by one report) in the hunt for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. Participants were told not to name names and to focus their effort on combing through thousands of photos posted on the Internet in hopes of finding the origins of the backpacks that exploded, killing three people and injuring 282 others.
The rules quickly went by the wayside, though. Names began being tossed out more or less at random, photos of anyone carrying a backpack were flagged as suspicious and chatter from the Boston Police Scanner were posted as fact. Most damaging was a rumor that Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who has been missing for a month, was one of the bombers.
Twitter did its part both to spread misinformation and to serve professional journalists who sought to calm the hysteria. Some mainstream media organizations picked up on the Tripathi rumors and amplified them, while other journalists tried to settle the crowd by pointing out, among other things, that police scanner reports are unconfirmed and often wrong.
The accusation that Tripathi was involved in the bombings was particularly damaging. When the popular @NewsBreaker Twitter account reported that the missing student had been confirmed as a suspect based upon police scanner chatter, “social media went crazy,” said Reddit General Manager Erik Martin in an interview on Atlantic Wire. “It was posted so many times in [Reddit subgroup] /r/FindBostonBombers that I had to stay up the entire night deleting them.”
Martin called the experiment “a disaster,” and issued an apology to the Tripathi family on behalf of Reddit, which is owned by Conde Nast. Media critics have been swarming in the wake of the incident, with Reddit getting nearly universal condemnation. About the only contribution the crowd made to the investigation was to identify one photo of the suspected bombers that the FBI hadn’t seen. However, the distraction the experiment caused as professional reporters tried to untangle the web of amateur accusations more than offset the small benefits. A chastened Reddit has since launched a new crowdsourced campaign to help locate Tripathi.
Questioning Crowdsourcing’s Value
Does this mean crowdsourcing is a bad idea? In certain situations, yes. Criminal investigations require specialized expertise that no group of amateurs can match. FBI and police investigators had access to intelligence that enabled them to evaluate and discard spurious information that the Reddit crowd didn’t. In a highly charged atmosphere like this, investigation is best done behind closed doors, with information revealed selectively when it can move the process along. The crowd is enlisted to help authorities but not to solve the case.
We can’t help but wonder what the public response would be if police officials conducted their investigation the way Reddit did. If every rumor and bit of speculation was held up to public comment, then our opinion of law enforcement might be quite different. Sometimes there’s good reason to withhold information from the public, as the irresponsible actions of the Reddit crowd made very clear.
However, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath. Crowdsourcing can have great value when applied to analysis of very amounts of data or eyewitness accounts. Witness the comprehensive Wikipedia report on the Marathon bombings for an example of how many eyes can tell a story better than a few.
The incident also offered some shining examples of traditional media at its best. On Friday the Boston Globe, which has been a poster child of newspaper industry tumult, posted this marvelous account of the factors that set two likable young men on the road to terrorism. It was mainstream media at its best.
Mathew Ingram has a different view. He believes Reddit, Twitter and other popular tools are capable of producing quality journalism, but not in the way we’ve traditionally defined it. Ingram believes that journalism is “atomizing” into component parts, and that the fact-checking and validation functions can be better handled by a crowd.
- Inside Reddit’s Hunt for the Boston Bombers
- Reddit apologizes for ‘online witch hunt’ for Boston bombing suspect
- Reddit, Boston and the missing student
- Three things that Reddit did right during the Boston bombings and why that matters [GigaOM]
- Reddit apologizes for fueling ‘witch hunts’ after Boston blasts
- Media, old and new, takes heat for Boston coverage – Chicago Tribune