The Fine Line Between Reddit's Citizen Journalism and Vigilante Justice

New documentary 'The Thread' examines Reddit's vs traditional media's reactions to the Boston Marathon bombings.

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Apr 10 2015, 3:30pm

Citizen journalist Kevin Cheetham. ​Image: The Thread/Content Media

What's not to love about Reddit? It's home to everything from cat memes and quirky gifs to whatever else an internet addict might wish for. But a new documentary explores how the platform can be deployed to directly affect society. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, it served as a place for citizen journalists to mobilise and demonstrate both the best and worst of human nature.

As the scene of the Boston Marathon quickly turned to chaos, redditors on the ground shared personal accounts in real time, and those monitoring news coverage of the event held media outlets accountable when they detected any inaccuracies in their reports. But in the aftermath, shock turned to anger, and redditors formed a subreddit to 'find the Boston Marathon bomber,' converging in their desire to find a perpetrator, and going as far as to wrongly accuse missing student S​unil Tripathi in the process.

The Thread, directed by Greg Barker and produced by Jonathan and Simon Chinn, hones in on the five days following the bombings. The documentary explores online citizen journalism's impact on today's fast-evolving media landscape through interviews with both journalists and redditors who acted as citizen reporters during the bombing, or who were involved in moderating discussion threads.

"We wanted to really dissect how information was gathered and spread, and some of the victories and failures of that process," Chinn told me over the phone. "We started with the bombings, and explored how non-traditional and traditional media reacted and intersected." Chinn said he was interested in looking at the ethical questions raised by the intense use of Reddit during and after the incident.

As the hunt for the perpetrator played out in real time, the film reveals how many redditors morphed into both a citizen journalists and a quasi-police squad. Redditors were key in challenging and critiquing traditional media's way of communicating facts. Yet the documentary also reveals just how quickly the anonymous hive mind can grow dark as the search for the culprit turned into more of a witch hunt.

For the filmmakers, who confessed to not knowing much about Reddit before making the film, the journey was an eye-opener.

"We'd all heard about Reddit, but we realised that they were a big part of the story when we found the footage of the conference that happened a day after the bombings. It's when the editor of Slate grills the managing director of Reddit about the regulation of information on his site," said Chinn. The incident refers to when former editor of Slate Jacob Weisberg questioned Reddit's former general manager Erik Martin about the 'find the Boston Marathon' bomber subreddit, and the possible need for Reddit to be held accountable for comments. At the moment, moderators on Reddit can qualify posts and remove them, but there's little more to hold users accountable.

"Citizen journalism is sort of open source journalism and that's what scares people. It takes on a life of it's own."

Erik Martin. Image: The Thread/Content Media

Chinn, who initially thought that Reddit was a news aggregation site, explained that beyond internet and tech enthusiasts, it was still a bit of an enigma. "It's an incredibly powerful outlet, but after doing our research, we found that it was still a grey area—the vast majority of people don't know what it is," he said. "We wanted to leave people with a question: how will we deal with tech and journalism?"

Should we just keep going with traditional journalism, or allow citizen journalism to remain rampant? asked Chinn. "Which is the most ethically responsible?"

Power shifts are currently underway in the media world, with traditional outlets buckling under budget cuts, and critiqued on social media when they're seen to put forward politically motivated news agendas. "If you look at outlets like Fox, they have a whole team and a way of doing things, but they have a massive agenda," said Chinn.

"The argument for citizen journalism as a credible platform is that it provides some checks and balances for huge corporations like Time Warner or News Corp, who have control of how information is broadcast. Citizen journalism is sort of open source journalism and that's what scares people. It takes on a life of it's own," continued Chinn.

Chris Ryves, a moderator involved in the Reddit thread. Image: The Thread/Content Media

He said that he and the crew were surprised by the characters associated with Reddit that they unearthed. "These are the unlikeliest of journalists. It was surprising to put a face to what some people describe as the 'ogre of citizen journalism,'" he said.

He referred for example to Kevin Cheetham, an 18-year old who actively embeds himself in a press conference as a citizen reporter with a right to be there, and commented that such behaviour reflected how much the media landscape had evolved since his youth. "That kind of sensitivity underpins a sea change. If I was his age, I wouldn't have felt like I had the right to do that," said Chinn.

So what kind of conclusions did Chinn and his crew draw by delving into Reddit's recesses?

"We're old," he said. "We saw the internet come to life from nothing. We lived through the digital revolution, but it's over now. The inhabitants of the digital age have a different sense of involvement with the internet. It's owned by them."

Noting that Reddit was a "powerful platform," Chinn was adamant that one of the biggest issues faced by society today was of working out the ethics of tech, and opening up a debate about it. And his view of Reddit? "We've built a monster. We just have to make friends with it," he said.