If you live in a small town (as I do), you may have turned to the Topix forum for your area at one time or another. You may see posts about something for sale, or you may find yourself in a ruthless gossip-fest about people you know. It can make you very uncomfortable. Imagine that scenario played out nationwide, or even globally. The podcast Serial, from the creators of This American Life, follows a true murder case that happened in 1999, in which Adnan Syed was convicted of murdering Hae Min Lee. Syed insists he is innocent, and many questions still surround the case. The podcast has become a hit, with an average of 850,000 downloads per episode, and fans are gathering on the net to discuss the show -and the case. Fifteen years is not a long time ago, and the witnesses, family members, and investigators are still around. Many of them have an online presence. One forum discussing Serial is the subreddit serialpodcast, where Jacob White is a moderator. It started out as a fan site, with people discussing the show, but devotees also want to investigate the crime themselves. As posters began identifying people involved with the case, moderators found themselves stomping out fires to protect their privacy. And then there were posters who identified themselves as knowing the principles of the story.
The subreddit was among the first things I found when I started googling, and I immediately ended up getting drawn into a post by someone claiming to have known Syed within the Baltimore Muslim community. His post diagnosed Syed as a liar with a mental disorder.
But his personal view of Syed was less arresting than the comments below it. There friends and relatives of Syed’s came out of the woodwork to insist first that they knew who the poster was, and that that his account was hyperbolic and untrue. They all, I saw, had verified Reddit accounts. White explained to me that early on, when the moderators saw people claiming personal knowledge of the story, they set up a process by which they would verify users as being who they said they were. The range of proof goes from sending the moderators a scan of a photograph in a yearbook to a marriage certificate.
And in fact when the moderators tried to verify the identity of the person who put up this post about Syed, it didn’t work out. Whoever he was, he said he “feared retribution”.
An article at The Guardian says that the producers of Serial seemed unprepared for amateur sleuths on the internet getting involved in the case. Although this kind of thing has always happened for notorious crimes, we now have an opportunity to watch it play out in real time on our computer screens, whether that’s a good thing or not. Where does global freedom of speech cross over into a witch hunt? How can someone protect themselves against anonymous libel or charges of libel? Will anything constructive come out of the story in the end? Read the account of the podcast that is spilling over into real life at The Guardian.