Reddit's mob justice: a modern witch hunt
Social news site Reddit may be the largest Internet army. Be careful when you unleash it.
As redditor alukima learned yesterday, once they zero in on you, there's no telling what they can do.
“Some of the calls were threatening- one caller even asked me if I wanted to know what it was like to be raped, ” alukima wrote earlier today.
Why was an anonymous stranger threatening her with rape?
It all started with a damaged Jeep—a very special damaged Jeep. Its owner, Kevin Henry, had fitted it to look like one of the vehicles used in Jurassic Park. It was a veritable wet dream for any 1990s-era dinosaur geek.
Earlier this year, the game company Telltale Games asked Henry if they could use the Jeep to promote their new Jurassic Park game at a gaming expo. Henry shipped it to them for free; alukima, an employee of Telltale Games at the time, was responsible for handling its shipping.
It returned with about $2,000 worth of damage.
Telltale Games blamed the damage on the carrier and refused to cover the insurance. Henry blamed it on the company. Telltale signed off on the jeep when it arrived, he said, negating any chance for an insurance claim. They had also taken it for a “joyride,” he said.
According to Henry, he hadn’t heard from Telltale “in months” about the jeep. The company was set to release its Jurassic Park game this week, so this must have seemed a particularly opportune time to seek some revenge and cause some public relations damage.
Henry posted his evidence and story to Reddit. It was Goliath screwing over David. Some members of the r/gaming community went ballistic at Telltale Games, threatening a boycott and vandalizing its Wikipedia page with laughably melodramatic tales of the event. At the company’s offices, an employee even received death threats, Telltale Games’ founder, Kevin Bruner, told the Daily Dot.
Then Henry posted alukima’s real name, and things got really ugly. She said redditors called her 83 times, sent her 41 Facebook messages, and 19 emails. As her quote above showed, someone threatened to rape her.
The worst part of it all? She’d left Telltale Games weeks ago. As redditors were harassing her with nearly a hundred phone calls, she was trying to enjoy her birthday celebration in Las Vegas. It was her “first real vacation,” she wrote on Reddit.
“I have no idea how or why someone would choose to harass [alukima] because of this,” Bruner told the Daily Dot. “She did absolutely nothing wrong.”
This summer, we chronicled Jake Frink, an out-of-work programmer who was hounded over false claims that he was scamming users of Reddit’s r/starcraft community. It turned out the person who launched that witch hunt was actually an employee of a rival company.
And last week, redditors were ready to call a district attorney to discipline a lawyer they believed had purposefully put an innocent man in jail. Except that lawyer was a law student, and the trial was a fake one for his class.
Bruner, the Telltale Games founder, posted to r/gaming the same day trying to explain the situation. He blamed a slow insurance company for the problem. He emphasized that his company had no idea the Jeep was damaged when it arrived. Regardless, he agreed to pay Hartley out of pocket for the damages.
That seemed to calm the storm on Reddit.
But let’s imagine that Telltale Games really was fully in the wrong. Henry himself admitted the damage to the car was only about $2,000. That makes this a case for a small claims court—at best. We’re not talking grand larceny here. Was it worth all the outrage to begin with?
Reddit sees millions of visits a day. Redditors have used the site as a platform to launch amazing projects and do good things, from the world’s largest secret Santa exchange to exposing the alleged child abuse of Texas judge William Adams.
But as the Telltale Games case shows, you should think twice before trying to use it as your own personal army. You don’t know who will heed your call for vigilante justice or what they’ll do.
Perhaps more importantly, redditors need to learn to put the brakes on their outrage.
In the conclusion to her post, alukima implored everyone to just be more careful.
“Please don't get involved in these mobs,” she wrote. “Activism comes in many forms but harassing a single person isn't one of them.”
Photo by Kevin Henry