This Wednesday, April 26, 2017, photo shows the Twitter app on a mobile phone in Philadelphia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke

‘Tips on steroids:’ Social media both a help, hurdle for Canadian police investigations

More than 1,000 tips were received by police in the hunt for fugitives Kam McLeod, Bryer Schmegelsky

Social media can help or hurt police investigations such as the one into three homicides in northern B.C., says a criminologist.

Frank Cormier, head of the sociology and criminology department at the University of Manitoba, says police have started using social media as a way to get their message out.

“It can be fairly effective as a tool,” he said in an interview. “Like any newer technology, it’s always a double-edged sword.”

RCMP confirmed earlier this week that two bodies found in the dense brush outside of Gillam, Man., were those of Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, suspected of killing a young tourist couple and a botanist in B.C. last month.

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Kevin Hackett told a news conference in B.C. last week that media coverage and public engagement were key to the public’s level of awareness.

“(It) resulted in police receiving a consistent stream of information and over 1,000 tips,” he said.

ALSO READ: Photo spreading online is not B.C. fugitive Kam McLeod, says RCMP

Hackett didn’t elaborate on how the tips came in or where they came from, and no one from the RCMP responded to an interview request.

The Ontario Provincial Police had assigned a team of investigators earlier this month to look into the 100-plus tips about the fugitives in that province.

“It was a combination of a lot of things,” said Staff Sgt. Carolle Dionne. “One (was) the coverage in the media, knowing that these two suspects were wanted and running away from police. And then you (had) the indication that they were moving east.”

Dionne said the provincial police don’t take tips on social media, but received calls from people reporting comments that they had seen on Facebook or Twitter.

“They would say, ‘Yeah, I think I’ve seen them,’ and then people would come to us and say, ‘So and so said this on their social media account’ and then we get it third hand.”

Peter German, a former RCMP deputy commissioner, said it’s clear that virtually every one of the tips about the case was incorrect.

READ MORE: Motive will be ‘extremely difficult’ to determine in northern B.C. deaths

“That speaks to the issue that police have these days with social media,” he said. “The other thing … is that most of those people really believed that they saw them and that speaks to eye witness identification, which can be so faulty.

“That is a huge issue that police have to deal with … it’s the one that you don’t follow up that ends up being the critical one, and the question will then be asked: ‘Why didn’t you?’”

German said social media has facilitated what’s become ”tips on steroids.”

Several warnings from police and the federal public safety minister telling Canadians to be on alert for Schmegelsky and McLeod made people extra vigilant and led to even more tips, both German and Dionne said.

“Going through all those tips then means more resources,” said Dionne. “If you put in more people to triage, then it means you have less people out there.”

Dionne stressed that police want people to report what they see because it could be the tip that matters to the investigation. A sighting in Meadow Lake, Sask., for instance, helped police identify Schmegelsky and McLeod as suspects rather than missing persons.

Cormier said the large number of tips shows how intensely the public was tuned into the case.

“Any story that catches the attention of social media becomes multiplied,” he said. “It can magnify people’s emotional response and that can lead people to be a little bit caught up and police can be flooded with speculation.

“They are people who want to help, but they become a little caught up in the excitement of the story.”

In some cases, he said, there are also people who feed false rumours and lies.

“They’ll just make things up,” said Cormier. “We have trolls everywhere. They take great delight in messing with various processes and procedures.”

It’s easy to see both sides, he said.

“Social media makes it so much easier, but it can obviously also be a bad thing in some cases.”

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Manitoba Manhunt

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Confusion surrounds terms of RCMP withdrawal from pipeline construction area

B.C. Deputy Commissioner clarifies terms of agreement following minister’s statements

Two Terrace ringette athletes help regional team win silver

The Pacific Ring AA Ringette Tournament took place in Richmond, B.C.

Stop checks, searches of Wet’suwet’en pipeline opposers unlawful: Watchdog

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs file complaint

Dozens march for MMIGW at third annual event in Terrace

Family members and friends of victims joined the walk on Feb. 14

Wet’suwet’en pipeline supporters speak up

“Protesters get one side of the story and they stand up with their fists in the air.”

VIDEO: B.C. senior recalls ‘crazy’ wartime decision to grab bear cub from den

Henry Martens – now 96 – says he was lucky to be alive after youthful decision to enter a bear’s den

Petition slams Victoria councillor who chastised police after Wetsuweten protest

Ben Isitt calls effort to get him suspended is not a ‘reliable barometer of public opinion’

B.C., Ottawa sign sweeping 30-year deal for northern caribou habitat

West Moberly, Saulteau co-manage new protection on two million acres

Suspect at large after stealing seaplane before crashing into another in Vancouver

Police responded to the incident at 3:30 a.m. on Friday at Vancouver Harbour

PHOTOS: 2020 BC Winter Games kick off in Fort St. John

More than 1,000 of B.C.’s best athletes will be competing over the next three days

Shopping cart collector at B.C. Costco awarded $583,000 after getting pinned by car

Kurtis Ryan Burdeniuk, 22, was retrieving carts when a driver backed into him in the parking lot

‘Usain Bolt he was not’: B.C. gang police seize drugs, cash after foot chase

‘The man took off running when he saw our officers approaching,’ CFSEU BC says

Canadians released from coronavirus-ridden cruise ship in Japan fly home

Those who were cleared to travel are to be screened again at Canadian Forces Base Trenton

Health officials confirm sixth COVID-19 case in B.C.

Woman remains in isolation as Fraser Health officials investigate

Most Read