• 9 Investigates: How false information on social media impacts investigations

    By: Ken Lemon

    Updated:

    Investigators tell Channel 9 they now have a new barrier in fighting crime: lies posted on social media.

    Social distractions take valuable resources away from investigations, and it’s becoming a disturbing trend.

    In September, scores of rescuers and search dogs searched for missing 6-year-old Maddox Ritch who ran away from his father at a Gastonia park.

    [RELATED: Gastonia police confirm Maddox Ritch was in park before disappearance]

    Even agents pleaded with people on social media to stop posting false information, things they had to investigate while trying to find a child with autism who may not have been able to help himself.

    It happened again during the search for Hania Aguilar, a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped at the school bus stop right outside of her home in Lumberton.

    [RELATED: Man accused of raping, killing Lumberton teen could face death penalty]

    Bogus posts on Facebook led to needless interviews across the state.

    "It just creates a web of work,” Gaston County Police Department Capt. Curtis Rosselle said.

    Rosselle heads the detective division of the Gaston County Police Department.

    The county has their own Twitter, Instagram, Nextdoor and Facebook accounts. They can share information about crime and get a direct response.

    "It absolutely can be a good thing to us,” Rosselle said.

    They have an online analyst who checks their posts and also looks for other people talking about cases they are working. 

    "We have to look at all avenues when we are investigating a case,” Rosselle said.

    He said more often lately people will post information about important cases that is false.

    "For whatever reason, the other people that are reading these things or listening or watching believe these posts over what we put out in a press release,” Rosselle said.

    And from there, people share that false post and it snowballs. Police are forced to investigate and determine it’s really nothing, but it pulls resources away from other things.

    Anita Blanchard is an associate professor of psychology at UNC Charlotte.

    "People are happy to go viral for something they think, for something they know is not true,” Blanchard said.

    [ALSO READ: Social media and misinformation: It's a game of whack-a-mole]

    Blanchard studies human behavior on social media. She blames trolls, people who just want attention at all costs.

    "They don’t care whether it’s negative or positive, they are getting attention,” Blanchard said.

    She said they are people who are often disagreeable for no reason. Their friends know that and won't like or share their posts. They need an unwitting stranger.

    "It gets picked up and shared, because they are reliable community citizens. And it grows from one person who knowingly posts a lie to multiple people unknowingly posting this information,” Blanchard said.

    The troll can sit back and watch.

    "It’s the few folks who are really a bit deviant,” Blanchard said.

    At times, that leads to police getting as many complaints as tips.

    "People reaching out to us from across the country. They want to know what the deal is. It’s outrageous that we let this happen,” Rosselle said.

    Blanchard said trolling won't stop until people who do it are punished.

    Police said they track people down but can't charge them because the person who posted the misinformation didn't lie to them, which would be a crime.

    Other departments told Channel 9 they are careful when confronting trolls, because they don't want to deter people with real information.

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