In Our Words: Stop playing detective online, it's not helping

Now that the northern Manitoba manhunt situation has been resolved, let's analyze how it took place and what lessons we can learn.

Not long ago, there was a vehicle fire near town that was, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor. Nobody was hurt, and while an unfortunate Flin Flonner is now down a vehicle and about to head down that long, rough road with insurance, this could have been a hell of a lot more dangerous.

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When the fire was first reported, I know I wasn’t the only person who thought there may be a connection to the Gillam manhunt. Police officers on the scene had their rifles out just in case. That's not normal for a fire. You could feel the tension in the air, in the body language of people on scene.

As a journalist, I have at least a small obligation to be active on Twitter. I rarely post but I often monitor. Sometimes, it pays off. Other times, it makes you want to chuck your phone into the toilet and flush every hashtag away.

At some point during the ongoing manhunt, someone alerted me to the hashtag #canadamanhunt. I wish they hadn’t.

I can understand the impulse, in a difficult time, to want to help. It’s only human, when somebody is in a tough place, to devote yourself to trying to make things better.

RCMP have confirmed the photo circulating around social media of a guy who looks like one of the suspects holding up a newspaper with the suspect on the front page doesn’t, in fact, show one of the suspects.

Don’t tell some of the #canadamanhunt folks that - it must be a ruse to try to smoke them out. We can ignore the fact that the newspaper the guy is holding up is not even sold in the area police were searching. There must be a conspiracy, right? Right?

Others suggest bringing in the guy from the television show Mantracker to hunt down the suspects. Maybe the suspects are in Ontario? Or maybe this pixelated Facebook video shows them being arrested? Maybe this anecdote from someone I’ve never met or heard of with no connection to the investigation and no evidence or proof is a nugget of truth?

As it turned out, all of those potential "leads" ended up being false.

The fact is, while there were several reputable journalists reporting on the manhunt using the hashtag, #canadamanhunt as a whole did nothing good. In fact, most of the social media presence surrounding the situation either bothered or outright hindered the investigation by spreading false information to the public.

For me, the manhunt brought to mind the manhunt after the Boston Marathon bombing back in 2013 –an unspeakable tragedy that inspired some people to help. 

In following that completely human impulse, people used social media to spread inaccurate news about what had happened, blame people unrelated to the incident for the attack and reveal key aspects of police tactics and locations that were best left unsaid to the public. Before social media, these rumours would either not be spread or, if sent to the police, would be vetted and treated appropriately - and, perhaps more importantly, confidentially.

Reddit and Twitter threads convinced thousands of people that two people unrelated to the bombing were the actual bombers. The New York Post put their photos on their front page. Neither had anything to do with the attack. Later, the same crew found another guy and posted his personal information online. That guy turned up dead. He also wasn’t related to the attack.

The wild goose chase that ensued following the bombing lasted four days and led to the death of two law enforcement officials.

There was one positive about social media usage in the disaster. It allowed people in a position to know what was actually going on - police, city officials, journalists and others - to share that info with as many people as possible as soon as possible. Worthwhile information was being shared by real authorities, in real time. In addition to that, Boston Police Department (BPD) officials corrected as much incorrect information as possible during that time.

The downside of that? Misinformation spreads quickly, especially if it’s juicy. The flood became a torrent and eventually a police force that covered somewhere around 700,000 citizens couldn’t keep up.

Oh, by the way - in Boston, social media had no key role in finding the killers. Eyewitness accounts from the bombing scene and anonymous tips to police did the job.

The final announcement of the arrest was made over Twitter - by BPD, not by a Twitter egg.

“CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won,”read a BPD tweet.

Coming back to the Gillam case, the same was true. Online conjecture didn't catch the suspect. Police work did –first in finding the burned-out car, then in locating the boat, then finally in finding two bodies in the bush.

"The search is over.  At 10am this morning, Manitoba RCMP officers located the bodies of two males, believed to be the BC suspects, near the shoreline of the Nelson River," read a tweet from RCMP.

Here's the big lesson for the public from all this: if you think you have pertinent information in regard to any major crime, don’t post it online. The cops on the ground don’t have time to trawl the Internet. Send the info to them directly. They know what to do with it –it’s literally their jobs - not to mention there’s zero chance that the criminals themselves may hear or read what was spread.

RCMP are reporting that hundreds of tips were received in this case, which is good, but there are literally thousands of posts using the #canadamanhunt hashtag, many of which contain outright lies and falsehoods. It’s also worth noting that this hashtag hasn’t been used by any law enforcement agency, including Manitoba RCMP, when releasing news.

If there are suspected killers lurking in the bush, it is not the time for amateur hour. Channel that urge to help into doing it the right way, and let the pros do their jobs.

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