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Do the benefits of crowd-sleuthing outweigh the risks?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Getty / Joe Raedle / Staff
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*Updated 2022
Over the years, as different countries have sporadically suffered from various terrorist attacks, the debate on crowd-sleuthing, crime-solving initiatives undertaken by the online community, has repeatedly come to the forefront. In some instances, especially like helping the FBI identify rioters who took part in the 2021 US Capitol Building insurrection, crowd-sleuthing has been extremely useful. However, there have also been instances when crowd-sleuthing has gotten it very wrong, such as circulating photographs of the wrong suspect. So, should we welcome crowd-sleuthing as part and parcel of crime investigation, or should citizen detectives leave crime-solving to the professionals?
Here are three arguments in favor of crowd-sleuthing, and three against it.


Sleuths Welcome


Crowd-sleuthing can help solve cases

The internet seems to have a knack for convening the people with the right information in the right place. It also helps that, for better or for worse, those breaking the law in today’s digital age tend to livestream their misdeeds or take selfies while in action. As such, websleuths can make meaningful contributions to criminal proceedings. These websleuths have been using the internet to trace and find perpetrators of hate crimes, and have even helped send murderers to jail by uncovering fake identities on the crowd-sleuthing website, Websleuths. It can be argued that crowd-sleuthing has proven a strong tool for delivering justice and should therefore be encouraged.


Crowd-sleuthing is an act of public service

Forty percent of homicides in America go unsolved. That is a lot of parents, children, and friends waiting for justice and closure. Crowd-sleuths take up these cases, which police forces across the country openly admit they do not have the time or resources to solve. While the US has an estimated 18,000 law enforcement agencies, only 7% have dedicated units to solve cold cases. This is where crowd-sleuthing can play a role. For instance, only one week after the US Capitol Building was infiltrated in 2021, FBI received tens of thousands of tips from people across the US in connection to the riot. In addition, e-sleuth hubs like the Doe Network continuously make headway on dozens of cold cases involving missing and unidentified persons. Members of the law enforcement community, especially medical examiners, welcome citizen investigator tips and their efforts to help identify the remains of countless Jane and John Does.


Crowd-sleuthing makes society safer

Citizen detectives on the internet are a third column in crime prevention. Regular citizens taking an active interest in seeking out justice for others might cause people to think twice before committing a crime. For example, Canadian internet-sleuths prevented a teen in Norfolk, England, from committing an arson attack at his high school. These sleuths also help law offenders face consequences. In fact, some of the rioters who stormed the US Capitol building in 2021 were fired from their jobs after internet-sleuths found them online and publicized their identities. Casual social media users have long used social media as a tool to offer police agencies tips based on posts that allude to – or brag about – criminal activity. In this way, crowd-sleuthing harnesses the internet’s power of centralized information to provide a little extra protection for us all.

Let the Police Handle It


E-sleuths make big mistakes

After the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right march, social media sleuths tried to identify some of the white nationalists who had participated in the march in an effort to publicly expose their racism, but ended up incorrectly identifying an innocent person. The results were swift and vicious; countless people demanded that the misidentified victim lose his job, accused him of racism and posted his address on social media. This is just one of many examples where misinformation can do serious damage to innocent people. Similarly, in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon tragedy, Reddit’s now infamous FindBostonBombers subreddit thread took to scanning pictures of the marathon, and it quickly became open season on young males with dark hair and backpacks. Using unconfirmed information from police scanners, the Reddit community irreparably tarnished the reputations of several innocent people, two of which were harassed online and in person. Unfortunately for the erroneously accused, the e-sleuths who slandered them faced no consequences, as Reddit maintains user anonymity.


Crowd-sleuths do not abide by industry standards, which can be problematic

Law enforcement officials abide by a long list of protocols to ensure their investigations are carried out legally, that any evidence collected will be admissible in court, and that they protect suspects’ constitutional rights to due process. There are no such constraints in the world of e-sleuthing; some sleuths may gather information by means which are not strictly legal, which have obfuscated their value in past criminal proceedings. Worse, overzealous sleuths have been known to violate confidentiality laws by leading online shame campaigns of suspects, publishing an alleged perp’s personal details online in a practice called doxing. Law enforcement officials have been quick to criticize doxing as vigilante, unethical, and illegal.


Amateur sleuthing is fantasy play – and could be a double-edged sword

While internet-sleuths are no doubt well-meaning, the likelihood of their cracking a cold case is slim to none. If police forces with the proper training and resources to solve murders only manage to do so a fraction of the time, we can expect a much lower rate of success for untrained individuals with no access or witnesses in connection to those in question or to find them. One might be wiser to pursue an activity with a better return on investment than crowd-sleuthing. Moreover, crowd-sleuthing could be used for vengeance instead of virtue, even leading to the spread of conspiracy theories or information that should not be in the public domain. In 2019, supporters of former President Donald Trump launched an online crowd-sleuthing effort to identify the Ukraine whistleblower who instigated Trump’s first impeachment. The subsequent public naming of a CIA operative could have led to broader national security consequences.


The Bottom Line: Crowd-sleuthing has its uses, and e-sleuths can provide support to victims and families who feel that the police are not adequately addressing their cases. On the other hand, crowd-sleuthing can encourage the worst in us, from obsessive behavior to vigilantism. Where do you stand?


Written as part of The Perspective’s cooperation with Know Your Meme

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