This time we’re looking at the evolving roles of social media in security matters in asking the question – does it help? That is, do all those images and videos from the public help or hinder police investigations?
The quick answer is yes, images sent in from the public appear to help. And security forces ask the public for them.
Indeed, as The Boston Globe reported in the fluid days of the investigation and manhunt, the FBI asked people with photos, videos, and other information to e-mail them to email@example.com. It also said people can call 1-800-CALL-FBI, prompt #3, to leave tips.
The public responded in the thousands. And wading through all of that material was a colossal job in its own right.
The Washington Post reported that the work was painstaking and mind-numbing: One agent watched the same segment of video 400 times.
However, releasing one of the photos may well have had a tragic, unintended consequence.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis said releasing the photos of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing “may have led to the further attack” against MIT police officer Sean Collier, which he called an assassination. But he stressed there is no way to know for sure.
Releasing the pictures after many hours of behind-the-scenes deliberation, “was a turning point in the investigation, no doubt about it,” said Davis in an interview with the Boston Globe.
“It forced them out of their hideout and they decided to commit further violent acts. But it’s my belief that they were already manufacturing explosive devices. Further violent acts were inevitable.”
So while the additional tragedy of Officer Collier cannot be forgotten – nor can one push aside the hard and soft costs of shutting down Boston for a full day during the man-hunt – releasing those images appeared to have a role in the eventual arrest of the surviving suspect.
There are indirect benefits as well to this sort of social media outreach.
Social media in this sense is a form of connection to – an engagement with – the public as the former undertakes its security mandate on behalf of the former. In other words, social media opens the doors to police stations, in a matter of speaking, and brings police and the policed closer together.
However, there are limits to how much all of this actually helps.
As Laura Petreca wrote on April 23rd in USA Today, social media can feed audiences with updates, but they can also breed false information stemming from a quest for speed that can all-too easily trump accuracy.
For example, after CNN and the Associated Press wrongly reported that the suspects were in custody, many others picked up the news. WCVB-TV Boston, crediting the AP with the news, wrongly said that an arrest was “imminent.” It was re-tweeted 87 times.
Later, social media site Reddit acknowledged its role in helping to disseminate false information, saying, “Some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation.” Reddit later apologized to the family of missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who was misidentified on social media as a bombing suspect.
An editorial in The New Scientist by Hal Hodson points to the challenges of this new sort of digital vigilantism in highlighting the flaws of crowd-sourced investigations.
It was an unprecedented display of vigilantism. After the bombings at the Boston marathon last week, thousands of would-be sleuths flocked to the internet. They scoured pictures and video and posted images of suspicious characters with backpacks, who seemed to fit official descriptions of the most wanted.
But they failed badly: members of the social media site Reddit falsely accused a missing college student, Sunil Tripathi, of the crimes. Law enforcement agencies got the real suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in a very old-fashioned way. An all-out manhunt ended on 19 April when a resident in Watertown, Massachusetts, discovered Tsarnaev hiding in a boat.
It was instructive that the FBI, in leveraging social media themselves, said in a tweet before the two suspects were eventually chased down, that their photo was the only one that members of the public should refer to as the man-hunt unfolded.
The implied message was clear: the public had helped the investigation, but security forces were in fact in charge of it. That is, an Instagram photo itself cannot detain a dangerous suspect.
By direct inference the police were trying to control already rampant expectations and theories about the suspects while at the same time lessen – if not stamp out – inaccurate reporting of an incredibly fluid and dangerous situation. This also helped take the focus off of people falsely accused by some media reports of being the bombers.
So, back to the original question – does social media help or hinder public security?
On balance it helps. But there are limits.
There will ample more discussions about this in the weeks and months to come. As there should be.