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What’s the deal with

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Adam Lynes

on 6 December 2017

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Transcript of What’s the deal with

• www.websleuths.com, The Doe
Network, Unresolved Mysteries Sub;
• Boston Marathon bombing;
• Serial, Making a Murderer;
• Limitations of existing research
Websleuthing has made the headlines on several occasions, perhaps most notably in relation to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing;
Photographs taken by those at the site were posted online and pored over by websleuths in an attempt to identify the individuals responsible;
Reddit, the self-proclaimed ‘front page of the internet’ (Reddit, 2016), saw the emergence of multiple discussions – most notably a Find the Boston Bombers Subreddit;
This led to the identification of several individuals, none of whom were responsible for the atrocity.
The Boston Bombings
Terrorist atrocities have also been gathering points for websleuths;
Huey and Broll (2015) use the term digilantism to refer to Reddit activity following the Boston Marathon bombing;
They outline a range of activities, including searching for information, sharing and analysing photographs of suspects and drawing upon individual specialist knowledge;
They also noted the digilantes’ failure to identify the correct suspects and the false accusation of several innocent people;
Relations between websleuths and law enforcement are antagonistic;
Law enforcement do not trust websleuths, claim they hinder investigations and dismiss their information as of little value;
Websleuths defend their efforts and complain that they are rarely acknowledged or credited.

Criminal curiosities
What’s the deal with ‘websleuthing’? Amateur detectives and twenty-first century
criminal justice.

Crime Online & Public Criminology
Developments in computer hardware and software and innovations in networked technologies have given the armchair detective (Soothill, 1998) a new lease of life;
Any private citizen with an interest in crime and a smartphone, laptop or tablet can now go online and connect with others in crowdsourced amateur investigations;
Websleuthing is the embodiment of participatory media, where the lines between the producer, consumer and subject are blurred, there are fewer restrictions in relation to time and space and online activities have real world, embodied consequences;
The opportunities for content creation and sharing and the acceleration in the speed at which these processes occur is ‘the biggest change that media-criminologists have witnessed’ (Jewkes, 2015: 4).

The Rise of the Arm Chair Detective
Paedophile hunters
Research around websleuthing is somewhat thin on the ground;
However, criminologists who have explored it have placed a particular focus upon the detection of alleged child sex offenders;
A range of motives drives these websleuths – being inspired by television coverage of others engaged in such activities, having been victims themselves or wanting to protect children;
Further insights are provided by Campbell (2016), who explored the case of Stinson Hunter, who leads a group of ‘paedophile hunters’;
Campbell (2016) argues that Hunter’s activities are unlikely ever to connect to wider policing structures given the transgression of formal policing boundaries around consent, accountability and justice that this would involve.

Smallridge, Wagner and Crowl (2016) outline a conceptual framework for cyber-vigilantism;
On the one hand, there are relatively organized civilian groups that rely upon the expertise of initiated volunteers to carry out their activities. Well organized civilian groups … engage in a variety of activities to identify criminals … who operate online … In contrast, there are shortlived groups that mobilize in response to a particular injustice or social wrong. These groups generally dissipate quickly as the initial furore of the initiating event fades into memory (Smallridge et al., 2016: 62–63);
The organised/ spontaneous dichotomy could be fruitful as it acknowledges diverse motives, skillsets, temporal patterns and divisions of labour amongst websleuths
Organised/Disorganised Web sleuths
Web sleuths: Just a recent phenomenon?

• Audiences have never been docile recipients of true crime infotainment, passively absorbing the content they consumed;
• They have discussed, dissected and speculated around cases with others;
• They have always had the option to communicate with producers of mediated representations – for instance the ‘letter to the editor’;
• During the past two decades, however, major shifts have occurred;
• Audiences now have considerably more participatory opportunities when it comes to infotainment – they can post a comment on an online news article, tweet about a television programme using a hashtag or join one of the multiple online communities established to discuss and debate particular cases;
• They are able to produce their own critical or counter-representations even if they have little in the way of formal media production training;
• They can investigate even if they aren’t trained investigators;
• It can be argued that the affordances of networked media have combined with wound culture to create a new form of active, performed and embodied witnessing (Howie, 2012).

Our Research
Understanding more about websleuthing;
Move beyond narrow focus of existing research;
News media reports on ‘websleuths’.
Where, what and how?
• Reports begin in 1998;
• Activity focused around US cases;
• Variety of different crimes are explored;
• Emphasis on violent crime – homicide;
• Wide range of activities – solo, group,
spontaneous, organized;
• Spaces – the expected/the unexpected.
“It’s hard to walk away … I want to see this killer caught and convicted.”

“When someone sends you something that they think is fake, it’s very hard not to do something. You can’t look away. It gets under your skin, I guess.”

“Some people say it must be really exciting, but it’s more like a duty and a burden … it has taken a part of me that I will never have back – my privacy. I’ve tried to stop doing it but I can’t: I worry that I’m going to miss something and that other people will suffer and possibly die because of it. Maybe it’s become an addiction…I try not to think about that aspect too much.”

Amateur detectives meet criminal justice
Appealing for help;
Listening to websleuths;
Reluctance to attribute credit;
Exercising caution;
More harm than good?
Do websleuths open more cases than they help close?
A form of “wound culture” entertainment?
• Treating real crime as an opportunity for
• Impact upon victims and their families - TO ME
• Not in possession of all the facts;
• Anonymity in online forums, trolling;
• But do they have a role to play in twenty-first
century criminal justice?
Full transcript