Crime reporting, 140 characters at a time

The now-famous Reddit investigation using Twitter


The shooting Monday night on Scarborough’s Danzig Street has left the city searching for answers, but few were available immediately following the public violence.

That’s because of police procedure, rules around crime reporting and the need for accuracy.

On social media, however, there are different rules. And when questions are unanswered, rightly or wrongly there’s usually an effort to answer them online.

On Reddit, a social news site, the Toronto forum was buzzing Tuesday morning as one user put together a sketch of Monday night’s events using just tweets. (Cut, pasted and slightly abridged in this article.)

BitchslappedByLogic, an obvious avatar, went through Twitter to identify some of the victims, aspects of the shooting, the potential fallout and what might happen next. The results are startling. Read it here.

The tweets tell the tale of a neighbourhood party that many knew ahead of time would be the scene of a gun battle. Several messages made it clear that there’d be a settling of scores, and there was. Before the police released names of any of those injured or killed, photo collages were posted paying tribute to the victims and names were named.

Then there was talk of retribution, a coming war. “I fear for this community,” wrote BitchslappedByLogic.

If Toronto police missed the posts foreshadowing this violence, they certainly should be aware of the warnings of more violence to come. (Calls to the police about this went unanswered.)

Before long, every Twitter account mentioned in the Reddit post was spammed by news reporters. One witness deleted all her messages about the shooting to keep reporters from quoting her.

This narrative was formed by a collection of 140-character messages and very clearly wasn’t proof in any way whatsoever. The author puts that disclaimer right on the post: “This is a portrait of the event formed solely by linking from things found on Twitter. None of this is concrete evidence of anything’s having happened or anyone’s involvement in the shootings.”

Indeed, many dismissed the tweets as unverified and untrustworthy.

But at the same time, just because these are messages on social media doesn’t make them untruthful. Police were monitoring protestors before the G20 on Twitter, so they, too, recognize the importance of the medium.

As the Urban Eatery shooting earlier this summer showed, first-hand accounts of public crimes are inevitably posted to Twitter, no matter what the police and media choose to report. That is a certainty. How we choose to use that valuable resource is what’s left to be decided.

joshuae@nowtoronto.com | twitter.com/joshuaerrett

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