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Misinformation and Policing

Here is an opinion piece I published in Newsweek in September, 2022

If you read the mainstream media or listen to technology experts, you will at some point hear about the danger of misinformation. It's all around us, they tell us routinely, and it's impeding the ability of the fragile masses to tell fact from fiction. The thing is, they are right: Misinformation is real. And it's come for the police.

From the Twitter mobs that brought you the lie of "hands up don't shoot" and "Jacob Blake was unarmed" come the latest tales of police work packaged as clickbait and fed to the raging masses, who are quick to share it without any attempt at verification. Were they to do the most cursory fact check, they would soon learn just how much of their latest favorite viral outrage is made up of the very misinformation they are constantly talking about.

Take the case of the unarmed Black woman named Leonna Hale who was shot five times in the back by police in Missouri this summer. The video of the incident was caught by a bystander and was seized upon by accounts like AJ+, Occupy Democrats, gun control activists, and just plain old influencers spreading the tale to their millions of followers—perhaps tellingly without video. Each added their own flavor to the story, claiming that the woman was pregnant, pleading for her life, and handcuffed after she was shot dead.

"Kansas City cops shot 26-year-old Leonna Hale, a pregnant Black woman with her hands up, 5 times, then handcuffed her while she was bleeding out," read one tweet with over 60,000 likes.

The only problem is, it wasn't true. It didn't take long for the Jackson County prosecutor to release a statement refuting the claims, along with a clear as day body camera image of the woman aiming her (illegal) gun at the officers.

She also wasn't pregnant. But by then, the damage of an unvetted rumor about murderous police had been done, serving to fuel more anger and undermine public trust.

But the case of Leonna Hale is only the latest in a trend of disinformation surrounding police activity. And sometimes, even clear evidence isn't enough to quell the mob. Earlier this month, a public defender tweeted confidently that body camera footage released by the NYPD show they had recently killed a man who never fired at them as they claimed, and in fact was shot in the back while running away. 16,000 people shared the tweet.

It took a journalist, Kmele Foster, and a criminologist, Peter Moskos, to correct the record by "doing the work" of slowing down the footage to show that Rameek Smith's gun was clearly visible at the moment of firing; the law enforcement officials who analyzed the footage were right, and the social media warriors were wrong.

But their corrections to the record have a fraction of the online engagement.

Most recently, last week, a brand new anonymous account tweeted a series of photos of a man being forcefully detained by officers in Bellevue, Washington.

The Twitter user claimed he had witnessed the police "harassing a Black family" who were "politely cooperating," yet still, "the officers escalated the situation by getting closer to the kids."

Twitter blue checkmarks quickly mobilized to spread the tweets of an account with 60 followers far and wide, and the thread was liked by roughly 22,000 people and shared by another 7,000. Alexander Vindman, who served as Director for European Affairs for the United States National Security Council, shared it with his 850,000 followers with the caption, "Is this for real? I'm not sure if there's anything that justifies the way this man was treated in front of his family. These officers better have a damned good explanation!"

It turned out though that they did have a good explanation. In a statement released by the police (to a whopping 30 shares), they explained that the man was wanted for assault and burglary, which is up 68 percent in Bellevue this year. The suspect clearly fit the description, since not too many people were walking around with their kids in a stroller and punching FedEx drivers in the face that day. As for the use of force, the man physically pushed one of the officers, at which point he was forcibly detained, uninjured, the cops explained.

Some people would rather take the word of an anonymous Twitter account than the word of a police department, and while I think both should be treated with a healthy amount of skepticism, the truth is, we don't live in a dystopian novel. Government agencies have oversight and are still held to a higher standard in how they disseminate information and conduct their activities. Certainly, sometimes officials lie or aren't forthcoming with information, in which case they should be called out. The problem is that even when there is video evidence proving the cops' story, the impulse to ignore it seems to be overwhelming for many people on the internet, if the truth doesn't fit their prior assumptions.

What is to be done? We should all approach information online with humility and skepticism—especially if it confirms our prior beliefs. We should use each post that outrages us as a starting point, not a destination. Trust but verify, or verify but trust; either way put some thought into it before smashing away on the keyboard.

Confidently criticizing tactics and filling information gaps with uneducated guesses in ALL CAPS is the epitome of arrogance and ignorance. This is true not just for policing, but for anyone with a job we aren't familiar with, from the barista making our drinks to the conductor guiding our trains. Consider for a moment that they might not all be idiots who had "one job" but perhaps they know something you don't.

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