Crowdsourcing the Charlottesville Investigation

Internet sleuths got to work, and by Monday morning they were naming names and calling for arrests.

The name of the helmeted man went viral after New York Daily News columnist Shaun King posted a series of photos on Twitter and Facebook that more clearly showed his face and connected him to photos from a Facebook account. “Neck moles gave it away,” King wrote in his posts, which were shared more than 77,000 times. But the name of the red-bearded assailant was less clear: some on Twitter claimed it was a Texas man who goes by a Nordic alias online. Others were sure it was a Michigan man who, according to Facebook, attended high school with other white nationalist demonstrators depicted in photos from Charlottesville.

After being contacted for comment by The Marshall Project, the Michigan man removed his Facebook page from public view.

Such speculation, especially when it is not conclusive, has created new challenges for law enforcement. There is the obvious risk of false identification. In 2013, internet users wrongly identified university student Sunil Tripathi as a suspect in the Boston marathon bombing, prompting the internet forum Reddit to issue an apology for fostering “online witch hunts.” Already, an Arkansas professor was misidentified as as a torch-bearing protester, though not a criminal suspect, at the Charlottesville rallies.

Beyond the cost to misidentified suspects, the crowdsourced identification of criminal suspects is both a benefit and burden to investigators.

“If someone says: ‘hey, I have a picture of someone assaulting another person, and committing a hate crime,’ that’s great,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the spokesman for the Seattle Police Department, which used social media to help identify the pilot of a drone that crashed into a 2015 Pride Parade. (The man was convicted in January.) “But saying, ‘I am pretty sure that this person is so and so’. Well, ‘pretty sure’ is not going to cut it.”

Still, credible information can help police establish probable cause, which means they can ask a judge to sign off on either a search warrant, an arrest warrant, or both….(More)“.