Social Media and Crime

By Dylan Mckenzie, Contributing Writer

Technology is on the rise, and it permeates almost every facet of our everyday lives. You can now check your bank accounts, read the local paper, pay your bills, and so much more, just from your smartphone.

But perhaps no technology has spread faster and had more impact on our lives in recent years than the advent of social media. Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other such sites, information can be spread instantaneously throughout the world. All you need is an account.

But social media can also present many problems when used incorrectly, such as when it is used to follow a major crime- suddenly everyone with access to a computer thinks they are a detective. On April 15, 2013, tragedy struck the city of Boston when two improvised bombs went off during the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring over 250 more with the blast and shrapnel.

Multiple local and federal law enforcement agencies immediately set out on a massive manhunt for the perpetrators, soon identified as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The FBI requested the publicʼs aid in identifying the criminals, resulting in a massive outpouring of photos and videos from social media users. After several firefights, a carjacking, and dogged police pursuit, the manhunt ended with Tamerlanʼs death and Dzhokhar being apprehended by police. During the four daysearch for the bombers, media coverage was constant. The public was able to follow law enforcement agencies during every minute of the investigation, both through television and social media.

During the investigation, many users of social media came up with their own theories on the situation, while others phoned in to the police, believing that they might have information relevant to the situation. Several crowd sourcing sites like Reddit and 4chan even had users claim that they had identified the suspects. Surely with so much information, the use of social media must be useful to police, right?

Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, sometimes such a volume of information can be a detriment to an investigation rather than an advantage. When the police asked for help in identifying the suspects, they had to sort through the thousands of photographs received, looking for a clue that might be helpful.

Although many could have been a lead, many others likely had nothing to do with the brothers, with some photos showing men who werenʼt even the right height, build, or ethnicity. Some were surely sent in just because the user wanted to feel that they were doing something useful. Likewise, when Reddit users claimed they had suspects, they simply had found several men that vaguely fit policeʼs descriptions of thebrothers. One was cleared after a quick interview, and advised to deactivate his Facebook account until the investigation was concluded to avoid further problems.

During the investigation, many users of social media didnʼt have anything concrete to contribute. Instead, they spent many hours haunting social media and news sites, spewing angry opinions on the ethnicity of the brothers and their motives behind the attacks, even before such information was available and confirmed. Such an undercurrent ofanger and hate wasnʼt helpful to authorities at all-in fact, if they were looking at comments for information, such remarks may have even hidden anything useful. At one point, police received so much information that they requested the public stop tweeting from their scanner traffic.

Despite the setbacks in the case of the Boston bombings, law enforcement does recognize that social media can be a valuable weapon in their war on crime. Some departments use Twitter to spread information on a wide scale, hoping that someone may have a bit of relevant information to help the police with the case. Other departments upload their police reports directly to a blog for ease of access. And if the police believe you may have information on a social mediasite, they can get a warrant to watch your account. To be certain, social media is a powerful tool when used correctly. But users and police have to be cautious when searching for information on sites like Facebook or Reddit- they may have the chance to find valuable information, but theyʼre more likely to run into users simply looking for attention.

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