Administrators of the website Reddit are publically apologizing for the “online witch hunts” that erupted last week when armchair investigators across the Internet attempted to ID the Boston Marathon bombers.
Reddit general manager Erik Martin wrote in a blog post Monday that “dangerous speculation” on the part of the site’s many contributors caused innocent parties to be incorrectly blamed for last week’s terrorist attack, citing specifically the case of missing Brown University college student Sunil Tripathi.
Tripathi’s parents have been searching for their son since he disappeared more than a month ago. National interest in the case only pinnacled last week, however, when the FBI released surveillance camera footage of the suspected Boston bombers and users of Reddit were quick to speculate that one of the person sought by authorities was the missing student.
“One person who went to high school with him thought she recognized him in the surveillance photographs,” Alexis Madrigal writes for The Atlantic. “People compared photos they could find of him to the surveillance photos released by the FBI. It was a leading theory on the subreddit devoted to investigating the bombing that Tripathi was one of the terrorists responsible for the crime.”
The FBI ultimately identified the two men caught on surveillance cameras as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but the damage had already been done: so severe were the attempts to peg the attack on Tripathi that the boy’s family was forced to suspend a Facebook group that they created to him try and try the missing student down.
Sangeeta Tripathi, Sunil's sister, told NBC News that Reddit was "one of the more ugly and disgusting places that had a lot of traffic" pertaining to her brother.
“A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours,” his family wrote on Facebook on Friday. “We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.”
In Monday’s blog post, Reddit’s Martin writes that the users of the website “started with noble intentions” when they suggested the missing student could be the suspected bomber, but that conjecture quickly caused negative consequences for innocent parties. Over the course of only hours, “Sunil Tripathi” went from being a name floated on an online forum as a possible suspect to one of the top-trending phrases on all of Twitter.
This progression, said Martin, "showed the best and worst of Reddit's potential."
“The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened,” Martin wrote in this week’s blog post. "We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations.”
Martin added that he and others administrators of Reddit have publicly and privately apologized to the family of Sunil Tripathi and are encouraging others to do the same. Meanwhile, the New York Post and its owner, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, continue to stand by their decision to run the images of two men on the cover of their paper last week with the headline “BAG MEN.” Both persons ID’d in those pictures publically refuted that claim before the FBI could confirm that they were not suspected in last Monday’s bombing, which claimed three lives.