Reddit Apologizes For "Fueling Online Witch Hunts"

General Manager Erik Martin hopes the site can "learn to be sensitive of its own power." The creator of /r/findbostonbombers calls the subreddit a mistake.

In a post this morning, "Reflections on the Recent Boston Crisis," Reddit General Manager Erik Martin issued a formal and candid apology on behalf of the site for its role in spreading false information about the identity of the Boston bombers.

While Martin took pains to highlight acts of kindness and generosity by the Reddit community in the aftermath of the bombings, as well as some measured and responsible news threads, Martin used strong language to condemn the dangerous speculation going on in subreddits like /r/findbostonbombers, which the site shut down in an unprecedented fashion over the weekend.

Though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened. We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Triphathi, as have various users and moderators. We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure. 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. We encourage everyone to join and show your support to the Triphathi family and their search.

Martin also posted traffic figures from the past week. According to Google Analytics, 272,000 users were on site at the time of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's capture Friday night, with 85,000 in /r/news alone, making it the first news thread since Obama's "Ask Me Anything" thread to exceed Reddit's front page traffic.

Reddit has taken fire for its role in last week's media maelstrom, which is why it's important to note that these traffic numbers put Reddit's news threads on the same level as the largest news sites on the internet. Often dismissed as a fringe element, outside of the mainstream, Reddit's ability to draw eyeballs during major news events is evidence that the gap between mainstream news consumers and those seeking raw information elsewhere is narrowing considerably.

It's not without a hint of hopelessness, then, that Martin makes the closing plea: "We hope that Boston will also be where reddit learns to be sensitive of its own power."

Update: This afternoon, during an AMA, Oops777, the Reddit user who created /r/findbostonbombers/ noted that Reddit admins "advised that we shold [sic] consider making it private or deleting it." This type of intervention from Reddit administrators is rare for the site, which usually goes to great lengths not to intervene in user behavior. Earlier in the AMA, when asked if /r/findbostonbombers was "worth it," Oops 777 expressed regret in creating the page. "Not even slightly," he curtly replied.

Reached by phone, Martin denied that administrators had shut down the subreddit — the decision to block it from view with a custom stylesheet, and then to make it private, was made by user moderators, he said.

But he didn't rule out such an action in the future: "If this exact scenario happened again we might not let /r/findbostonbombers exist," he said. But he didn't seem convinced that it would change much. "One of things that almost all the reporting missed was that the main thread that IDed Sunil [Tripathi] was not in /r/findbostonbombers," he said. "Let's say we had shut this subreddit down. That still doesn't help Sunil."

"The vast majority of people... did the right thing," he said, referring to moderators' efforts to remove posts containing personal information.

Asked about specific policy changes, he told BuzzFeed: "we're thinking about it."

"It's something we ask ourselves all the time," he said.

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