The Crowdsourcing Detective: Crisis, Deception and Intrigue in the Twittersphere

My colleague Anahi Ayala recently started a blog called “Diary of a Crisis Mapper.” I highly recommend it. Her latest blog post on Ushahidi-Chile relates some intriguing detective work that all started with the following tweet:

The Tweet was mapped on Ushahidi-Chile. You’ll note in the discussion forum part of this report that a volunteer (Annette) updated the alert by adding that the person had been rescued. She did this after seeing a Tweet from @biodome10 saying that he had been rescued. This is when I emailed Anahi (on February 27th) to ask whether she could try and confirm this case.

It turns out the person behind the Twitter handle @biodome10 was pretending to be Gerry Fraley, a journalist with the Dallas Morning News. Biodome10 even used Gerry Fraley’s own profile picture on their Twitter profile. It also turns out that @biodome10 has a history of disseminating false information. But this first Tweet set in motion an intriguing series of events.

Someone in Chile saw the Tweet and actually called the police to report that a person was trapped under a building at that address. Anahi did some online detective work and found out that “the police decided to send 3 trucks from the fire dept, 30 cops from the rescue department, and the chief of Security in person to the address to save the person in question (see James’s blog on this, and also reported from @criverap from Twitter).”

Anahi followed this lead further:

It was Saturday night in Santiago and even if there had been one of the worst earthquake of the last 25 years, life was still going on. So it was for Dinamarca Pedro and Vargas Elba, a couple that was celebrating that night its 39 wedding anniversary. Of course, there was not much to celebrate, so at 11pm Pedro and Elba were preparing to go to bed. They lived in Lautaro 1712, Santiago, Chile.

When the door was open by force by police, carabineros and detectives, with the chief of Security in person leading the operation, the couple almost had a heart attack. No person to rescue, only an old couple which is going to remember its 39 anniversary for the rest of its life! (reported on Las Ultima Noticias Newspaper on the 1st of March 2010).

That’s not all, @biodome10 sent out a second false Tweet the following day, which was also mapped on Ushahidi-Chile:

Again the police mobilized to the location after seeing the Tweet on Twitter. When they arrived at the scene, there were no collapsed buildings in that part of the city, so they promptly left. This time though, the Tweet actually ended up on hundreds of t-shirts as part of a fund raising campaign for the Red Cross.

As Anahi writes:

Both those tweets were false. Now we know that because we know that Biodome10 was posting false information. But the Chilean police didn’t have the time and the resources to verify this information. They had priorities: go and save people as quickly as possible. They wasted time two times following both those twitter messages, while they could have been use this time to save other people in danger. Biodome10 was not only playing with social networks and Twitter, he was playing with people’s life.

At the same time, though, Anahi notes that she was able to do all her detective work right from her laptop by just accessing the web:

[…] crowd sourcing verification of information works. I have been able to find all those information just by sitting on my desk in NYC/Boston. Others have done investigations for me. I have been just collecting people’s tweets, read their blogs, and put together all the information. The fact that different people, from different parts of the world have been investigating by themselves this issue, has given me the possibility to find out that Biodome10 was a liar, independently from his identity and to be sure that the two reports we posted on our Ushahidi map were actually false.

To this end, Anahi advises groups that crowdsource crisis information to set up a verification team that can use crowdsourcing to verify information. This is precisely the principle behind Swift River, using crowdsourcing and natural language processing to crowdsource the filter. As Anahi remarks, “Crowd sourcing verification of information in this case worked. True, it was too late, especially for the police dept in Santiago, but next time we all will be ready.”

Hopefully they’ll be ready and using Swift River since the point of Swift River is to help groups validate information in near real-time. In fact, had Swift River been used during Chile, those two Tweets by @biodome10 would have received the lowest scores because there was only one “witness” reporting the incidents. Of course, Swift River is not a silver bullet as I have already elaborated on here. But we must be careful not to despair because of two false Tweets. They represent 0.0016% of all the reports mapped on Ushahidi-Chile, and they were subsequently verified.

As Dave Warner noted at a panel on USIP Mobile Phones and Afghanistan last week, “Snipers in Afghanistan use roads. Does that mean we should go and tear up all the roads?” Of course not.

I have 3 take-aways from these anecdotes:

  1. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were grounds to take legal action against @biodome10. This should send a signal to others who want to play with people’s lives during disasters.
  2. The Tweets were verifiable by anyone with an Internet connection, the main challenge was time not verifiability.
  3. Both Tweets could have been verified more quickly by others on site had they gotten wind of the information. They could easily have gone down the street and taken a picture showing that there was a wedding anniversary at the first location and intact buildings at the second. They could prove the date by including a picture of the day’s newspaper in the photographs.

In sum, I’m still of the opinion that greater connectivity can lead to greater self-correction. The detective work can be crowdsourced, my dear Watson.

Patrick Philippe Meier

7 responses to “The Crowdsourcing Detective: Crisis, Deception and Intrigue in the Twittersphere

  1. Pingback: Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Link farm, mostly on Ushahidi

  2. Pingback: Top 3 FAQs for Social Media and EM Beginners « idisaster 2.0

  3. Pingback: 7 Ways to Be a Good Twitter Citizen During a Crisis | eVentures in Cyberland

  4. Pingback: How to Verify Social Media Content: Some Tips and Tricks on Information Forensics | iRevolution

  5. This is one of the critical issue for any crisis mapper; a great video for summarize the main issues on security and privacy is this:

    G. Calamita aka

  6. Pingback: Truth in the Age of Social Media: A Social Computing and Big Data Challenge | iRevolution

  7. Pingback: Using Crowdsourcing to Counter the Spread of False Rumors on Social Media During Crises | iRevolution

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