Are amateur online crowd investigations helpful to police?

Ajouter à mon PDF personnalisé

Digilantism: An Analysis of Crowdsourcing and the Boston Marathon Bombings

The Boston Marathon bombing marked an important moment for public participation in online police investigations. Civilians ran terrorism investigations on Reddit alongside a formal police case. Reddit is a massive online community where users create and discuss posts on varied subjects and can vote on the popularity of comments. Although the civilian contributions to Reddit failed to identify the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, they can provide insight on the role that online citizens play in public security.

Nhan, Huey and Broll studied online discussions about the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing on Reddit. They explored the public’s role as a potential partner to police by highlighting information online helpful to the investigation. During the manhunt for the suspects Reddit users created 20 posts about the bombing. Each post had thousands of posted comments. The researchers read and assigned themes to over 20 000 of the most popular comments in order to pinpoint investigation information.

The majority of comments were very general and focussed on self-expression, but there were also posts sharing and distributing news and other information; offerings of assistance; and investigation information. A small but remarkable number of users contributed to investigation-related comments. Some users provided their own analyses of the crime scene with varying degrees of expertise. Others encouraged reporting pertinent information to the FBI and acted as an extra set of eyes and ears for the police.

It was evident that there is potential for the general public to work alongside law enforcement online when dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy. However, when the flow of information is only from the public to police, it may cause more harm than good. Amateur investigations online may strain police resources by providing a surplus of information. Without proper police guidance, well-intentioned civilians can mislabel innocent actions and individuals as suspicious. Direct interactions and dialogue between police and Reddit users was rare and may suggest a conflict between public security and civil society.

There seems to be a public desire to help the police during their investigations following tragedy. It would be in the best interest of police management to consider online communities as security partners. Law enforcement should consider actively focussing the public’s attention on areas of their investigation that require support instead of leaving the public to take matters into their own hands. Collaboration between the police and civilians online may provide unique benefits and curb misidentifications.

Collaboration between the police and civilians online may provide unique benefits and curb misidentifications.