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To the outside world, reddit.com/r/vancouver may not look like a real concern for any major organization. It’s an online forum within an online forum, and the satirical banner at the top of the page—which includes a crudely Photoshopped Gregor Robertson holding a hemp beer—undermines any claim it might make to credibility. But recent history has shown that Reddit is a force to be reckoned with in this city, and Monday’s UBC leak was further evidence in support of that. While the leak of Freedom of Information documents was technically posted on a separate (although very overlapping) subreddit, /r/UBC as opposed to /r/Vancouver, it was another chapter in a growing tale of recent public relations disasters that began on the site.
UBC is investigating how the leak happened. The now public FOI documents, which UBC says included information that should have been redacted, was hidden in a large PDF file. Rather than offering the uncovered documents to a news organization like the Vancouver Sun, however, their discoverer instead decided to post all of them—nearly 900 pages worth—on Reddit. It didn’t take long before mainstream media took notice, and former UBC President Arvind Gupta, who was the subject of the leak, has now commented in response to their contents after months of silence on the matter. On Thursday morning, he told media that he regrets his decision to resign. It was big news—not necessarily the best for UBC, of course—and once again the first domino was toppled over on Reddit.
In 2013, it was local tech star Hootsuite that felt the wrath of Reddit, after a discussion on /r/Vancouver about its unpaid internship program caught fire. Media quickly picked up the story and within weeks Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes apologized. The company gave its interns $20,000 in back pay to settle the matter. Later that same year, Fairmont was the target of Reddit’s scorn after posting an unpaid internship for a bus person at its Fairmont Waterfront hotel.
Jennifer Maloney, CEO of Brix Media, a PR firm with a focus on tech, says the UBC leak “is an example of citizen journalism at its best, but it’s not always the case.” She warns that while citizen journalism can break important stories, it can also go awfully awry (such as when a group of Redditors wrongly accused a missing man of being the Boston Marathon bomber). “People posting through sites such as Reddit don’t necessarily have training in the ethics and standards of confirming facts as journalists traditionally have.” So far, however, the Vancouver examples have been proven accurate, and Maloney thinks we’re still in the early days of this kind of citizen journalism. “I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this,” she says. In other words, big organizations might want to start watching what goes on Reddit. After all, unlike Las Vegas, it’s almost certainly not going to stay there.