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Could HN stop participating in the witchhunt?
382 points by Uchikoma on April 19, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments
The bomber suspect threads are disgusting. Smearing people, then back paddling. Cross posting from Reddit for karma whoring here drags this place down. Please stop.

When this is all over I hope there is a decent post-portem look at reddit and its relationship with the media, especially with the efforts to attempt to find the Boston Marathon bombers.

The story of 'internet wizards find Boston suspects' was too good to not publish. The media portrayed it as hackers using their intelligence and the resources of the internet to track down criminals, but it ended up being nothing more than some people flicking through photos and profiling based on race, appearance etc.

In total I saw over two dozen people marked as 'suspects'. I open Facebook and my non-tech friends are all sharing homemade 'WANTED' posters with full pictures of the people identified. Everybody was suspect until they were 'cleared' - the very definition of a witch hunt. Digital vigilante justice.

Nobody learned their lesson, because it was only a couple of hours later that the media were reporting that suspect #2 was the missing Brown kid. I switched on prime time news in Australia and the news that the Brown student was terrorist suspect number two was the top story!. Speechless.

I tried in vain to get the reddit threads removed and shutdown (IMO they violate the 'no dox' rule) but got nowhere. The privacy right of individuals are being torn apart by online mobs (I was told in a reply that if I have nothing to hide I have nothing to worry about). It depresses me to think that nothing will be learned from this entire experience.

This is exactly why the government feels like they should get involved in regulating the internet, because we aren't taking care of it ourselves. I can already see how a case will be put together next week using the reddit witch hunt threads as a reason why the internet needs censorship. Think about what our responses are going to be to that.

I've looked at the reddit threads a bit and it looked to me like a place where discussion was going on and people were trying to help.

There is a big difference between sharing a photo and asking if it might contain a suspect and posting a "wanted poster" or having national media announce that someone is a suspect. The former is what I saw on reddit, if the later happened it wasn't on that site.

There should be a way to have an online discussion without people jumping to conclusions.

> I've looked at the reddit threads a bit and it looked to me like a place where discussion was going on and people were trying to help.

You're factually incorrect, or maybe you were just looking in the wrong place: http://i.imgur.com/R0CZtwR.png and http://www.reddit.com/r/findbostonbombers/comments/1co0d5/he... and I guess there are countless others.

Not to mention that I learned the names of the wrongly accused "suspects" from Hacker News first, but I guess we'll just keep digging our heads in the sand and carry on like nothing has ever happened.

I'm not saying that all comments posted to the threads were appropriate, I'm talking about the general tone of the discussion.

Every (even arguably) inappropriate comment I saw was quickly responded to by others.

EDIT (Added) : Of course given human nature it's inevitable that some people will jump to conclusions, but should that invalidate the discussion itself ? I don't think so. It seems to me like banning criticism of the government because some people might start a revolution.

just pointing out that the thread image you submitted as evidence to the contrary had 4 karma points, which on reddit is akin to a whistle in the dark. If it had 1800 karma points I could see the sentiment having broader reddit apeal.

Exactly, everyone was actively telling each other not to be heroes and report what they know to the FBI instead of speculating on the board. It didn't keep everyone from being stupid, but that's not what the majority of the spirit of those threads were about.

I'll gladly acknowledge that there were plenty of people trying hard to keep things in check, but it can be observed that at some point things went off the rails, e.g. http://www.reddit.com/r/boston/comments/1cn9ga/is_missing_st...

Yes - it seems speculators here got it right this time.

Somebody get OP reddit gold for life.

Reddit was right!

gif of missing brown student & suspect in marathon bombing (subsequently tweeted by Salon, etc.)

Dude...this thread is going to go down in history!

Reddit 1.... news media 0

> This is exactly why the government feels like they should get involved in regulating the internet, because we aren't taking care of it ourselves. I can already see how a case will be put together next week using the reddit witch hunt threads as a reason why the internet needs censorship. Think about what our responses are going to be to that.

What we do online is a reflection of what we do offline. To think that there aren't offline hunts and people who go around shouting those things without the internet is absurd. To suggest this is why we need internet censorship easily lends its self to the argument that people's every day offline lives need to be monitored and controlled.

He's not suggesting that we need internet censorship because of this, he's suggesting this is why ignorant octogenarian legislators think we need internet censorship. Everything is scarier when it happens on a black box you don't understand.

