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RCMP manhunt: How online rumours affect police investigations

WATCH: RCMP on how they determined recent photo of Kam McLeod was a fake

Amid the frenzy of a cross-country RCMP manhunt for two young men who’ve been charged in one murder and are suspects in another double homicide, a photo of an individual who looked like one of the suspects began circulating online.

Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, have been charged with the second-degree murder of Leonard Dyck and are suspects in the double homicide of Lucas Fowler and Chyna Deese. The two men are currently on the run and police have issued nationwide warrants for their arrest.

WATCH: More info about third northern B.C. murder victim

More info about third northern B.C. murder victim
More info about third northern B.C. murder victim

The search has focused on northern Manitoba, where the men were believed to have been sighted on Monday. The photo was sent to police on Thursday evening by civilians following an RCMP request that anyone with any information about the whereabouts of the suspects report it to police.

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It depicts a young man who strikingly resembles the photos police released of McLeod holding up a copy of the Winnipeg Sun paper featuring the two suspects on the front page.

RCMP say the man in the photo is not the suspect Kam McLeod. Experts say police always have to follow up on online rumours and pictures like this.
RCMP say the man in the photo is not the suspect Kam McLeod. Experts say police always have to follow up on online rumours and pictures like this. Twitter

Police eventually determined that the photo did not depict either of the suspects.

“It appears to be an instance where a photo was taken and then ended up unintentionally circulated on social media,” RCMP Cpl. Julie Courchaine said at a press conference on Friday.

She also warned against sharing or creating rumours online.

“The spreading of false information in communities across Manitoba has created fear and panic,” she said.

While this particular photo did not show a suspect, the RCMP confirmed to Global News that their investigators follow up on “any and all tips” to determine their validity. Experts note that this mandate may force the RCMP to pull resources away from the primary investigation.

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“They have to assign investigators to take a look at the information and then to follow up,” explained Kim Watt-Senner, who served as an RCMP officer for almost 20 years and is now a Fraser Lake, B.C., city councillor. “They physically have to send members out to try and either debunk or to corroborate that yes, this is, in fact, a bona fide lead.

After seeing the photo, she noted that a trained eye would be able to see some distinct differences in the eyes and the facial structure, but “if a person wasn’t trained to look for certain things, I can see why the general public would think that was the suspect.”

She added that while she believes getting public input through digital channels is largely a good thing, it can also be negative.

“There’s a whole wave that happens after the information is shared on social media and the sharing of the posts and everything else, then it goes viral and it can go viral before the RCMP or the police have a chance to authenticate that information.”

While she knows through her experience as a Mountie that people are trying to help, “it can also impede the investigation, too.”

Near the beginning of the investigation, the RCMP appealed to the public for any information they had about Schmegelsky and McLeod, or the victims. Kenneth Gray, a retired FBI agent and lecturer at the University of New Haven, explained that the internet has also changed the way police respond when receiving public tips.

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Whenever you asked the public for assistance on a case and you start receiving tips, every one of those tips has to be examined to determine whether or not it is useful to solve whatever case you’re working on and that takes time,” said Gray.

“In this particular case with the photograph, it had to be examined to determine whether this was actually the suspect or whether it was just a lookalike that took vital resources that could have been being devoted to actually finding this guy. 

He explained that if he’d gone about verifying or debunking the photo himself, he’d attempt to determine where the information came from and trace that back to the person in the photo. He suggested performing an electronic search on the image to ultimately determine who is in the photograph.

In addition, the internet has added a new layer of complexity to screening public leads. With the advent of social media, “you get inundated with information that is coming from all over the place.”

READ MORE: RCMP search for B.C. murder suspects continues into 4th day in northern Manitoba

“At one point, you would put out local information and you’d only get back local-type tips. But now, with the advent of the internet, tips can come in from all over the world. It casts such a large net that you get information from everywhere,” he said.

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“That gives you a lot more noise.”

The model that most departments have pursued to deal with this, he said, is one that requires investigators to pursue all leads while setting priorities to determine which ones should be given the most resources.

While the widened reach that the internet affords can complicate things, some experts suggest that this isn’t always a negative thing.

Paul McKenna, the former director of the Ontario Provincial Police Academy and a former policing consultant for the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, agrees.

“All leads are potentially useful for the police until they are proven otherwise,” he said in a statement. “Every lead may hold something of value and police always remind the public that even the most apparently inconsequential thing may turn out to have relevance.”

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Social media has played a role in a number of high-profile arrests over the years, including that of Brock Turner, who in 2016 was convicted of four counts of felony sexual assault and allegedly took photos of the naked victim and posted them on social media, and Melvin Colon, a gang member who was arrested in New York after police were given access to his online posts.

In this particular case, Watt-Senner explained that a command centre would likely be set up close to where the RCMP are stationed in Manitoba. She said that all information will be choreographed out of that command centre, where a commander will decipher the leads that come through.

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“Those commanders would be tasked and trained on how to obtain information, filter information, and disseminate information and to choreograph the investigative avenues of that information in real-time,” Watt-Senner said.

Wait, There’s More: Unpacking the B.C. murders

She notes that the RCMP would likely have used facial recognition software to determine for certain whether the man depicted in the photo was, in fact, the suspect, and the software would also be used as citizens began to report sightings of the suspects.

“This is really integral. This is a really important part of the investigation, especially when you start to get sightings from different areas. That information would be sent to people that are specifically trained in facial recognition.”

While the investigation may take longer because of the higher volume of leads being received through digital channels, all three experts conclude that the good that comes from social media outweighs the bad.

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