During a recent murder investigation, detectives in Tangipahoa Parish faced a challenge they probably wouldn’t have pictured 20 years ago: A victim's family member turned to social media for answers.
Grieving and looking for justice, the relative posted a home address on Facebook belonging to someone they thought had killed their loved one. It was an act of desperation — and of facility, given social media’s accessibility, detectives investigating the case explained.
It was also factually wrong.
The people who lived at the address were not connected to the case, detectives quickly determined. Fearing an act of vigilante violence, they checked in with the people who lived in the home whose information had drawn attention online.
The residents were safe, and told authorities they didn't feel like they needed further protection from the sheriff’s office.
Meanwhile, investigators managed to de-escalate the situation by speaking with the victim’s family, people involved in the ongoing case said.
While no one was hurt, the incident reflects a challenge law enforcement confronts more frequently with Facebook serving as a gathering place, gossip hub and key news source for people in rural parishes east of Baton Rouge.
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Online rumors, real-world consequences
Residents often turn to Facebook to glean clues and share information about crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. That leads to the local sheriff’s office shelling out money for gas, overtime pay and equipment costs following up on false leads spread on the website — and, 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 Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office criminal investigations division. “We also see it as a tool that works against us and against the community.”
Facebook lets law enforcement release information to a large audience much faster than ever before, allowing investigators to, for example, push out information about a child who has gone missing.
But unfounded allegations spun by Facebook users can gain traction through the site's algorithms more quickly than law enforcement can intervene to protect innocent people on the receiving end of those claims. Steady streams of speculation and accusation can also be exhausting for victims' families, authorities say.
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“Not only does it hurt our investigation,” said Maj. Kenny Corkern, commanding officer in the office’s investigations unit, “the family has to read that stuff every day.”
Sometimes, the rumors put lives at risk.
In another active case, a dispute between feuding Tangipahoa Parish gangs escalated to a point where members of one gang fired weapons at another’s house, hurting someone, detectives said. Companions of the injured gang member wrote on Facebook that a resident of a certain house was to blame.
A drive-by shooter later sprayed bullets into a house belonging to an elderly grandmother who had no connection to the crime, detectives said.
“No one was injured, but a completely innocent subject’s residence was shot,” said Schwebel.
The social media trends is hardly isolated to South Louisiana.
'A whole lot of negativity'
In Chicago several years ago, social workers and police sought answers to a pattern of violence they linked to taunting and posturing among gang members on social media.
The task of sifting through and correcting misinformation that influences real-world violence falls beyond the reach of many local law enforcement agencies. But Dr. Henry Lieberman, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies human-computer interaction, isn’t convinced that shutting down or censoring social media is the answer.
“Social media reflects the entire society,” he said, “and when problems occur where social media is the venue, I think we need to understand what the root is and figure out what to do about it.”
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Facebook activity can spill over into real-world violence when people go to the site because they feel alone, or when their communities haven’t taught them skills to resolve conflict, Lieberman said.
Facebook's algorithms prioritize high-traffic posts like those where people leave lots of comments out of a desire to get information after a loved one has been the victim of a crime, according to Lieberman.
“Facebook is a way for people to connect and get resources,” said Dr. Desmond Upton Patton, a professor at Columbia University who studies on-and-offline pathways to violence. “But what we also know is that Facebook is controlling what a user sees, and prioritizing the most threatening and egregious acts. There also needs to be room to hold these companies accountable for the types of posts they're prioritizing.”
Also key for addressing why social media interactions can inflame real-world violence, Lieberman said, are grassroots efforts to build better conflict resolution and coping skills in communities.
One local organization working to reach residents with resources to build those skills is the Florida Parishes Human Services Authority. Founded in 2003, the network of behavioral health clinics offers care to people across St. Helena, Tangipahoa, Livingston, Washington and St. Tammany parishes.
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Like the sheriff’s investigators, the network's executive director sees social media as playing a positive and negative role in the community. It offers people in rural and poor areas greater connectivity, but it can also be a “cesspool” for people struggling, FPHSA Director Dr. Richard Kramer said.
“If you’re in a negative place and you go on social media trying to scratch that itch, you can get sucked into a whole lot of negativity around that same subject,” he said.
Some of the obligation lies on law enforcement agencies to devise better ways of communicating with the public, including dispelling bad information quickly, in the digital age, Lieberman said.
But that can be a challenge for small departments working against a website with the reach and influence of Facebook.