Social media ‘misinformation’ and the impact on police response

Misinformation can quickly spread on social media during developing situations, impacting police investigations. .
Misinformation can quickly spread on social media during developing situations, impacting police investigations. . Dani Lantela/Global News

For many people, social media is a go-to outlet for speaking out, sharing important milestones or trying to keep up to date on community news.

The rate with which information and news updates are posted on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat can be overwhelming for police forces. Those members now have to dig through comments, photos and videos, when previously information might have all been contained in a single police report or 911 call.

Police officers see everything from videos of break-and-enters, to users posting about suspicious behaviour, to violent threats sent online — and each one has to be investigated thoroughly and quickly to ensure public safety.

“You see the Facebook post, you see the picture, and then… you’ve got to get to the bottom of it and find out what the story is — talk to the person that’s saying that this happened,” RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Curtis Peters told Global News.

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READ MORE: Social media and Kijiji fraud cases over stolen property on the rise: Calgary police

But getting to the bottom of those posts can be a drain on resources.

According to the Calgary Police Service (CPS), nearly 1,800 cybercrimes were reported in the city in 2017.

Social media can be a help and a hindrance to police investigations.
Social media can be a help and a hindrance to police investigations. Dani Lantala/Global News

On March 7, Calgary police responded to a threat made on social media against Robert Thirsk High School. At the same time, they worked with Alberta RCMP on investigating online threats to “shoot a public place” in either Cochrane or Calgary as well as a bomb threat at Columbia College.

READ MORE: Public shooting threat originated in Calgary: RCMP

In the case of the threat directed at Robert Thirsk, a CPS investigation determined the threat came from a hacked account. 

Calgary police laid a charge of public mischief in the online threat directed at public places in Cochrane and Calgary.

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Both instances were made worse, however, by online posts from frantic, worried social media users.

“What can happen is that a person–perhaps even with good intentions–can cause a larger panic than is necessary, a larger level of concern,” Peters said, speaking generally about social media involvement in developing situations.

“We also see it where there is misinformation that comes out of it.”

Watch from March 7: Calgary police had to reassure the public they were safe on Wednesday after threats were made online. Officers in Calgary, as well as the Cochrane RCMP, tried to clarify information being spread on social media. Bindu Suri reports.

Social media posts cause panic during Calgary police investigation
Social media posts cause panic during Calgary police investigation

Unsubstantiated information making the rounds

Peters suggests in many cases, police have early indications that allegations, claims or threats are unsubstantiated. Often officers will wait to issue a media release until they have all the facts.

However, when situations arise in which worried and confused people are taking to the internet and muddying the waters, Peters says police have to issue a release “to try to combat misinformation going around on social media.”

Last October, Airdrie RCMP were forced to address social media posts claiming a suspicious man was driving around the city in a van allegedly trying to abduct children.

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READ MORE: Airdrie RCMP say social media posts about man ‘actively attempting to abduct children’ are false

It was determined the people driving the vans were law-abiding Airdrie residents, but online posts had created public panic and fear of almost any white van that matched the description.

“Much of the information that is shared on social media among community groups, though well-intentioned, is misinformed or misleading,” RCMP said at the time.

Watch from October 2017: RCMP in Airdrie are warning parents not to post rumours about community crime issues on social media. Tony Tighe reports.

Airdrie RCMP say social media posts about man ‘actively attempting to abduct children’ are false
Airdrie RCMP say social media posts about man ‘actively attempting to abduct children’ are false

A similar situation arose in February when ammonia alarms started ringing, forcing the evacuation of Airdrie’s Genesis Place arena.

Along with managing the evacuees and helping officials investigate the source of the alarm, RCMP were dealing with fallout from a social media post that said the alarms and evacuation were false, causing a great deal of confusion.

When ‘victims’ start online fundraisers

When a story, graphic photo and accompanying GoFundMe campaign appeared online in July 2017, claiming a cyclist had been clothes-lined in the neck by barbed wire on a trail ride in West Bragg Creek, other cyclists began posting messages of caution on Facebook and other sites.

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As RCMP dug deeper into the story, they found the claims were false and the man at the centre was defrauding donors through his GoFundMe site. Peters said while pages like GoFundMe are often started for a good cause, they can be abused.  

“For some reason, when it’s on social media or on a GoFundMe and there’s pictures to go along with it and a nice story… that’s called a sales pitch and it’s kind of like selling that crappy used car – you put a nice story to it and all of a sudden it drums up a bit more interest.” 

Barbed wire cyclist injured
Stelios Psaroudakis claimed he was injured by barbed wire on a trail in Alberta on July 5, 2017. Credit: GoFundMe

According to GoFundMe, while social fundraising is a new concept, it has grown significantly in recent years because it allows people to give and get help quickly and easily.

“With that said, there are unfortunate circumstances where people create campaigns with the intention to take advantage of others’ generosity,” GoFundMe spokesperson Rachel Hollis said in an emailed statement to Global News.

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READ MORE: Alberta cyclist cut by barbed wire starts GoFundMe, wants to donate cameras to trails

Hollis said there are multiple protections in place to protect donors, adding that misuse of campaigns is rare. If it does happen, the organization’s policy is simple and strictly enforced: “It is not permitted to lie or intentionally deceive donors to a GoFundMe campaign for financial or personal gain.”

“When that happens we take swift action, which can include removing the campaign, banning the user and refunding donors.”

In the case of the “cyclist hit by barbed-wire” campaign, Hollis said all the donors were refunded and he was banned from using GoFundMe. Psaroudakis was also charged with public mischief.

Why post online instead of reporting to police?

Peters suggests people who identify as victims are posting online instead of filing reports more often than police would like, taking up officers’ time and sometimes leading investigators down the wrong path as they dig for witnesses or information.

The reasons why, he said, differ on a case-by-case basis.

READ MORE: Browse and bust: How social media is a help and a hindrance to fighting crime

“Maybe they don’t like the police, maybe they don’t trust the police — and that’s something that we would like to rectify and make our relationships better.” 

“In some cases, the person who is a victim is actually a perpetrator.

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“We have seen it in the past where, what gets posted on social media — in that one-sided view — turns out to be quite slanted in the favour of the person who posted. And sometimes they are disinclined to provide the police with a statement because they know that’s going to lead to an actual investigation and they know that they aren’t really being completely truthful.”

The Calgary Police Service and Alberta RCMP take all online threats seriously and each one is investigated thoroughly and in appropriate cases, charges are laid.