Online crowd sleuthing – the practice some supporters of President Trump are using to help identify the anonymous whistleblower who triggered an impeachment inquiry -- is a double-edged sword, says Virginia Tech computer scientist Kurt Luther.

“The growing phenomenon of crowd sleuthing is an unorganized group of amateurs who connect on the Internet to conduct an investigation,” says Virginia Tech computer scientist Kurt Luther. “They could contribute local knowledge or a different perspective, or they might devolve into vigilantism or conspiracy theories.”

Quoting Luther

Luther noted that the majority of participants are often amateur "sleuths" rather than professional investigators.

“Examples of crowd sleuthing investigations could range from researching a breaking news event to trying to solve a cold case. Some of these investigations have been remarkably successful, such as Europol's Trace-an-Object campaign to locate missing children by crowdsourcing the analysis of evidence photos.”

“Other crowd sleuthing efforts, like the attempts to identify perpetrators of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 or participants in the Unite the Right rally in 2017, have ended badly, with the crowd falsely accusing innocent people of involvement in these events.”

Luther says that the same online communities that spearheaded the failed search for the Boston Bombing suspects, are now seeking to identify the anonymous whistleblower whose allegations against the President catalyzed the current impeachment inquiry.

“As with the Boston Bombing, this crowd sleuthing effort is making public, serious accusations about many individuals who likely have nothing to do with these events. Unlike the Boston Bombing, where the FBI solicited the public's help in identifying the suspected terrorists, this crowd's goal of unmasking a protected whistleblower may conflict with the goals of law enforcement.”

About Luther

Kurt Luther is an assistant professor of computer science at Virginia Tech based in the D.C. metro region, where he directs the Crowd Intelligence Lab. He is also a fellow of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction, the Hume Center for National Security and Technology, and the Information, Trust, and Society Initiative. His research explores how crowdsourcing systems can support investigations and solve mysteries. More here.


To secure an interview with Luther, contact Shannon Andrea in the media relations office at [email protected] or 703-399-9494.