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Web chatter can aid or impede investigations

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Web chatter can aid or impede investigations

Post  Guest on Tue 29 Jun - 4:16

Web chatter can aid or impede investigations

Boy’s case shows how social media helps – and how it hurts

Jun 24, 2010

Within hours of 7-year-old Kyron Horman’s disappearance on June 4, Carol Knowlton did what many people do nowadays to get their message out to the world: She created a Facebook page.

The “Missing Kyron Horman” page first attracted hundreds of followers, then thousands, as the public interest and media frenzy over the mysterious case grew.

Three weeks later, the Facebook page had gained nearly 50,000 followers – nearly half as many as the state of Oregon’s Facebook page itself.

“It was more than we ever thought it would be,” says Knowlton, a 60-year-old grandmother from Mt. Angel who has never met the Hormans, but was spurred to action from her previous work.

In 2002, she and longtime friend Jude Mahar of Wilsonville cofounded a website called the Child Seek Network to keep missing children’s information in the public eye after Oregon City friends Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis disappeared.

When Kyron went missing from his school science fair, Knowlton and Mahar wanted to create a central place that people could go to share hope and support for the second-grader’s safe return home.

It has served that purpose.

Yet, this week Knowlton found herself confronting the unseemly side of social media: the inability to control the “trolls” – Internet slang for people who leave inflammatory comments on discussion boards.

Trolls on the Facebook page – as well as those who comment on various news sites and on independently run blogs across the country – have tried to indict Kyron’s family members for the crime and made mean-spirited remarks about Kyron’s physical appearance.

When Knowlton told her readers she would be deleting those types of posts without warning, people accused her of being biased and unfair and violating their free-speech rights. They asked her to relinquish the site.

They also alleged she was defending Kyron’s family because she must be the mother of Kyron’s stepmom, Terri Moulton Horman – because Moulton rhymes with Knowlton.

“I have never met Mrs. Horman and I am not her mother, nor am I related in any way to this family,” Knowlton wrote. “I have tried to explain that I have been with the Child Seek Network since it was founded and that I am just a mom, grandmother and lady who is passionate about missing children!”

Overall, the site has been beneficial since it’s gotten the word out to so many, she says.

Yet the infinite capacity of today’s social media – as demonstrated in the Kyron Horman case – is both a blessing and a curse, she confesses.

Law enforcement officials, too, say social media has been a mixed bag.

“The rumors are not helpful,” says Multnomah County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Lt. Mary Lindstrand. “Once social media puts it out there and it’s not true, it takes time from putting the correct information out.”

Lindstrand says the rumors she has read have been wild and untrue: People have “reported” that Kyron’s body has been found and that an arrest has been made in the case. Both were completely false, she says, but that didn’t stop others from jumping on the bandwagon and spinning the information virally into cyberspace.

Lindstrand says she and the sheriff’s office appreciate the high interest in the case. They also try to use social media to their advantage, by staying on top of the chatter with their own Twitter site. And they rely on the steady stream of citizens who call in with potential tips about the case, many gleaned from the blogs.

“We are monitoring it,” she says. “I know social media is out there; I know it’s not going to go away. It can be useful just like any other social network, if it’s done with respect.”

Information flow can be helpful

Other law enforcement agencies here and nationwide agree that the information trails left by social media networks provide an investigatory tool that wasn’t available even five years ago.

“Any place you have information that’s been cached out there, that’s intelligence and it’s valuable,” says Clackamas County Sheriff’s spokesman Jim Strovink, who could not talk directly about any specific case, but agreed to speak in general terms. “It’s something that’s been dropped in our lap. Who knows what the future’s going to bring, but it is out there and we’re very much into the flow. It’s readily accessible.”

Strovink says his own department’s Intercept team monitors chat rooms on a regular basis to catch offenders who are preying on vulnerable underage targets.

In other crimes, it’s a go-to tool as well.

“If you have a major crime, it’s not unusual – it’s rather routine now – that the lead investigator involved in that case will research and evaluate these sites as a form of intelligence,” Strovink says. “And say our victim was on this site, we’ll go to his Facebook page. Who does he know, who can you get to to learn more about the subject?”

Terry Halsch, president of a web-based community policing company in St. Paul, Minn., has been helping public safety agencies harness the power of the Internet since 2001.

His company, CitizenObserver, sells notification technology software such as an anonymous tip-texting service and an outbound notification system that gives citizens real-time alerts to incidents such as fires, road closures and shootings.

Using Facebook, Twitter, and a service called tip411, agencies have reported up to a 40 percent increase in the number of tips they receive, he says. Halsch serves agencies in nearly 40 states – none in Oregon – who pay between $2,000 and $25,000 for two years of service, depending what level they receive.

But Halsch says the vast majority of law-enforcement agencies don’t use social media to its fullest capacity.

The Boston Police Department is one that’s been on the leading edge of embracing social media, spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll says.

Her agency was one of the first police departments to start a blog five years ago, and one of the first to start Twitter, she says. The department now has upward of 13,000 followers on Twitter.

The department recently launched a Facebook page and uses a software company called VeriSign for its anonymous “Text a tip to crime” program.

“We started it because the police commissioner two years ago noticed at crime scenes, a lot of community members standing around texting,” Driscoll says.

Missing children of greatest interest

Especially in high-interest cases, such as those involving missing children, the more exposure through social media, the better, investigators say.

While it is time-consuming to sift through every possible lead, it is worth it, says Dave Pimentel, chief deputy for the Gray’s Harbor (Wash.) County Sheriff’s Department, which has been trying to solve the June 26, 2009, disappearance of 10-year-old Lindsey Baum.

The girl vanished while walking home from a friend’s house near Olympia. She’s still nowhere to be found and there are no suspects in the case, despite a $30,000 reward offer.

In the days following her disappearance, a massive search operation – aided by the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team – was launched, as was the case with Kyron Horman.

Pimentel says that when Lindsey went missing a year ago, it took investigators “less than 24 hours” to start scouring social media sites as their normal course of action.

“I can tell you there’s hundreds of man-hours dedicated to following leads on these social network sites,” he says. “We have used Facebook, MySpace, YoVille (an offshoot game of Facebook). We’ve gotten search warrants to go into different people’s accounts; been on them almost daily looking for information.”

While other leads have dried up over time, he says, “kids in that age group use (social media) as part of their life – use it to report what goes on in their life.”

News intern Gregar Chapin contributed to this story.



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Re: Web chatter can aid or impede investigations

Post  Guest on Tue 29 Jun - 12:06

Personally I think it aids in a lot of cases. 1. it helps to find a lot of missing kids and 2 it gives families hope that people do care about their missing loved ones.
Ive seen a lot of missing persons profiles on various social networking sites and there are thousands of people on them giving support to the families of the missing.

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