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Real world consequences of social media misinformation

by Jonathan Kearney

The potential consequences of misinformation sharing on social media have been seen in action this week with Merseyside Police and local authorities (Knowsley and St Helens) joining forces to appeal for the public’s assistance in apprehending those responsible for criminal activity, directly fuelled by misinformation circulated online. They are also reminding residents to be cautious when reading or sharing information online.

Merseyside Police issued the following statement:

Earlier this week, it was reported that a man had attempted to abduct a child in Whiston.

It was posted on social media and gained traction after a large number of people shared the information along with photographs of a suspected individual.

The incident, which occurred outside a shop on Lyneham on Tuesday 6 June, was reported to police and it was also alleged that the man tried to take images of the child.

Officers were able to locate a man and he was spoken to, but no arrest was made.

Sadly, the following day at around 3pm, the individual shown on social media was detained by members of the public in Rainhill and he was subsequently assaulted by a number of youths.

Police attended and a 27-year-old man from Rainhill was arrested on suspicion of taking indecent images of a child and taken into custody.

An investigation has been ongoing and following a thorough review of CCTV and mobile phone data, we can now confirm that no offences have been committed and the man has been released with no further action.

We believe this incident highlights the serious consequences of sharing misinformation on social media.

We are also appealing for information to help trace a group of youths who assaulted this man.

Superintendent for Knowsley Karl Baldwin said: “I firstly want to say that we are completely satisfied that no offence was committed or attempted by this man. He did nothing wrong. Following extensive CCTV enquiries and from speaking to the person who reported the crime, detectives have determined that the facts of the matter were misreported on social media, as is so often the case.

“This incident has had a significant impact on the life and wellbeing of this man, through no fault of his own.

“For months, police and partners have warned that misinformation and speculation online have real world consequences that put innocent people in harm’s way.

“Sadly, this case is an example of this danger. Online speculation, misinformation and sharing can actually damage the outcome of investigations and cause unnecessary fear and consequent behaviour, so I would continue to ask people to be mindful of the damage that such actions can cause. 

“Social media rumour, false information and speculation has clearly led to the assault of an innocent man and we are now carrying out a thorough investigation to find those involved and we are appealing for anyone with information to come forward.

“If you witnessed the assault near Penny’s Pit Park in Rainhill on 7th June, please get in touch so we can find those responsible.

“Violence and intimidation, regardless of how people attempt to justify it, is never the answer. We will do all we can to hold those that have in this case, accountable. 

“If, for any reason, you do not wish to report a crime to the police, you can always contact @CrimestoppersUK completely anonymously on 0800 555 111.”

If you have any information about the assault on 7th June in Rainhill, contact our social media desk on Twitter @MerPolCC or Facebook ‘Merseyside Police Contact Centre’ with any information with reference 587 of 7th June.

Cllr Graham Morgan and Cllr David Baines (Leaders of Knowsley and St Helens Council respectively) added:

“This is a really shocking and upsetting case where the life of a completely innocent individual has been detrimentally impacted as a direct result of misinformation being shared online.  This includes false allegations of criminal activity and inaccurate suggestions that this person is a member of the asylum seeker community living in temporary accommodation / hotels in the area. Neither of these things are true.

“It is crucially important that people understand that not everything they read online is accurate and they really should proceed with caution before accepting or sharing any information.

“Rumours and speculation can spread so quickly and sadly, we know only too well the potentially damaging consequences and devastating impact it can have on the individuals and groups within our community who are implicated.”