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Inside Reddit’s hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight

Has Reddit finally learned its lesson when it comes to approaching developing news stories?


Ned Donovan


Posted on Mar 18, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 3:07 pm CDT

Hours after the Boston Marathon bombing last year, one online community couldn’t wait for police to hunt down the perpetrator. Scouring countless pictures and combing the Internet, Reddit appeared at points to be ahead of law enforcement in learning about the background behind the bombing. Except they were wrong, and the results were catastrophic. 

With innocent people blamed for the terrorism and subjected to witch hunts, the amateur sleuthing raised a huge backlash both on and offline. The administrators cracked down severely, and the site got possibly its largest-ever press reaction.

Almost exactly a year later, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has once again spurred redditors into action. This time, however, the tone is different. Redditors are paying close attention to established news. They’re commenting on the story, instead of leading it. Their obsessiveness, however, hasn’t changed: Users have put in thousands of hours searching for the missing Boeing 777. The dedicated subreddit was set up to help keep a focus on the search long after the news channels stop reporting on it. 

Every day a mega-thread of live updates and analysis tops r/all, maintained by a dedicated account specifically for that purpose. I spoke to u/MrGandW and u/de-facto-idiot, the two redditors behind u/MH-370-Updates, which creates the daily thread, to see if they think Reddit has finally learned its lesson when it comes to approaching developing news stories.

How do you think Reddit is approaching this mystery?

There is constructive and civil discussion all around. Reddit is approaching this mystery with lots of speculation and theories, some of which are really good. Self regulation has worked well on our thread. We appreciate people sharing their thoughts and are enjoying contributing ours.

Is this a repeat of the debacle after the Boston bombing last year?

This is being handled way better than the Boston Bombing incident. We are not seeing anybody jumping to conclusions or acting impulsively on unconfirmed speculation. But it is hard to compare MH 370’s story to the Boston Bombing. There was a plethora of data streaming in from the bombing, which made data filtering and verification extremely hard, whereas MH 370 data can only come from the authorities. We are excited to see that people are just as curious about the hard facts in this case as we are. It’s nice to know that people have the insatiable need for news, but we must be careful.

What do you think is behind the disappearance?

So far, all we have been told is that the actions onboard the plane seem to have been deliberate. But we don’t know who was acting inside that plane, nor do we have any theories on where it was taken or why it was taken there. We’d like to wait until authorities make progress on the investigations before we come to any conclusions. Until we have more data, anything is possible. We want to avoid fueling any misleading speculation. We are hoping that this will be resolved soon so that everyone may have a sense of closure.

Photo via Defence Images/Flickr | Remix by Jason Reed (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Mar 18, 2014, 10:42 am CDT