> What we do online is a reflection of what we do offline. To think that there aren't offline hunts and people who go around shouting those things without the internet is absurd. To suggest this is why we need internet censorship easily lends its self to the argument that people's every day offline lives need to be monitored and controlled.

When you stand on a street corner shouting ‘This guy did it’ with a picture of said guy, how many people do you reach as compared to a similar post on Reddit?

Conversely, what is the status of other mass-media (newspapers, radio, TV etc.) regarding the information they publish? Will a radio ever broadcast ‘This guy did it’ without some fact-checking? At least here (Germany), that is not/should not be the case.

The very easy way to solve this problem would obviously be to improve defamation/libel laws to such an extend that wrongfully accusing someone of X gets you the maximum penalty for X as a minimum. At least people posting Wanted posters on Facebook should be easy to catch, then.

> When you stand on a street corner shouting ‘This guy did it’ with a picture of said guy, how many people do you reach as compared to a similar post on Reddit?

Without going too deep into the hole of metaphors, a guy standing on the street corner shouting about anything has the same credibility as the author of http://www.timecube.com/

I liked most of the FBI's press conference yesterday, but I also wish, in addition to "do not try to apprehend, leave that to the cops", they had also said "if you know their names, tell the FBI, and for God's sake don't post it on the Internet."

Maybe the FBI should give out karma to tipsters. (This last sentence is sarcasm.)

Maybe the FBI can buy them reddit gold. :-)

I think the Brown student's name was mentioned by police as one of the two suspects and it went from there. There's probably a lesson in public reaction to information from police scanners to be had.

Given that police mobilised near the suspects' apartment only around or after the time that their address was hitting social media, I suspect that at least in this case, many cops on the ground (and using their radios) were getting info at roughly the same pace as everyone else.

e.g., if there's an official statement, it will be a press briefing or designated as something official.

I haven't found the part of the police radio transcripts where he's mentioned ... was he specifically mentioned as a suspect or was his name simply mentioned on the radio (possibly because he's missing)?

While I suspect the Boston police department's number one priority is finding the marathon bombing suspects, wouldn't it be logical that their other cases would still be discussed?

EDIT: I agree with the premise of this thread ... it's interesting to watch the real-time parts of the case, but drawing conclusions should be:

a) Not be done in real-time

b) Based on known facts

c) Vetted by multiple sources

The brown student's name was mentioned by a woman on twitter in response to looking at the released photos. Apparently it looked like a friend of hers that had gone missing a month prior after dropping out of school and becoming depressed. There were already a few articles about the missing person case, predating the bombing, and those were being linked by reporters in twitter feeds. The name mentioned on the police scanner was yet another person, also not correct.

We already have the laws to handle that kind of witch hunt behavior (it's basically defamation), it's just that we need to have them enforced. Sadly, a lot of people seem to think that their responsibility for what they do stop once they're online.

Pretty sure those aren't criminal and it's up to the person being demafed to sue.


Why did you try to get reddit threads closed, and not get the Australian TV news station closed?

Wait a minute, mob justice behavior on reddit has absolutely zero to do with why the "government wants to take control of the internet". Whatever trends there are along those lines are entirely related to state interests in espionage and critical services, media control, ip protection and interests in mass surveillance.

Most of those people have probably never even heard of reddit yet along give two shits about some collateral damage in an investigation of terrorism.

From the guidelines:

Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports, unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon. Videos of pratfalls or disasters, or cute animal pictures. If they'd cover it on TV news, it's probably off-topic.

Also from the guidelines:

"On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity."

Note that the "off-topic" guidelines contain two exceptions. The first sentence provides an exception for interesting new phenomenon. The interaction between social media, traditional media, and the police in this case is interesting and new enough to arguably qualify. The "cover it on TV news" sentence says it is probably off-topic, not that it certainly is.

I'd argue that a post-event analysis of those interactions would be justified. However, much of what was posted here really wasn't. There was comment threads with minute-by-minute updates of events, links to images of suspects and links to live police radios. I personally wouldn't consider any of that to be the type of stuff that should be submitted to HN.

I think the thing that must be remembered is that almost nobody who reads HN reads it in a vacuum. I'm willing to bet that almost every user here has an account on another website which is more suitable for discussing current events. HN isn't in competition with these sites, and it doesn't need to have their breadth. This is a site for engineers and developers about technology.

You should definitely take this up with the site owner: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5575255

I find this manhunt absolutely riveting for some reason, but I don't think there's any 'intellectual curiosity' about it.

