Social media may be a powerful tool for citizen reporting, but it can also lead to dangerous situations when “the people” get the story wrong. That’s what happened when a Twitter account associated with the hacker collective Anonymous published the name and photo of a policeman who purportedly shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
While many have demanded to know the policeman’s identity, there was a major problem with this decision to out him on [company]Twitter[/company]:
@TheAnonMessage Bryan Willman is not even an officer with Ferguson or St. Louis County PD. Do not release more info on this random citizen.
— St. Louis County PD (@stlcountypd) August 14, 2014
In response, Twitter suspended the account of @TheAnonMessage, pointing to its terms of service that say users can’t “publish or post other people’s private and confidential information” or “publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.”
Whoever was running the suspended has already returned to Twitter under a modified account, and they do not appear particularly contrite. The new account did, however, say it would hold off on identifying people for now:
— BACKUP TheAnonMsgs (@TheAnonMessage2) August 14, 2014
All of this raises questions about the role of the crowd in police investigations and other sensitive public proceedings. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, the Reddit community took it upon themselves to find the suspect — with disastrous results. Instead of finding the bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, they published the photo of an innocent man who had gone missing, adding to the anguish of his family.
There is also the question of the role of Twitter in deciding what news can and can’t be published. While the social media site has a strong free speech record, its internal processes are opaque and its lawyers do not provide explanations of why account is suspended and another is not.
On balance, the growing power of social media and citizen journalism has done more good than harm everywhere from Cairo to Turkey to Ferguson, Missouri. But as the case of the cop shows, it can still go horribly wrong.