Thin Blue Spin: How U.S. cops have raided social media

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The Baffler

Not long after Micah Johnson mortally gunned down five Dallas-area police officers and wounded nine others in July, the social media mavens at the Dallas Police Department tweeted out a picture of a man they identified as a suspect in the shooting rampage. They also asked their social media following—at nearly two hundred thousand, one of the largest on Twitter for police departments—to assist in tracking the suspect down.

There was only one problem: they were after the wrong man. They were targeting Mark Hughes, the brother of one of the lead organizers of the Dallas protest that preceded the mayhem. The Oswald-esque photo they used of him smiling for the camera with an assault weapon at his side was nothing out of the ordinary for Texas, which adopted an open-carry law for firearms in 2015. Followers of the Dallas PD’s timeline caught the error minutes after the tweet went out. But the photo of Hughes, together with its incriminating caption (“This is one of our suspects. Please help us find him!”) remained up for seventeen hours after it was posted, even as Dallas cops questioned and released Hughes. Not surprisingly, the maligned Black Lives Matter protester reported that he received thousands of death threats during his day of unearned social media infamy. Several hours after the department’s error was exposed, a reporter from Mashable asked a Dallas PD information officer why the department had not yet deleted the offending tweet. “Because we’re keeping it on there,” came the hostile, nonsensical reply.

The Hughes episode highlights the predictable outcome of American cops’ recent lurch into the social-media-sphere. What started out as an earnest public appeal for leads in the aftermath of a massacre pivoted instantly, and without explanation, into another bald assertion of cop authority for its own sake: “Because we’re keeping it there.” The social media arm of the law stigmatized an innocent black man with the suspicion he could be a cop-killer. Meanwhile, Dallas cops had obliterated the actual suspect, Johnson, with a bomb-disabling robot loaded with C4 explosives. The tweeting thumb is attached to the mailed fist.

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