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Anonymous Claims They've Identified the Police Officer Who Shot Michael Brown. What Should We Do With That Information? (UPDATED)
Thursday, August 14, 2014 - 10:51 AM
The Ferguson Police Department initially promised to make public the name of the officer who killed 18-year old Michael Brown, and then reneged, citing concerns for the officers safety.
Anonymous activists have tried to dox the officer in question, and now one of the Anonymous groups associated with Ferguson says that they've found his name. They've since tweeted the name, and are threatening to also tweet the officer's photo and home address. Mainstream news outlets seem unsure of what to do with the information. AOL published an article about it and now seems to have quietly deleted it. The Globe and Mail published an article and embedded the tweet without otherwise discussing it very much.
It's impossible to know if Anonymous has the right guy. The typical news consumer-side due diligence is more difficult than normal here, too. First, it's harder because they're anonymous, which means it's hard to evaluate the credibility of a specific group of Anonymous-affiliated activists (who knows what their track record is?). Should we trust them more because they've managed to dredge up audio of the post-shooting 911 call? Or should we trust them less because they've been wrong in the past, spreading rumors about the KKK picketing Ferguson, and, more absurdly, a Family Guy-related Robin Williams death conspiracy theory?
If you choose to try to evaluate the information without considering the source, we're still in a bind. The Anonymous activists here haven't been forthcoming about how they got their information, or why they think it's accurate. As a further complication, other, unaffiliated Anonymous hacktivists say that they have seen the leakers information, and that they're overstating their case. Everywhere you look, conjecture.
The danger here, of course, is that people are angry, and they want the name of a person to direct their anger toward. The officer named by Anonymous is now in more danger than he was before, whether or not the activists have the right guy.
That makes it tempting to hand-wring about the capriciousness of a group of online hackers. And we should. On the other hand, there's a reason that we're operating in an information desert and that rumors are running wild. The Ferguson Police Department has enforced a no-fly zone, which bars news helicopters from surveilling the area. More recently, they tear-gassed a group of Al-Jazeera journalists and then dismantled their camera equipment. It's not surprising that a group of anonymous hackers might be acting irresponsible or wanton with the way they use information and power. It's more surprising that the police are. The sooner good information surfaces, the sooner the market for questionable information will dry up.
UPDATE: The name given publicly by Anonymous did show up in a list of names of police officers from a town neighboring Ferguson called St. Ann. We emailed St. Ann Chief of Police Aaron Jimenez to ask him if he knew about this and whether he could confirm or deny the person in his department was in any way related to the shooting. Jimenez says, unequivocally, that the named employee was in no way involved with the shooting of Michael Brown. His email in full:
Unfortunately during trying times, misinformation is often passed through social media and word of mouth. Recently, a St. Ann employee was named as a shooter in the Ferguson situation, however, the employee named is a dispatcher, not a police officer, and at no time has he ever been involved in a shooting in Ferguson or elsewhere.
St. Ann Police