Over the past few years, Reddit has become the go-to destination for those who feel they have been mistreated and want to hold powerful figures accountable. But the popular website, which refers to itself as "the front page of the internet", is also a breeding ground for mobs that require little evidence before embarking on vociferous witch hunts. As one moderator told me after the Overwatch subreddit exploded this weekend, Redditors like to "upvote first, ask questions later".
This weekend, a thread on the Overwatch subreddit snowballed into a thousands-strong witch hunt against Overwatch YouTuber OhNickel. OhNickel's Overwatch commentary channel has about 800,000 subscribers. There, and on Twitter, he hosts occasional contests with Steam giveaway prizes.
Yesterday, on /r/Overwatch, a poster named "Vitalechz" claimed that "Overwatch YouTuber 'ohnickle' still hasn't given me my prize after 2 Months". (As some Redditors later pointed out, one red flag was that he misspelled the YouTuber's name.) In the post, he claimed that he had won one of the YouTuber's contests and that OhNickel had cheated him out of the Steam gift card he promised.
The thread rocketed to the top of /r/Overwatch with 22,000 upvotes, and eventually, up to Reddit's front page, /r/all. Redditors were furious, spamming OhNickel's Twitter with vitriol and downvoting his YouTube videos en masse. When he woke up the next morning, OhNickel saw a "hate bandwagon" beyond anything he'd seen before, he said in a recent YouTube video. People called him a "scumbag" who advertised "scams". At worst, randoms told him to "die". Sympathetic Redditors offered the original poster Steam points.
But the Reddit poster, it turns out, was an imposter. OhNickel provided evidence that the real contest winner, who went by Vitalechz on Twitter, received his prize back in March. The real Vitalechz corroborated. The Reddit poster who inspired this witch hunt had simply used Vitalechz's Twitter name, which was all it took to fool people.
Redditor Turikk, a moderator on /r/Overwatch, told me that the subreddit had never experienced such an explosive post before. "I can't recall a situation in which a story appeared to have been fabricated from scratch, with no apparent intent other than to stir drama or defame," he said. "This original poster made a very deliberate attempt to get as much visibility as possible, whereas most users are looking for a genuine resolution to their problem." He added that Reddit can "tend to 'upvote first, ask questions later' when it comes to consumer issues".
It's yet another example of what can go wrong when internet crowds feed off misinformation. In 2013, a throng of Redditors collaborated to try to identify the Boston Marathon bomber, only to falsely accuse a student who had done nothing wrong. As OhNickel said on YouTube, sites like Reddit are ripe for anyone who wants to take "advantage of people willing to believe something without any proof".