Monday, 22 April 2013

The Boston Marathon bombing and the Reddit circlejerk

What happened in Boston last week goes without saying as one of the most horrific events I have ever seen in the United States. The raw images of limbs scattered about and people missing them as a result were just horrifying. Regardless of the reasons, attacking innocent civilians anywhere is uncalled for and completely unjust.

However, one of the ugliest things that came out of all of this is the Internet vigilantism that had its goal in trying to catch whoever was responsible for the attacks. Specifically, the creation of the Reddit subgroup, r/findbostonbombers (it has since been closed so I haven't linked to it). It was Reddit's response to the search for who was responsible by combing through images on Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever else had photos that may or may be relevant--none were just in case you're wondering.

When you have people pleading that they're not the Boston bomber, those who go missing for unexplained reasons who are then accused of being the attacker, and then racial profiling because they're brown or some other colour other than good ol' fashioned American-proud white (because white people have never bombed any Americans), you have to wonder what these people think about racial profiling at the government level.

I refuse to link some of the images here as enough damage has been done to these falsely accused individuals, but it was amusing to see first-hand people trying to prove to me that certain people were likely guilty just because they were looking in the wrong direction, their clothes didn't match everyone else, or somehow they had a backpack but when seen in other photos it appeared that they didn't have them on, but of course in a later taken photo they're shown with their backpacks again. Just because you've watched enough CSI does not mean that you can take a look at a crowd and tell me who's a terrorist, rapist, murderer, paedophile, or whatever.

Unlike the Internet, the FBI had the ability to sift through video evidence provided via CCTV cameras placed in buildings and the surrounding area. What did the Internet have? Just photos they stumbled across on social media and elsewhere. What did the FBI pull off that the Internet did not? They had photos of the actual suspected bombers wandering around with the backpacks. They released video and stills of the suspects and only then did details about these people started to emerge.

It was only when the photos of the two suspected bombers did any other photos appear but it was from people who looked at their own damn images. How many photos of these suspects did Redditors find? None. In fact, they went on to falsely accuse an innocent missing person. Yeah. He sort of matched the blurry, digitally-zoomed image of one of the suspects, but it's not hard to go on your Facebook friends list and do the same damn thing.

Now comes into play is the whole Reddit circlejerk. I would refuse to call the subgroup created to find the bombers anything near altruistic in terms of its goals, but rather a lynch mob. Yes. Their intentions may be objectively good, but it's nowhere close to being actually useful or thoughtful.

Why was it so hard for people to not just do what the FBI wants and just send the damn images to them if they happen to find something that might be helpful in the investigation? Why did these Redditors have to go out and start playing with Microsoft Paint to figure out where Joe Shmoe and Susan Smith were looking at? In fact, I don't even recall a single image where a woman, a child, delivery driver, grandparents, et cetera were suspected as being involved.

How did these Redditors not know that some kid was instructed to place a backpack somewhere? How do they know it wasn't a woman who was involved? Why did they focus mostly on dark-skinned people or those with clothes that didn't match the rest? How did they come to the conclusion that just looking in one direction was sufficient for a probable suspect?

Really, Reddit is not above the rest of the Internet when it comes to moral authority--not by a long shot.

Honestly I think what it all boils down to is this notion in the Reddit community that whatever they do is for the good of the world. Yes. There have been instances where members of Reddit (I have been on the site for almost four years now FYI) have done some rather good work for the benefit of others, but there have been enough examples of where they have done harm. For example, after a post discussing Reddit's involvement in finding the bombers, it was pointed out by someone who has the same thoughts that I do that the founder of the aforementioned sub-Reddit was receiving threats as the aftermath of having someone falsely accused.

There's a lot more that I could say on this topic such as those involved not understanding what a reliable source is and why you shouldn't act upon it--for example: police scanners provide detailed information but there is a reason why the media was not reacting at the same rate as Reddit does. They need to know if what is being said is valid and radio communication amongst the police during a standoff situation is only so accurate.

In the end, Reddit, you embarrassed yourselves.

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