Online communities can be ‘especially good’ at helping law enforcement solve crimes

April 26, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

Mother Jones | Poynter

Aside from Reddit users’ attempts to help solve the Boston bombings case, online communities have had some success in cracking cases, Tim Murphy writes. Redditors have helped with some previous investigations, Murphy writes, and “the best example of what Reddit could be — if it became a bit less like Reddit, that is — is a site called websleuths.com.”

The most high-profile example of Websleuth’s utility was the 2009 murder of Abraham Shakespeare, a Florida laborer who won $32 million in the lottery. Police speculated that Shakespeare’s financial advisor, Dee Dee Moore, might have had information about her disappearance. Websleuths began digging, prompting Moore to register for the site under an anonymous name to defend her actions. “She came back to me in an email and said I don’t know who is posting it, that wasn’t me, and I said ‘That’s funny the IP address in this email matches the number of your computer,'” recalls Tricia Griffith, who has co-owned the site since 2004. “I had a detective call me up and say this is just great.” Moore was eventually convicted.

Another example: Jalopnik readers last April identified the part of a car left behind by suspects in a murder investigation, leading Waynesboro, Va., police to an arrest.

Thursday in a chat on Poynter.org, Reddit GM Erik Martin said he thought “having this horrible experience of people’s names being floated out there will make people [on Reddit] at least a little more careful next time.” (This conversation begins around the 2:25 mark.)

Because there will almost certainly be a next time. Redditors and members of other communities are driven by civic responsibility, sure, but as one Redditor wrote in a (now closed) thread on ID’ing the Boston bombers, “I think people are here because it gives them some semblance of control over a tragedy that they otherwise have no influence over.”

The body of Sunil Tripathi, a missing Rhode Island student falsely identified as a suspect by Reddit and Twitter users last week, was identified by Rhode Island authorities Thursday.

Martin apologized for Reddit’s role in spreading misinformation during the hunt for suspects: “Some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties,” he wrote in a blog post.

Related: Three things that Reddit did right during the Boston bombings and why that matters (PaidContent)

Previously: Jalopnik commenters help catch murder suspects | Boston Globe reporter on Reddit: ‘It’s amazing how many trends and stories start there”