By now, many people have heard about how [company]Twitter[/company] and other forms of social media can be used by reporters like British blogger Eliot Higgins to track down terrorists in Iraq and Syria — but those same skills can also be used in more day-to-day circumstances as well. For example, on Tuesday night, several otherwise unconnected Twitter users managed to quickly identify the suspects in a brutal attack on a gay couple in downtown Philadelphia.
As part of their investigation into the attack — which put both men in the hospital with broken bones, and resulted in one member of the couple having his jaw wired shut for several days — police in Philadelphia released a video of a group of men and women they said were involved in the assault, a video that showed them walking down the street on the night of the incident.
What unfolded after that can be seen in a Storify collection of tweets put together by National Public Radio digital strategist Melody Kramer, which is embedded below: after the video was posted on YouTube, it and screenshots of the suspects were shared widely on Twitter. Then a San Francisco man named Greg Bennett posted a photo that appeared to be the same group at a restaurant.
Philly hate crime: pic.twitter.com/i3PBprO9nn
— Greg Bennett (@GreggyBennett) September 17, 2014
When asked where he got the photo, Bennett said it came from “a friend of a friend of a friend.” Within minutes, someone had identified the restaurant, in part because the background of the shot matched a photo on the restaurant’s website. At that point, a user in New Jersey named @FanSince09 did a graph search on Facebook for the restaurant (since the photo originally came from Facebook) and found that a number of users had checked in there on the night of the attack.
After he had identified some of the group, @FanSince09 contacted Philadelphia police, who thanked him for his efforts, and Philadelphia media outlets later reported that lawyers representing several members of the group had contacted the police department about the allegations. Charges against the group could include assault and robbery, since a phone and wallet belonging to one of the victims was taken during the incident.
This is how Twitter is supposed to work for cops. I will take a couple thousand Twitter detectives over any one real detective any day.
— Joseph Murray (@PPDJoeMurray) September 17, 2014
Crowdsourcing the identification of criminal suspects has a somewhat controversial history, primarily because of the events following the bombings in Boston last year, when a number of Reddit users tried to identify one of the suspects seen in a video before the blasts occurred — and wound up targeting an innocent man who was later found dead. But the incident in Philadelphia shows that making connections through social networks can often speed up such investigations dramatically.
Such incidents illustrate a number of things, including how the “digital exhaust” we leave behind on social networks like Facebook — check-ins, photos, etc. — can be used to piece together our behavior. It also shows how, given the proper motivation, people can engage in some pretty clever detective work.
But more than anything, the Philadelphia case shows the power of the network effects in social platforms like Twitter: users who are disconnected not only from each other but from the event itself — not just virtually, but in the sense that they are thousands of miles away — are still connected just enough (through what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties”) to help solve a crime.