Reddit Karma Doesn't Work in Real Life: Lessons of the Sunil Triapthi Debacle

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Three months after Reddit led a crowd-sourced investigation that identified an innocent missing man as a terrorist suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, The New York Times Magazine is asking "Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?" Ultimately, writer Jay Caspian Kang says no. "To blame Reddit is to pretend that the platform is the problem," he writes. "This is what media is now," he continues, explaining that it's a messy, fast moving process to push any and all data out — true or false — that ultimately self-corrects in favor of the truth. The problem with that new reality is that as fast as things move online for better or worse, the analog world still moves at its same slow pace. In the real world the negative effects of misinformation can't be down-voted, but victims, like Sunil Triapthi — a missing Brown student who turned up dead a couple weeks later —  and his family, have to deal with the effects long-after Redditors have moved on. 

Even after major news organizations confirmed the actual names of the Boston Bombers, disproving Reddit's theory about Tripathi, his family still had to deal with the offline effects of the situation. Things don't spread so fast offline, as Kang writes: 

The Associated Press revealed the full name of Suspect No. 2: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But the Tripathi family’s troubles were not over. Akhil’s colleague, who had been helping with the search, called a homeless shelter in Philadelphia to see if Sunil had been there and was told that the shelter did not aid terrorists. According to the Tripathis, the private missing-persons organization that was working with the family informed them that Sunil’s association with the Boston bombings had ruined their business. Still traumatized, the Tripathi family decided to redouble their efforts to get out the word about Sunil’s disappearance. This meant going back to the same media who had been calling them all night. 

All of those terrible things the Tripathi family had to deal with took place outside of the Internet. Twitter and Reddit had moved on a apologized, but information hadn't spread to the homeless shelter in Philadelphia, nor can it erase the harsh phone messages from reporters asking for a statement on their son Sunil the Terrorist. 

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At that point, Reddit had corrected the error. Before, Sunil Tripathi as a terrorist had been a "leading theory" on the Boston Bombers in the Boston subreddit, with one link having 500 comments and 802 upvotes. On Reddit, upvotes are the currency of truth, or karma, as the Kang explains it. "A post from a user is either 'upvoted' (also known as earning 'karma' because you’ve submitted a link that benefited the Reddit community) or 'downvoted.'" In other words, the desire to accumulate karma, is supposed to be a way to encourage the Reddit community to filter the bad information from the good. And it works! On Reddit, at least ... currently, the top voted comment in the Reddit thread "Is missing student Sunil Tripathi Marathon Bomber #2?" says the following "EDIT: It wasn't him. Reports were false. I'll leave the rest of my post for posterity, but it wasn't Sunil Tripathi." On another thread, the most upvoted comment is a set of journalistic guidelines created by Marcus DiPaola, a freelance journalist who covered the event from Cambridge, according to Kang. This is how Reddit is supposed to work: the Tripathi theory had credence until it didn't and the karma balanced everything out. Unfortunately, righting things on the Internet world doesn't immediately align with reality out there in the actual world. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.