Digital Witch Hunt

Bianca Haun

Traditional journalism depended on professional journalists often traveling to the actual location  of an event and gathering facts together prior to writing an article itself, which – in turn – was only printed if it was proved to be interesting enough for the editorial staff. That staff acted as a gatekeeper – deciding upon which news were to be printed, being sufficiently relevant for the public to know and which news wouldn’t fit into their program. Nowadays a lot of information reaching us has been written and contributed by more decentralized means. Through the use of the internet, people from all over the world can contribute to a more open and less regulative news landscape.

A very specific form of journalism has been the often successful and well-beloved collaboration of the media with crime investigators. “Crimewatch U.K.” in Great Britain, “Crime Investigation” in Israel, “Efterlyst” in Sweden, “America’s Most Wanted” in the U.S. and “Aktenzeichen XY… ungelöst” in Germany are only a few examples that illustrate how important collaborative crime investigation has become in terms of cross-connecting different information sources long before the era of the internet. In Germany, unsolved crime cases went on air in 1967 and were presented to the audience with the intent to acquire new leads from the public when a particular investigation got stuck. Especially very intense or dramatic events or news attracted many people, willing and motivated to contribute to an investigation.

Nowadays, the mechanisms and the effectiveness of these media-supported types of crime investigation have been furthered much through the use of the internet. People find new possibilities to work together and gather information about a certain case or topic. Specifically designed tools for crowd-sourced investigation like TOMNOD provide satellite imagery allowing to gather an abundance of images together and thus vast areas of space to be searched for any signs of abnormalities or suspicious occurrences. Of course, the limited number of police officers or federal crime investigators could not provide the time necessary to scan through all the footage of the ocean looking for any signs of aircraft parts, like in the case of Flight MH370, but a huge amount of people in the internet is willing and motivated to do exactly that. The Boston Marathon Bombings are one key example for crowd-sourced crime investigations. When the attacks took place during the annual Boston Marathon on April 15th, 2013, the law enforcement asked the public to help with the investigation. They were looking for any suspicious behavior in the marathon area as well as for help in identifying possible suspects within the surveillance tapes which had been made publically available for that purpose. This material was accompanied by photography’s and videos of visitors, which resulted in an enormous amount of contributed data.
The reddit community also took part in the collaborative search. A sub-reddit (like a sub-forum) named “Find Boston Bombers” was created. They exchanged photos, names and addresses of possible suspects, which most notably resulted in the exposure of many innocent people. Some of them were harassed and exposed to public attention. One wrongfully accused suspect, Sunil Tripathi, received much attention, as he was missing since March. He was found dead a few days after the Boston Bombings. Even though the police does not believe it had been a case of homicide, one might still wonder about the negative consequences brought upon the suspects and their families by such premature accusations. Reddit later on apologized that the whole sub-reddit and crowd-sourced, collaborative search for the bombers had resulted in such a witch hunt.
Although it was not the first time the public had been included into helping with crime investigations – like 2011’s riots after the NHL Stanley Cup Finals or smaller sized investigations like the search for the man who attacked a woman in a subway station in Brooklyn – this example stands out by illustrating that crowd-sourced investigations come with their own risks.

The crowd does not work collaboratively on one system provided by the government, but on very different platforms, like reddit, on different social media sites or in forums. In some countries, governments or law enforcements show efforts to introduce one joint platform for clues and leads from the public. The police of London has published an app called “Facewatch”, which allows them to upload images of people they are looking for. Citizens can browse through these and report any known person. One of the main issues here is that most people are not doing particularly well being eyewitnesses, especially when it comes to different races. There is also a tendency to raise the general level of suspiciousness to an often dangerous amount. Another system called “LEEDIR” – Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository – is an app including cloud storage. It has been used in LA, allowing the crowd to upload photos and videos anonymously. The police has exclusive access to the uploaded material scanning it to look for clues. Within these types of governmental framework, the public is facilitated to either  identify subjects or to gather leads on open cases.

Many people do not seem to be very willing to directly work together with the government, whereas posting leads to the internet while remaining anonymous makes it easier to overcome certain psychological barriers in place. Interestingly enough, platforms introduced by the government or law enforcement entities result in less clues and leads in comparison to e.g. reddit. This is neither purely positive nor is it completely negative. On one hand, one does not post clues overhasty and jumps to conclusions but on the other hand important leads may be held back which could help the investigation. It is still unclear if a low barrier and easy access is beneficial or if the system should be a bit more regulated.

It goes without saying that leads provided by the „crowd“ cannot always be assumed to be 100% correct. Regardless of whether this relates to an unintentional error, a witness being influenced by public opinion, or – in the worst of cases – someone trying to abuse the system by intentionally contributing false information. As of now, these new ways to get in contact with the law enforcement do not entail any consequences for intentionally false statements.

When it comes to dramatic catastrophes like the mentioned flight MH370 or the Boston marathon bombings, the crowd can make an enormous difference by helping with information – all aforementioned negative side-effects included. Governmental attempts to create a joint platform for citizen wanting to contribute have to face much less input from the public, as it is not completely clear who will analyze the information. With all the clues and leads from the public it is the law enforcement who has to decide whether a clue is valuable or not or if a suspect is really to blame and not just a person being framed by someone else. Without a well-developed understanding of the mechanisms of publically gathered information and some sophisticated means to prevent misinformation, the public’s input might as well result in yet another witch hunt.

Bianca HaunDigital Witch Hunt

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