Social Media: Good or Bad for Police Investigations?

The advent of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites has provided numerous public forums for anyone, anywhere to post up to the minute information. And now that so much of the population has smartphones, recording videos or taking pictures and posting them online has never been easier. However, is this ability for anyone to post online good or bad for police investigations? In light of the terrorist attacks on Boston, did the crowdsourcing of social media actually help expedite the capture of one of the suspects or prolong the investigation by distracting the police?

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Although there are many pros to social media when analyzing these questions, it is also necessary to weigh the cons. Specifically, the attacks on Boston led to numerous inaccurate social media reports. CNN put out an article entitled “5 viral stories about Boston attacks that aren’t true”. In class, we learned what it meant to be a ‘citizen journalist’. The fact that so many people have high quality camera phones right in their pocket and Twitter/Facebook applications, allows just about anyone to be the first reporters of any event. However, there is a very important distinction between using social media to report the truth and simply posting about the most recent rumor you’ve heard. Everyone is on the Internet. And once something is out there, it could very well go viral. One of the fake stories discussed in the CNN article had been ‘liked’ on Facebook more than 448,000 times and shared more than 92,000 times just twelve hours after the initial attack in Boston.These stories not only create panic amongst society, they can actually make it harder for investigators. The investigators must first determine whether or not the viral reports are legitimate which may take time away from solving the real crimes.

English: Iphone 4 Deutsch: Iphone 4

English: Iphone 4 Deutsch: Iphone 4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Honestly though, everything I’ve said thus far has been me playing the devils advocate. Despite the possible panic that could ensue from erroneous posts and the time that investigators may lose trying to determine whether or not some media posts are accurate, I firmly believe that social media is extremely helpful in solving crimes, especially high profile cases or terrorist attacks as exhibited by the events in Boston over the last week. Regarding the investigation and manhunt for the two men responsible for the Boston marathon bombings, an NBC news video discussing the attacks said, “This was the first in a new era of crowd sourced, social media, manhunts…” As I previously mentioned, we learned in class what it meant to be a ‘citizen journalist’, however I find that social media has more so given the general public the opportunity to also be ‘citizen investigators’: a seemingly more appropriate term for the impact and influence that people can have helping the police track down criminals or terrorists. By following updates on the news and social media sites, anyone has the opportunity to contribute to investigations by sending in videos and pictures or reporting suspicious behavior etc. I believe that, in the future, social media will without a doubt continue to successfully assist police investigations as there are very few places for criminals to hide when more people are involved in trying to find them. Imagine how hard it would be to hide when you have everyone in the world looking for you!

My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and the families of the victims from the recent bombings. #PrayForBoston


7 thoughts on “Social Media: Good or Bad for Police Investigations?

  1. I think post is fantastic and in relation to the recent tragedies at the marathon is incredibly relevant. I largely would agree with everything you say in this article. In response to blogs and other outlets that post every rumor that comes to their door, these kinds of articles clearly are not helpful to anyone whether it be investigators or citizens who are trying to get some news. but what i do think the advantage of citizen reporting is just what you said. personal videos taken by citizens can offer valuable insight and can give citizens hundreds or thousands of miles away insight into what is happening from a first person view. these videos can provide accurate information and footage to investigators as well which can aide them in their search as was seen this past week. Great job on this post i also loved the poll at the end. #PrayForBoston

  2. I completely agree that there are distinct pros and cons to social media in police investigations. Facebook and twitter helped to quickly spread the word that people needed to shelter in place and to report any suspicious activity on Friday. However, I think some people used social media to do more than was necessary and helpful by taking on the role of ‘investigator’. Many people were, to use the old adage, throwing mud at the wall hoping something would stick. People were retweeting information that wasn’t correct, which created more pandemonium and mayhem than was called for.

    At the end of the day it was a 911 call, not social media, that alerted the police of suspect #2’s whereabouts. Social media is great outlet for letting people communicate about what’s going on but overall I don’t think it benefits police investigations for ordinary citizens to become ‘investigators’.

    Great Post!

  3. After everything that happened on Thursday and Friday, it is definitely worth looking into how social media played a role in the Boston Marathon investigation. I really enjoyed your post because you have recognized and discussed both the pros and the cons of social media in this case. I found myself glued to twitter and news stations such as CNN and Fox. However, I found that twitter updated things much faster than CNN did. Although I think there are definitely pros and cons to Twitter, I think it is also important to look into how news stations covered the situation. I found that channels such as CNN had absolutely no idea what was going on. They seemed behind the curveball. After seeing links on twitter to the police scanner, I began listening to that at the same time as watching the TV. The difference between the two was unbelievable. If the news stations got a single text of information they were eager to announce in on television to break the news first even if their was no substantial back up claims. For example, I don’t know if anyone caught the ABC5 mistake of the reporter getting the text “Got ’em” to then announce they had the suspect in custody, which he was quickly told that that was not true.

    I think that social media can be very beneficial but could also severally jeopardize the investigation. The FBI as well as the BPD continued to ask people to not release information they were hearing on the scanners. I think that it was important for the FBI to release the photos of the suspects but it also caused the dramatic manhunt to ensue. News stations have been reporting that the younger suspect continued attending school after the attacks, maybe if the photos were not released, the suspects would have remained put and this could have potentially saved the MIT police officers life as well as Suspect #1’s life. Great post!

  4. I found this blog to be extremely insightful. Not only do I find it relevant to the Boston tragedies, but its relevant to our class talks. I do agree that, while their are cons to social media during tragedies such as the Boston bombing, the pros outweigh those. I know that most of the news I received was off of twitter, because it was so much faster than the news stations. I found this blog to be very well informed. I just wish more people had taken the poll so I could see where I stand regarding everyone else’s responses. Great post.

  5. Cool topic! I enjoyed reading the post, but the thing I found most controversial about it was the survey question you asked. I see so many positive and negative factors on either side, that I had difficulty deciding which side was more heavily favored. I think in the incident of the Boston Marathon, technology and social media helped a great deal in identifying the suspects. In other recent incidents or past ones, social media may have been more of a hindrance. Something to consider: When ongoing events occur, such as the recent manhunt, news carriers and publicity people actually hinder police investigations. By distracting and occupying some forces that may be helpful elsewhere, reporters actually hinder investigators. Great post, and check out this link for some further social media involvement in the marathon.,0,1199158.story

  6. Very interesting post. I find myself torn on this topic as I see many pros and many cons. I agree with you that it is very hard for a criminal to hide when the whole world is out looking for them. However, it is also very hard for police to sneak up on a criminal with everyone listening to scanners and tweeting or posting on Facebook what the police are doing. With this said, I would have to say that I think it is more positive to have everyone on social media during investigations like this. I believe the police can receive helpful tips, even if that means they have to sift through some dead ends also. Good post and good use of the poll.

  7. Great post on the double-edged sword that technology (namely sharing) can be. The ability to transmit and spread trending information rapidly is extremely useful. During the incidents the other week I relied on Twitter because even when it had inaccurate information, using multiple sources I was able to find the true updates.

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