Online crime-fighting: more harm than good?
The Dutch police and Public Prosecution Service show video images of suspects online. Even though this might be effective in quickly identifying the suspects, the nasty side effects make it worthwhile reconsidering this tool.
On 4 January, a 22-year-old man was assaulted on the streets of Eindhoven by a group of eight young men. Two weeks later, the Public Prosecution Service (in Dutch: OM) decided to publicly broadcast video footage of security cameras showing how the man is severely beaten and kicked until he becomes unconscious. The suspects’ faces are made unrecognizable. Fortunately, it has helped to catch the suspects quickly; all eight have now been identified and three are being held in custody.
But the broadcast had some nasty side effects. Showing the images fuelled an online witch-hunt for the suspects. People shared the images on Facebook and Twitter and soon not only photos (with recognizable faces) and names circulated the internet, but also many threats to the suspects. Even innocent people were harassed. A young man with the same name as one of the suspects received more than thirty threats, with some people even calling him on his phone. In an attempt to ease the unrest, the OM said we should not take the law into our own hands, reminding us that the courts should decide whether the suspects are guilty or not.
Sometime in between the assault and the broadcasting of the images, Labour Party chairman Hans Spekman published threats made to him by an anonymous e-mailer on his Facebook page. He was fed up with it; the chairman sometimes receives a thousand hate mails in a month, he explained. Spekman called for a ‘civilization offensive’ against people who abuse social media to send threats and hate mail.
The debate about incivilities on the internet is getting old. This is not to say that it is not a problem. But it is now a very well-known problem. It is also known that the dissemination of information is incredibly hard to control. The escalation of a birthday party in Haren not too long ago proves that attempts by the mayor and police to control the flow of information have little or no influence.
However, the Dutch authorities seem to think otherwise. Last Monday, video images of another assault in Eindhoven, on New Year’s Day, were published. In a public statement, the police, OM and mayor of Eindhoven said: ‘We want to solve crimes. Showing images is an important tool. New unrest and unfocused dissemination of all kinds of information about suspects is not going to help us to identify the offender’. The OM instructed the public to not share the footage online. Now, how many people will be able to resist hitting ‘share’ or ‘retweet’? Not too many, apparently, as many people once again shared and retweeted the video images, often accompanying them with threats.
Publishing videos online may indeed help catch suspects faster. But if the goal is not to create new unrest and unfocused information sharing, then recent experiments beg the question: does it do more harm than good? Just like many people should not react impulsively by spewing out threats, the police and the judiciary should perhaps resist the impulse to respond to crime online, too.