In a recent murder investigation, detectives in Tangipahoa Parish faced a challenge they might not have imagined 20 years ago: A victim’s family turned to social media for answers.
Seeking justice, the relative posted on Facebook the address of a home belonging to the person they believe killed a loved one. Detectives investigating the case explained that it was an act of desperation and convenience given the accessibility of social media.
This is also actually wrong.
Detectives quickly determined that the person living at the address had nothing to do with the case. Fearing acts of self-defense violence, they reached out to people living at home, and their information gained traction online.
Residents were safe and told authorities they didn’t feel they needed further protection from the sheriff’s office.
Meanwhile, investigators have managed to de-escalate the situation by talking to victims’ families, people involved in the ongoing case said.
While no one was hurt, the incident reflects a more frequent challenge to law enforcement, with Facebook serving as a gathering place, gossip hub and important news source for people in rural parishes east of Baton Rouge.
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Residents often turn to Facebook to gather clues and share information about crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. This has resulted in the local sheriff’s office paying for gas, overtime and equipment for following up false leads spread on the site — sometimes, to protect people wrongly accused of serious crimes.
“We see social media as a valuable tool,” said Lt. Jacob Schwebel, who works in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office. “We also see it as a tool that works against us and the community.”
Facebook lets law enforcement reach large audiences faster than ever before, allowing investigators, for example, to post about missing children.
But baseless allegations made by Facebook users can gain traction faster through the site’s algorithms, and law enforcement can intervene faster to protect the innocent on the receiving end of those allegations. The steady stream of speculation and allegations could also be exhausting for victims’ families, authorities said.
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“Not only does this undermine our investigation,” said Major Kenny Cokern, the commanding officer of the office’s investigative branch, “the family has to read these things every day.”
Sometimes, rumors can be life-threatening.
In another active case, a feud between gangs in Tangipahoa Parish escalated to the point where one gang member shot at another, injuring someone, detectives said. Companions of the injured gang member wrote on Facebook that a resident of a certain house was to blame.
Detectives said a drive-by gunman later fired at the house of an elderly grandmother who was not involved in the crime.
“No one was injured, but a completely innocent object was shot at the residence,” Schwebel said.
“A lot of negativity”
The trend isn’t limited to South Louisiana: A few years ago in Chicago, social workers and police sought to address their patterns of violence related to taunts and gestures between gang members on social media.
The task of sifting through and correcting misinformation affecting real-world violence is beyond the capabilities of many local law enforcement agencies. But Dr. Henry Lieberman, a computer scientist at MIT who studies human-computer interaction, doesn’t believe shutting down or censoring social media is the answer.
“Social media reflects society as a whole,” he said. “Social media is the venue when something goes wrong, and I think we need to understand what the root cause is and figure out how to deal with it.”
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When people visit the site because they feel lonely, or when their community doesn’t teach them conflict-resolution skills, Facebook’s activity can spill over into real-world violence, Lieberman said.
According to Lieberman, Facebook’s algorithms prioritize high-traffic posts, such as those where people leave a lot of comments out of a desire for information after a loved one has fallen victim to a crime.
“Facebook is a way for people to connect and access resources,” said Dr. Desmond Upton-Barton, a professor at Columbia University who studies pathways to violence both online and offline. “But we also know that Facebook is controlling what users see and prioritizing the most threatening and egregious behaviors. There also needs to be room to hold these companies accountable for the types of jobs they prioritize.”
Key to addressing why social media interactions fuel real-world violence is also grassroots efforts to build better conflict resolution and coping skills in communities, Lieberman said.
The Florida Diocese of Human Services is a local organization dedicated to providing residents with resources to develop these skills. The Behavioral Health Clinic Network was established in 2003 to provide care to people in the parishes of St. Helena, Danguipaho, Livingston, Washington, and St. Tammany.
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Like the sheriff’s investigators, the network’s executive director believes social media plays a positive and negative role in the community. FPHSA director Dr Richard Kramer said it provided greater connectivity for people in rural and impoverished areas, but it could also be a “cesspool” for people struggling.
“If you’re in a negative situation and you continue to be on social media trying to address that, you can get caught up in a lot of negativity around the same topic,” he said.
Law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to devise better ways to communicate with the public, including quickly eliminating bad information in the digital age, Lieberman said.
But it can be a challenge for the small sector dealing with Facebook’s reach and influential sites.