The ethical dilemma posed by online sleuths
As online rumors about the deaths of four University of Idaho students spread on TikTok and Reddit, police in Moscow, Idaho, are trying to both investigate the case and combat misinformation.
Crowd-sourced investigations are nothing new.
There's "America's Most Wanted," where law enforcement asks for tips from the general public. There are wanted or missing persons posters stapled to telephone poles and circulated online.
"I think what's new and unique today is is the ability for people to be able to connect with each other online and have access to so many amazing, scary, and powerful tools," says Sukrit Venkatagiri, a research assistant at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public.
There's Google Maps with satellite imagery, social media sites with photos of people's friends and family, and easy access to personal information.
"When a group of people in the general public has access to that information, a lot can go wrong," Venkatagiri says.
The online sleuthing after the Nov. 13 killing of four University of Idaho students provides the latest example of the ethical questions raised by crowd-sourced investigations.
While law enforcement in Moscow, Idaho, has been slowly releasing information on their investigation, people have taken to TikTok and Reddit to posit theories about who did this and why, including threads where people are publicly naming potential suspects.
Venkatagiri says this can lead to harassment and doxing in addition to hindering investigations by law enforcement because it may scare eye witnesses or encourage perpetrators to destroy evidence.
Venkatagiri stresses that, for the general public, it's important to respect privacy to maintain the viability of an investigation.
He says that law enforcement also needs to engage with the public and discourage rumors, as well as attempt to meet the public where they are. That means accepting tips in multiple ways and communicating to the general public on multiple platforms – potentially on social media sites where rumors are spreading.
The media can also help by avoiding stoking rumors about cases or naming persons of interest.
Vankatagiri notes that crowd-sourced investigations are probably here to stay and do have the potential to assist in solving cases.
"I do think crowd-source investigations can be incredibly powerful, but it's important to remember how to do it effectively and ethically," he says.
Venkatagiri spoke with Soundside about the ethical ramifications of online sleuthing and how online communities have both hindered and helped investigations.