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“Will anyone with information please come forward”. It’s a refrain we always hear police echo in crime-dramas. People are too afraid to come forward though for lack of trust in the official authorities or fear of gangs. That’s especially in poverty-stricken, gang-ridden areas. You can easily imagine the classic scene: New York cops at a ghetto crime scene with apartment residents hiding behind their curtains. Then again, we are constantly documenting massive amounts of potential evidence each time we post a photo via Instagram, a video via Vine or even a report by sending out an ‘eyewitness tweet.’ How do we filter the valuable truth from the inevitable noise of social media?
Encouraging the crowd
After the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon last week, the city’s Police Department sent out a tweets requesting amateur video footage. The FBI also asked for public assistance in an attempt to crowdsource its data required for a “thorough investigation.” In an attempt at leaving no stone unturned, law enforcement has been looking to the internet community for help.
The “findbostonbombers” sub-section was launched on popular link-sharing online community, Reddit, bringing together images, videos or clues concerning possible suspects or leads. Popular community and image-sharing sites like 4chan and Imgur, which both have popular followings, identified three possible suspects (one of which turned out to be an actual suspect).
Some might argue that an online community or hackers can achieve better and quicker results than law enforcement. For one, they’re not limited by red-tape. They also have a massive round-the-clock working staff in the form of the community. Others though call this a witch-hunt. Either way, people hide behind a veil of anonymity when it comes to the internet. There is not much accountability when it comes to sharing personal views. This and the fact that the internet is always with us (e.g computers, smartphones), makes it easy to contribute.
Taking matters into your own hands through citizen journalism
Examples of people using the internet to investigate includes of course, bloggers. British blogger Elliot Higgins, also known as Brown Moses, has recently started a crowdfunding campaign on the popular Indiegogo site. The Brown Moses blog is known for its investigative analysis of videos posted online and social media. With no background in journalism, but inspired by the use of social media during the Arab Spring, Moses specializes in Syrian arms trades and uses the power of the internet to track down specific weapon movements. Moses has over 5 000 Twitter followers and has been cited by many prominent newspapers including The New York Times. Posts like ‘New Anti-Tank Weapons From The Former-Czechoslovakia Appear In Syria’ don’t go unnoticed.
Major news outlets have created similar platforms. iReport by CNN is just one example of this. The massive hacker collective Anonymous also recently launched a site dedicated to citizen journalism, collecting data and livestreaming “events as they are taking place, instead of the 10-second sound bites provided by the corporate media.”
Even less investigative are the deceptively simple tweets breaking news events around the world by your average citizen. This, as we have seen with other social media, has contributed greatly to breaking news in the Arab Spring for example.
Sorting out fact from fiction or propaganda
This is where companies like Storyful come in. Having partnerships with social media like YouTube and Google and big news agencies like The New York Times, ABC News and Reuters, the company describes itself as being the ‘first news agency of the social media age.’ Storyful discovers, verifies and distribute content online whether it’s photos, written reports or videos.
Companies such as Geofeedia meanwhile use smartphones and social media to distill geolocation data based on image, text or video. The company goes through petabytes of social media data in order to pinpoint time, latitude and longitude used for potential further verification. Another similar group called iWitness also uses GPS tracking and social media filtering software in order to generate and stimulate live, legitimate data concerning breaking news events around the world.
Crowdsourcing your data
Furthermore, disrupting startups such as Ushahidi use open source technology to better understand information at times of crises by using visualizations, interactive mapping and collecting information.
Last week, The Guardian launched GuardianWitness. This app aims to crowdsource ideas and breaking news by encouraging people to upload videos, photos and ideas. Site editors can post ‘assignments’ for users to complete with designated deadlines. According to crowdsourcing.org the site has proved to be successful thus far with over 500 pieces of content submitted. Initiatives like these would prove to be the chain between social media overload and quality, valuable information that could benefit humanitarianism.