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

Anti-pipeline protesters blockade CN rail lines in Abbotsford

Two dozen set up barricades between Riverside and Vye Roads

After Abbotsford woman’s death, accused killer bragged about money at casino, video show

David Miller is charged with the first-degree murder of Debra Novacluse in 2016

Motorists were ‘driving like their own Indy 500’ before fatal Abbotsford crash, court hears

Family member declares defence request for 90-day jail sentence a ‘joke’

Surge in Fraser Health home-care complaints concerns seniors advocate

Number of people complaining about home care has risen substantially over the last four years

PHOTOS: Tools and Technology exhibit at Mission Museum

Show features items, many donated by Mission residents, of early products we still use today

VIDEO: Illicit drug overdoses killed 981 in B.C. in 2019, down 38%

Chief coroner says figures were down about a third in the province’s fourth year of the opioid crisis

UPDATE: Protesters dismantle blockade on Maple Ridge tracks

West Coast Express train service is expected to run again Tuesday morning

VIDEO: B.C.’s seventh coronavirus patient at home in Fraser Health region

Canada in ‘containment’ as COVID-19 spreads in other countries

B.C. takes over another Retirement Concepts senior care home

Summerland facility latest to have administrator appointed

Man pleads guilty to stabbing woman, off-duty cop outside North Delta elementary school

The suspect, whose name is under a publication ban, faced 10 charges in relation to this incident

RCMP pull office from Wet’suwet’en territory, but hereditary chiefs still want patrols to end

Chief says temporary closure of field office not enough as Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute drags on

Prescription opioids getting B.C. addicts off ‘poisoned’ street drugs

Minister Judy Darcy says Abbotsford pilot project working

Royals, Elvis, Captain Cook: Hundreds of wax figures find new life in B.C. man’s home

Former director of Victoria’s Royal London Wax Museum still hopes to revive wax figure tourism

Most Read