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02-Oct-2020 05:00

Working fast, but carefully, Jones found a Reddit post from a user who'd been shot that night and had posted a photo of his wounds, beating local and national media to the story hour after hour.In the hours and days after Aurora, media reporters — myself included — spoke to Jones and Reddit about this seemingly new style of citizen journalism, fueled by social media and aided by an intimate familiarity with news cycles and the internet.None of which is to say that the media establishment is infallible — the rise of the vigilante investigation and record-low levels of public distrust of media is surely no coincidence.The internet's uncanny ability to add fuel to the fire of our cultural obsessions no doubt plays a role as well.This same acknowledgement — that the media no longer owns the story — has simultaneously provided momentum to the internet's growing legion of amateur detectives and uncredentialed investigative reporters.They're players in nearly ever major internet scandal of 2014: the online manhunt for Bryan Hamade, the man believed to have leaked Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos and sparked "The Fappening"; the sexual-harassing, doxxing, ethics crusading online Hydra behind Gamer Gate; the cold-case internet sleuthing inside the Serial podcast subreddit (which had 24,943 subscribers as of this writing); and, most recently, the troubling outing of the alleged victim behind Rolling Stone's now-bungled UVA campus rape story by a former writer turned internet troll.Jones was by no means the first citizen journalist to use an online platform to elevate his voice and contribute reporting to scoop legacy media (similar news-gathering Reddit threads existed far before Jones'), but the high visibility of Jones' thread, coupled with the fact that his careful work turned up few hoaxes and spread credible information, seems to mark a turning point for internet-based citizen news gathering.Since Jones' thread, this online behavior has metastasized through social news sites like Reddit and online anonymous message boards like 4chan.

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They are, case by case, conspiratorial and careful; methodical and reckless; helpful and irreconcilably damaging. After Aurora, other Reddit threads attempted to do similar work; just a month after the Colorado shooting, a popular thread collected on-the-ground information via social media in the aftermath of a shooting outside the Empire State Building.

Standards and practices rarely exist (save for a halfhearted "don't doxx" maxim in communities like Reddit); ethics are secondary concerns and reputation is rarely in jeopardy, thanks to the protective veil of online anonymity.

Victory often goes to the actor most willing to do harm, to be wrong, or both.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook in late 2012 spawned numerous message board threads — some helpful, some heinous — to try to cover the mass shooting.

The most infamous example came in April 2013 when the r/findbostonbombers subreddit launched an exhaustive and reckless manhunt that resulted in the spread of damaging misinformation that soon found its way to the New York Post's front page.It has a vast new subject matter in the personal, corporate, and government information that has migrated to the social web.But in many instances, citizen journalism is something like the more troubling idea of citizen policing — that is, vigilantism: taking the powerful, and even dangerous tools of journalism to the communities with the least responsible actors.At its very best, it gives voice to the disenfranchised. The first time I really, truly noticed it was around 4 a.m. I'd come home from a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises to news of a tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

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