BTW, Freenode #boston channel is not a bad place to follow it.

pg himself posted a Watertown Twitter list: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5575255

Do you think that was intended just as a temporary resource, a suggestion that he did think this was on-topic or just got caught up in the moment, or was an invitation to discuss the new level of live public participation (to whatever extent) in the unveiling of a big story?

I think there's an interesting discussion to be had around the latter.

As I said in the linked thread, I have a very strong dislike of typical 24-hour news broadcasts, but I have found the online tracking of this story as it's unveiled quite gripping. Been following it really closely for maybe five hours?

Boston is a start-up hub, 'pg is from there, a lot of users are from there. So there will be a lot of interest here, just like if the bombing were in Silicon Valley.

(I'm trying hard not to say what HN policy should be with this comment. Just explaining human behavior.)

"evidence of some interesting new phenomenon"

Without a doubt this story qualifies as "on topic". The way digital media has been used, 'crowdsleuthing', social media, the unprecedented lockdown of a city....could go on and on.

Didn't they lock down the city over those Adult Swim advertisements that were 'obviously' bombs because they had exposed wires and batteries?

Sorry, but I really dislike these "From the guidelines" snarky comments. We have a voting system that lets users decide if a submission should be here.

If those rules are indeed set in stone, admins/moderators have abandoned the idea of enforcing those rules years ago.

Strongly agree.

In fact, I'd go further. Almost all the threads about the bombs are pretty much content-free. There's very little of interest to hackers. Even the stuff that could have been interesting ("How do you examine very many photographs and video clips for clues?") was left ignored.

I flagged a lot of threads. There's been some suggestions that flagging a popular thread works against the person flagging. That's a shame if it's true, because some threads just don't belong here even if they are popular.

I completely agree. This isn't a place that people should come for live updates on current events. There's plenty of sites that already cater for that - please use them. This isn't a general interest news site.

I read the post just a day or so ago about how the news are bad for you and make you unhappy. I thought to myself 'good for me that I knew that already and have limited my news intake to HN and HN only'.

There we go - looks like it's not possible to be on a strict news diet but keep oneself updated with tech news only.


Btw, Reddit folks should raise money to help Sunil's family finding their son. They owe it to the family, since they badly broke hearts on that front.

Perhaps they could split the money, and half of it could help Sunil hide from his family more effectively? :/

I think there is a stronger case to be made that the topic simply doesn't fit hacker news.

I agree, though I find the discussion what should be on hacker new more complicated than the ethic discussion.

It's challenging because the only official documentation on the subject is this:

On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting...anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity. Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports...

Speaking personally, I love reading about EFF taking the US government to court, which is politics. I also love reading about the technical advancements in Formula 1, which is sports. Sports and politics, yes, but also very gratifying to my intellectual curiosity.

Here's the thing: I wouldn't want to see them on Hacker News, because I can (and do) get them elsewhere. This particular community gives me things I can't get elsewhere, and I love it for that. I don't want it to become another Reddit (or even another Slashdot, or Digg, or Gawker, or TechCrunch, Cracked, Metafilter, or ZDNet).

Hacker News is not (yet) a general purpose "news for nerds" or "all your internet goodness curated", and the longer we can stave off its descent into the general-purpose semi-curated things of somewhat geeky Internet interest, as every other good site of any age seems to have descended to, the better.

You've missed out the stuff about shallowly but intensely interesting which is shown in the welcome message to new users. I don't know how to re-read this if you lose the link.


> A crap link is one that's only superficially interesting. Stories on HN don't have to be about hacking, because good hackers aren't only interested in hacking, but they do have to be deeply interesting.

> What does "deeply interesting" mean? It means stuff that teaches you about the world. A story about a robbery, for example, would probably not be deeply interesting. But if this robbery was a sign of some bigger, underlying trend, then perhaps it could be.

> The worst thing to post or upvote is something that's intensely but shallowly interesting. Gossip about famous people, funny or cute pictures or videos, partisan political articles, etc. If you let that sort of thing onto a news site, it will push aside the deeply interesting stuff, which tends to be quieter.

EFF taking US Government to court could fit here, because it doesn't have to be partisan politics, and it could be a deeply interesting discussion of legal process. I've learnt a lot about US law from contributors here. "Vettel Wins" is sports, "Redbull use X to help Vettel win" is probably tech.

