— Zach D Roberts (@zdroberts) August 12, 2017
Of the hundreds of photos from Charlottesville, Va., that
circulated online this weekend, a few seemed destined to be cited
as evidence of crimes. One photo shows three men beating 20
year-old Deandre Harris with poles in a parking garage. “I have
eight staples in my head, a broken wrist, and a chipped tooth,”
Harris told The Root. One attacker wore a white
construction helmet, another sported a long red beard. Who were
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
“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
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.
“You have to take more time when social media is involved just to
make sure that it’s the right person who you are charging, and
it’s not just the perception of the individual who was
victimized, who just wants to ID somebody to give closure to
themselves,” said Lt. John Walker, who supervises 31 detectives
in the Philadelphia Police Department’s West Philadelphia office.
“You have to do the right thing.”
Walker says his team has had at least seven cases since January
in which officials were able to identify a potential suspect
because of civilians sleuthing on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
Just last week, the local FOXaffiliate shared a viral Facebook video with detectives. The footage
featured a group of young women pummeling a 26-year-old female on
a city street. After the video aired, Walker says, “the father of
the victim searched through the community, and was able to get a
name for us. We showed a photo array to the victim, and she was
able to identify the person.”
A successful arrest assisted by mass interest on social media
doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful conviction. Prosecutors
dropped the charges against a shooting suspect, Walker recalled,
after his attorney argued that the identification process “was
tainted” because the victim had seen the suspect’s name and
photos on Facebook. It’s becoming more common, at least in
Philadelphia, for defense attorneys to petition the court to
order additional line-ups after police finger a suspect with the
help of social media.
“If the victim really doesn’t know” who did it, “and is tuned
into social media, and sees a frenzy of people ID’ing someone,
they will latch on to it,” said Philadelphia-area defense lawyer
Michael Fienman. “So many people say, ‘it must
be him’. They adopt that view.” Dozens of wrongful convictions
have featured mistaken identifications.
Prosecutors and police in Charlottesville could not be reached
for comment, and so it remains unknown whether any of the men
named online have been questioned or arrested. Lt. Scott Doughman
of the Mason, Ohio, Police Department said he had received
numerous calls about the white-helmeted assailant, who reportedly
hails from the city but moved away after high school.
The internet sleuths continued their work on Monday. One Twitter
user, who had publicly offered a name of the red-bearded
attacker, declined to give his own name when contacted by a
reporter. “I don’t want my name in print, and have these violent
guys show up at my door,” he wrote in a Twitter message to The
Marshall Project. He felt “very torn” about sharing names
publicly. “I hesitated to post,” he wrote, but “the emotion of
what these people did really got to me.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when a
Seattle man identified through social media was convicted of
crashing a drone into a parade. He was convicted in January.