Let Me Explain

April 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

wait what

NBC.com’s Nidhi Subbaraman just posted an article discussing the public’s role in the Boston Bombing case. I am quoted at the end of the piece, and wanted to clarify my position, because what it says I said is not entirely what I meant (word limits!).

…Shirky and others, such as Whitney Phillips, an Internet scholar and lecturer at NYU who has studied the trolling behavior of 4chan, think caution is necessary at times like this.

“Strong moderation is just what you need to keep this kind of ridiculous gossip at bay,” said Phillips, but strong moderation is not the kind of thing usually seen on Reddit.

“I think crowdsourcing is a terrible idea during criminal investigations,” Phillips told NBC News.

I do think that crowdsourcing is a terrible idea during criminal investigations, under certain circumstances — namely when the crowdsourcers are making up the rules as they go along, without any consideration for the serious personal and legal repercussions of their actions. Vigilante crowdsourcing, in other words. Once law enforcement has actual confirmed information and are looking for public feedback, great! I’m with Shirky; if you see something, say something. But until then, stop trying to solve the crime using MS Paint. As the Sulahaddin Barhoum and Sunil Tripathi cases highlight, this sort of approach has the potential to do far more harm than good. In fact nothing good has come of Reddit’s involvement in the story. (Friday night update: see this detailed thread criticizing participating Redditors’ haphazard sleuthing)

As for the issue of moderation — my full quote explained that platform moderators have and should exercise the ability to quash falsely incriminating details and/or surreptitiously acquired personal information before whatever information gets snatched up by lazy journalists and splashed across the front page of The New York Post. This is not a violation of “free speech,” as many Redditors might argue. Rather this is a preemptive protective measure. As Shirky explains in the NBC article, the cost of failure is very high — and above and beyond being the responsible thing to do, it is (at least, seems like it should be) in the platform moderators’ best interest to prevent, for example, being sued for libel.

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