I agree about not wanting to see them on HN; while they could be discussed well and in conformance to the site guidelines they're usually not.

Disclaimer: Not saying what should be, just what is.

I don't come to HN for updates on current events, I come here for the interesting commentary. I do not agree with the 'Vigilante' threads, which will be flagged, but news threads with a healthy discussion have some value.

Have you looked at the comments on any news site article?

This may not be in line with HN's intended goal, but it's a side effect akin to bringing critical minds to the water cooler conversation.

there's so much everyday news hitting hn that I only ever read the new section. the hn community has become too large and its interests too generalized. the lack of focus on personal projects and introductions to new technology is destroying the once highly specialized community. if mods don't start guiding the topics I'm afraid hn won't have anything left to offer. topics like the events the unfolded this week are important, but their discussion is more suited to Reddit. it would be hard for anyone to argue the same level of discussion doesn't happen on Reddit, though I conceed you won't get any karma for it.

I think it's not the first day that at least 3 people die in a tragedy this year, or even this month, what the hell not even this week. This is not the place to discuss these matters, neither is very intelligent to participate in this cynical media campaign.

My question is, when it is a public service announcement that can protect or prevent further harm to our community (say the MIT shooting last night), then does it make sense? I agree the witch hunt stuff is appalling though.

I would say no, Hacker News is not a source of local public service announcements.

May I ask "public service announcement" in which country? There are presently more than 190 member States of the United Nations.

Does that include Taiwan which is a country but we aren't allowed to mention it?

Take a look at swombat's top-level comment in this thread. There's a good take-away here: "If they'd cover it on TV news, it's probably off-topic."

I believe not. People go to other places at the internet except from Hacker News. They can get the information from there.

I agree. Keeping the 'comments' part apart, I feel it was OK that this kind of story is shown on the frontpage. I visit google news multiple times in a day, but today HN was the first place I came to know about this incident. For the person living in that area, this can be a very useful info.

Totally agree that HN should not be a place for local news. I come here for interesting _technical_ stories, topics and discussions and I would go to cnn.com, nytimes.com etc. if I'm interested in USA news instead.

Can we stop comparing talking about people in photos as a witchhunt?

Good point. I think you might mean "to a witchhunt", though, not "as a witchhunt". </GrammarNazi>

I basically agree with OP, but this incident really made me wish there was a better framework for collaboration between LE and amateurs.

For example, it would have been great if the FBI had put up a site with instructions like "use this form to upload better pictures of this person". Because seemingly within minutes of the FBI releasing really bad photos, Reddit had found much better photos, knew their exact hats, etc. But the communication between the two was incredibly haphazard.

Everybody hates a witch hunt until they see a witch. "Witch!"

I thought, this is how Reddit works...

One is dead the other will soon be dead and then everyone can go back to posting about how horrible America is.

And in end...it was exactly who they thought it was.

The one time I looked at that reddit thread, it appeared that “they thought” it was about 25 different people. If you think everyone is guilty, you’re bound to be right eventually.

Yep! Islamic terrorism as always.

I see your account was created just for this single comment, to spread fear and hate. I'm not replying to you for your sake; I'm just posting this here for the rest of the HN folks because I'm beginning to think this vid[1] will be needed in the days to come.

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQnxnYEVp4U

I would say his comment is simply reflecting on the odds. Its islamic extremists who are spreading fear and hate. Who hijacked your religion? See Beslan School Massacre on youtube.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that you put the blame squarely on religion. It shows a lack of consideration of what the _core_ cause is. Why do they not like America? Did they just wake up one day and said "Okay, let's blow 'em up". Some group of people got angry at America[1], then fooled a bunch of religious people to believe following them is doing their deity's wishes. Instead of just saying, "See! Islam is bad!" you should look to the root of the issue. Same problem with just going around saying "black people steal". When you state it like that, you make it sound like it's the skin color that causes stealing; it lacks the full consideration of history and what happened with this group of people and the current social-economics that is not balanced. Whatever you think the reason is, I can tell you that the color of your skin doesn't make you good or bad. Just like being religious doesn't make you good or bad.

1. And let me tell you, these folks have reason to be mad at USA. While I understand blowing up people is never a reasonable reaction, religion is not the origin of the problem.

EDIT: And I see your youtube vid link, it's the same issue. Religion is the not the cause, it is exploited by people who want power.

I actually did not blame religion. I blamed islamic radicals. But if you want, I can somehow tie in the IRA.

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