There is a new justice being administered online by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people who have learned to use the Internet as a tool for investigation and retribution against perceived or suspected wrongdoers. It seems to have started within the last two years with the online bulletin board 4Chan and within the hackers loosely assembled under the name Anonymous. It has since migrated to community sites such as Reddit. Sometimes, the target is a cad suspected of bullying somebody. Recently, amateur sleuths tried to figure out who was behind the Boston Marathon bombings.
It’s well past time to put on the brakes. Uncontrolled online mob vigilantism can potentially wreck lives as enthusiastic dilettantes investigate people in public and rush to inaccurate conclusions.
Last week an informal group of self-deputized online activists communicating on a Reddit board called “/r/findbostonbombers” identified Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who has been missing since mid-March, as perpetrator of the Boston bombing. Tripathi’s family, still trying to find their kin, was gracious in their response. But the implication was libelous. Those who perpetuated it should face consequences.
Reddit has since apologized, as did the moderator of the “FindBostonBombers” page. The moderator referenced the site’s “no personal information until confirmation” rule, which is meant to prevent this type of error. The rule failed. If Reddit wants to prevent something like this from happening again, it should ban the use of its forums for investigating crimes. There is no reason to believe that the Reddit community can effectively police itself.
Enabled by mass-produced technology, the United States is fast becoming a society of snoops and tattletales. While this has obvious advantages for law enforcement, it threatens the health of civil society, which depends on trust among its members. Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy program at Johns Hopkins University, argued in his 2007 book, Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government, that trust is the basis of a functioning democracy. He cited, for example, the difficulties that Iraq’s people face as the country moves from a society dominated by informants to Saddam Hussein’s secret police toward a collaborative democracy. We don’t yet know what happens to an established democracy when its citizens become willing and enthusiastic informants to the police.