The Perspective on Crowd-Sleuthing

By Chaya Benyamin
 Getty / Joe Raedle / Staff
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The wave of terror attacks that has plagued the UK since March 2017 has opened a new chapter in the debate on crowd-sleuthing, crime-solving initiatives undertaken by the online community. Amidst the circulation of a photograph of a fake suspect in June’s London attack, the already contentious reputation of crowd-sleuthing sank a bit further into the mud. But others have come to websleuths’ defense, noting that the online community had helped to debunk false reports of missing persons from other incidents.

Should we welcome crowd-sleuthing as part and parcel of the future 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. As such, websleuths have made meaningful contributions to criminal proceedings. They traced Facebook check-ins to the perpetrators of a hate crime and helped send a murdered to jail by uncovering her fake identity on the crowd-sleuthing website, Websleuths. One Reddit user hit sleuth gold when a subreddit helped him identify a car that hit him in a hit and run accident. Crowd-sleuthing, via the internet in particular, has proven a strong tool for delivering justice, and should therefore be encouraged.


Crowd-sleuthing is an act of public service.

One in three murders in America goes unsolved, and criminologists put the number of cold cases in the US since the 1960s are 200,000. That is a lot of parents, children, and friends waiting for news about their loved-ones. Crowd-sleuths take up these cases, which police forces across the country openly admit they do not have the time or resources to solve. E-sleuth hubs like the Doe Network have made headway on dozens of cold cases by identifying long unidentified remains – 66 identities matches thus far. In fact, members of the law enforcement community welcome the tips of citizen investigators, Delaware medical examiner, Hal Brown, “cannot speak highly enough” about amateur detectives’ efforts in helping him to 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. An internet-sleuth in Canada prevented a teen in Norfolk, England from committing an arson attack at his high school. One California public health professional called for law enforcement and health institutions to broaden and coordinate their crowd-sleuthing efforts in order to pinpoint individuals who demonstrate high risk of committing violent crimes. Even casual social media users have turned into private eyes, offering police agencies tips based on posts that allude to 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.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, Reddit’s 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 will face 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 suspect’s 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, obfuscating their value in 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.

For fans of murder-mysteries, e-sleuthing means never letting have to let go of visions of yourself as a Hardy Boy or Nancy Drew. And 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 two thirds of the time, we can expect a much lower rate of success for untrained individuals with no access or witnesses, or acquaintance. With so much time and mental energy at stake, one would be wise to pursue an activity with better return on investment than crowd-sleuthing.


Bottom Lines: 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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