Social media has the power to change opinions and form them just as easily. This is precisely why social media sites like Reddit can be dangerous in the wake of tragedy. Today, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin publicly apologized for the "witch hunt" that took place via Reddit during the Boston Bombings.
As soon as the bombings happened, Reddit users took to the network to post "clues" and "tips" about the bombers. The community posted mostly wrong information that frustrated law enforcement officials, and caused a manhunt for an unsuspecting person.
How Hysteria Spreads
The reason why this particular incident is being referred to as a "witch hunt" is that it's eerily similar to what happened in New England, no less, during the late 1400s - 1700s. Largely due to accusations and rumors, around 40,000 to 60,000 executions took place during that time. Those executed were accused of practicing witchcraft, which was untrue. The Reddit Boston witch hunt was largely the same.
By gathering wrong information, Reddit users spread the word that a man by the name of Sunil Triphathi was to blame for the bombings. This caused Triphathi's family to panic in addition to causing a large search for the missing college student. Reddit did apologize for user actions, but users weren't so quick to stand behind their faults.
Why Spreading False News Is Dangerous
Not only is spreading news that hasn't been confirmed dangerous, it's also destructive. Along with rumors and false information comes hatred and all kinds of violent acts. The problem with a site like Reddit (or any social media site, really) is that users can post anything they see fit. Even if that thing is a wrongful accusation that can be read by thousands.
If you've never used Reddit, the concept behind this site is simple enough: post a link to an article that you wrote, and that link will appear on the front page of the site. If the link is interesting enough, it will also generate lots of traffic. Well, on the day of the Boston Bombings, anything that had the word "Boston" included was of more than enough interest. This is a fact that Reddit users took advantage of.
Just in case you're wondering, there are some rules to Reddit. The site does prohibit anyone from posting information about others. On the day of the Boston Bombings, the volunteer Reddit moderators were not taking this rule into consideration. Reddit has stated that the site won't censor future posts, but it will crack down on moderators.
What's the lesson that can be learned from all of this? If you hear a bit of news that hasn't been confirmed from a major news source, question it before you spread it. Sure, it can be thrilling to get in on a news scoop, but that scoop is only worth sharing if it's actually true. Otherwise, you may start a witch hunt for some unsuspecting college student. Or worse.
*Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici via freedigitalphotos.net*