Crowdsourcing Policing: A Double Edged Sword

We’re going through the biggest period of change in human behavior since the invention of the printing press. One of the biggest changes is crowdsourcing: the ability to have many people do tasks that individuals and small groups used to in the past.

You can find examples of crowdsourcing changing nearly every industry including encyclopedias (wikipedia), news (twitter), sports reporting (bleacher report), investing (kiva, kickstarter), menial tasks (mechanical turk), tshirts (threadless), space exploration (mars rover) logo design (99designs), editing (ueditme), traffic (waze), travel reviews (lonleyplanet), restaurant reviews (yelp), even concert tours (eventful). Pretty much any industry you can think of has been disrupted by crowdsourcing. Most for the better.

Crowdsourcers use the ubiquity of data and an internet connection to provide better service to consumers than they previously had from full time employees or big, slow institutions. Many of these services have replaced the old guard completely. Nobody would think of looking at encyclopedia britannica anymore. Wikipedia is way better, easier and cheaper.

Crowdsourcing has started to spill over into even more traditional industries like government and policing. Police have always had tiplines and there have always been amateur sleuths, but the internet, a proliferation of data, and online communities have supercharged these efforts. Regular people, or those with a cause, can help police identify witnesses, send in tips and even add to the investigation.

In Boston, reddit and 4chan immedietly sprang to life to try to identify the bombers. In another case, a gearhead was able to identify the car used in a hit and run just by looking at a photo of it’s headlight. In the Stubenville rape case, Anonymous hacked into youtube, email and other online services to gain access to incriminating texts, videos and pictures that directly led to the rapists’ conviction.  In another case the police released a video of an assault and the perpetrator was identified by his social media a few hours later. These are all cases where the crowd’s participation has led to justice.

In the Boston bombing, it’s led to singling out many people, most of whom are not guilty, but so far nobody’s been falsely accused by these amateurs. But what happens when the wisdom of the crowd turns into a mob? What happens when online sluethes are convinced they have a suspect?

The mob has started to publish people’s personal details, family, net worth, address etc. During the Trayvon Martin case, Spike Lee tweeted the personal details of the wrong Zimmerman. The family was harassed and intimidated and feared for their lives as the mob circled them. When Anonymous or other internet hackers have disagreed with individuals or believed that they’ve committed a crime, their response has been to publish personal details, invade their privacy and try to turn the mob on them.

Some people believe that the crowd can replace traditional police work. And that the crowd can act as a deterrent to bad behavior. I believe that the crowd can help, but we must weigh the potential to shame innocents and devolve into mob behavior and public lynchings of people who should be innocent until proven guilty. I don’t want to live in a world of distributed 1984, where everyone is watching, everyone can be an informer. That doesn’t sound like fun to me.

We must come up with new social norms that allow the crowd to help out, like in the Stubenville rape case, but that deter people from devolving into mob behavior, publishing people’s personal details and shaming people before they’re are proven guilty, or at least until there’s significant evidence to support the conclusion. This will be a big trend to watch over the next 3-5 years as these social norms develop.

  • AntonioMannoCap

    Right Nathan, i share your same concern! indeed there is no more big danger than the intrinsic stupidityy of the crowd as written in the marvellous book “The_Crowd:_A_Study_of_the_Popular_Mind” authored by the great french antropologist Gustave Le Bon , book highly recomended from whom would be interested in understand the psychology of the crowd