Chris Neal

“Wisdom of the Crowd” – Would Crowdsourced Crime Solving Actually Work?

Update: CBS has cancelled the series mid-season due to weak ratings and allegations of sexual harassment involving lead actor Jeremy Piven. 


I regrettably spent the better part of a day binging CBS’s new drama series, Wisdom of the Crowd. I found it hard to watch at times, as I found the characters generally one-dimensional, and the plot, lackluster—especially in terms of technical accuracy. As for audio, it’s chock full of the stereotypical booms and rapid crescendos one hears in shows like this, which drives me up the wall. Then again, this is CBS we’re talking about.

One thing writers did well, though, was explore a concept I had never thought about—one which I found extraordinarily intriguing.

The show revolves around tech visionary Jeffrey Tanner (played by Jeremy Piven) who designs a platform called “Sophe,” created to find his daughter Mia’s murderer. Sophe, in Jeffrey Tanner’s words, is “realtime crowdsourced crime solving.” It utilizes the “wisdom of the crowd” (AKA social media) to solve crimes, and offers a hub where people can submit and dissect evidence to help solve criminal cases. The platform also utilizes A.I. and machine learning, which allows it to improve its performance and accuracy while sifting through a myriad of responses.

I kept asking myself, is it a good idea to give everyone—potentially hundreds of millions of people—a public platform to solve crimes? A place to post potentially sensitive or damaging information? How would people respond? How would one maintain control of a situation that arises from users posting new “evidence?” What if said evidence is false? Basically, what are the implications of such a platform?

SPOILERS

In episode one, the driver of a ride-sharing vehicle is targeted after Sophe users manage to piece together information from a blurry video posted to the site. Shortly after putting old information against the new footage, users identify the driver and even uploaded his personal information (driver’s license), which sparks a massive witch-hunt. A violent mob eventually corners the driver, but of course, some police officers located (conveniently) nearby escort him to safety. It is later revealed that the man was sent to the hospital for the injuries he sustained.

Later in the episode, a man identified as a convicted rapist and potential suspect is approached by police, but flees on foot. His picture is then uploaded to Sophe with the caption: “Have you seen this man? Dangerous—Do not Approach.” A Sophe user eventually walks past the man, and shares his location with all other Sophe users, who—despite being told otherwise—quickly converge on a train station, and eventually, onto the train the man boards.

In my opinion, the crowd looked like a hoard of zombies, holding their phones out to stream video of the eventual arrest. It was a bit unsettling, to say the least.

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These examples of a “mob mentality” are frightening—but crowdsourced crime solving is already happening.

For example, earlier this year, police in the U.K. asked the public to upload pictures or video they had taken on the subway before the Parsons Green bombing.

After the Boston Bombing, Reddit users tried to determine who the bombers were, but went horribly awry. Users misidentified a potential suspect, and caused  serious problems for his friends and family. Afterwards, Reddit enacted a new policy on witch-hunts.

An app called “Citizen” became available on the App Store earlier this year, which sends 911 alerts to your device whenever an incident/emergency occurs near you. It also enabled up to 25 people to simultaneously broadcast video of an incident in real-time, and chat with other “citizens.” A previous version of the app, “Vigilante,” launched in New York in October 2016, but was removed due to criticism that it literally promoted vigilante behavior. Huh.

Personally, I believe it’s an inherently dangerous idea, and a concept that needs to be thought out carefully before implementing in a real-world environment. I think there’s a lot of research that needs to be done to help ensure the safety of human life, and to protect innocent people from becoming murder victims themselves.

There are places to watch Wisdom of the Crowd online, and a quick Google search of the title followed by “watch online now” should get you started. I encourage anyone interested in the idea of crowdsourced crime solving to sit through the pilot and see whether you’d enjoy exploring the show further.

I think I’ll end with a quote from an interview by USA Today with actor Richard T. Jones, who plays the by-the-books detective (and Jeffrey Tanner side-kick) Tommy Cavanaugh: “If we allow the crowd to do it, the control is lost … That’s the confusion in the tightrope we walk. We’re excited about the possibilities [of Sophe], but concerned about the lack of control. For sure there’s a parallel between Sophe and the real-life technology available to people today. That’s why this is so interesting.”

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Categories: Analysis, TV

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