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On Monday, three days after Boston police arrested 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings, Reddit general manager Erik Martin issued an apology. It had not been the best of weeks for his online community. Law enforcement officials had explained that one of their motivations for releasing surveillance camera footage of the Tsarnaev brothers was to put an end to the wild speculation on sites like Reddit, where anyone with a backpack was being floated as a possible suspect. Redditors never came close to identifying the Tsarnaevs, instead casting their suspicions on a missing Brown University student named Sunil Tripathi. (Tripathi was found dead in the Providence River on Thursday morning.)
Martin was contrite. “Some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties,” he wrote, referring to a smaller sub-community, or subreddit, on his site that was devoted to catching the Boston bombers. “The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”
Redditors have, for years, worked to use the resources of crowds as a force for good. There’s an entire subreddit dedicated to Redditors ordering pizzas for families and raising money for surgeries. But Boston represents a reality check. Can Reddit harness its greatest asset—the tireless brainstorming of millions—while reining in the speculative impulse that makes the site tick? And even if Reddit could solve crimes, would it be worth it?
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The Internet Is Actually Surprisingly Good at Fighting Crime