When the Reddit lynch mob gets it wrong

College senior shaving head to fight cancer attacked as scammer -- except she's not

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It was the kind of thing you often see on social news site Reddit: An alert member of the community sniffing out a scam and sounding the alarm for fellow redditors to saddle up and run a low-life miscreant out of their virtual town.

In this case the low-life was a 21-year-old St. Lawrence University senior with the reddit user name mtcame07 who claimed -- claimed! -- she was going to shave her head to raise money to help kids with cancer. Where have redditors heard that one before? Fortunately, redditor Beertime was on the case. "Can we all please band together and call this person on their shit and make them go away," he wrote.

He didn't have to ask twice. As Gawker's Adrian Chen reports:

"Bullshit. I just reported your name and all your sites to the police for fraud," user Fabtastik wrote in the thread, including links to the FBI's Computer Crime Center and the SEC's fraud complaint site. Another user tracked down mtcame07's Facebook account, while others threatened to flood her house with pizza.

Probably pizza with extra toppings, because when redditors do a hit job, they do it right!

Of course, there were some weak-kneed, scam-coddling redditors advising there be no "torch and pitchfork rage against that person on the internet. That never ends well." Those people will be dealt with later, after reddit teaches the scammer a lesson. Oh, wait. Chen writes:

Tomorrow, (Maya) Gilsey really is going to shave her head to raise money for Golisano Children's Hospital in Syracuse, New York, then donate her hair to Wigs for Kids. Gilsey posted about it on Reddit this morning and was shocked to come back after class to find Beertime's rant on the front page along with hundreds of angry Redditors calling for her head. Her website had been shut down after someone reported it as a fraud, and her boyfriend was getting nasty emails accusing him of being in on the scam.

Gilsey is going ahead with her fund-raising head-shaving, but admits to being rattled by the whole experience. And Beertime now realizes he reacted prematurely and triggered another virtual mob. To be fair to Beertime -- and I can't believe I just typed "to be fair to Beertime" -- bogus solicitations for charity donations are common on reddit, and the fact that Gilsey repeatedly posted there asking for money and then deleted the posts (though one redditor suggested the posts were deleted by moderators) definitely could strike someone as suspicious. As a commenter to the Gawker story noted, Gilsey "DID spam the site and DID repeatedly ask for money, which is a big no-no on Reddit, especially Ask Reddit."

Now I'll state the painfully obvious: Reddit is no different than any other community, physical or virtual. It has a mix of nice people and jerks, rational thinkers and hotheads, the empathetic and the self-righteous, etc. It's just like real life, except the vast majority of redditors adopt user names that hide their real identity. Couple that anonymity with the power of an online flash-mob, and you have a recipe for bullying and abuse. And as one of the wiser redditors noted, "That never ends well."

Here's a reddit thread with 1,294 comments (and counting) about the incident. It's primarily a rational, reasonable discussion, with a bit of snark and a few truly funny lines. In other words, reddit at its best. Which is welcome after witnessing reddit at its worst.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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