Earlier this week, the world gained one more shred of evidence that Twitter can, in fact, be used for good when one Philadelphia-area user saw something wrong -- a group of assailants who had evaded justice after attacking two gay men in his city -- and set about righting it.
On Thursday (September 18), I spoke with @FanSince09, who wishes to remain anonymous, over the phone about internet vigilantism, police outreach over social media and hate crime legislation. Oh yeah, and the Phillies -- but more on that in a bit.
Just in case you're unfamiliar with the case, and the resulting media frenzy, here are the major details directly from Lieutenant John Stanford, Commanding Officer of Public Affairs & Social Media and Public Information Officer for the Philadelphia Police Department. On September 11 at approximately 10:45 p.m., two men -- a gay couple -- were walking down the street when an interaction occurred with a larger group of approximately eight to ten men and women. A verbal exchange took place between the couple and the group, which then escalated to a physical altercation.
The official PhillyPolice Blog noted the verbal exchange allegedly included "disparaging remarks" made by the group about the couple's perceived sexual orientations, a fact that, if true, would imply a homophobic motive for the attack. The blog also reported that during the attack one of the victims dropped his bag -- containing his cell phone, wallet and credit cards -- which the assailants picked up before fleeing the scene.
The couple was transported to Hahnemann University Hospital, where the two men were treated. One of them had sustained severe injuries to the face and jaw, which resulted in doctors wiring his jaw shut along with additional surgery on his face. The other was treated for minor lacerations that resulted from the incident.
On Tuesday (September 16), the official @PhillyPolice handle tweeted surveillance video of the suspects, and that's where @FanSince09 comes in.
Locally known for his sports commentary -- Slate dubbed him one of their favorite "Philly sports jerks" in 2012 -- @FanSince09 knew he had a sizeable, well-connected Twitter following that he could leverage to assist in the investigation. (At press time, his followers clock in at 10.9K, but that is most likely somewhat inflated after the attention he's received over the past couple of days.)
After signal-boosting the PD's link to the surveillance video with a tweet, he continually urged those reading to help find and identify the suspects. He even got Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Evan Mathis to send out a tweet of his own.
This crowd-sourcing of information and clever usage of readily available social media tools -- such as employing Facebook's graph search to see who had checked into which location and when -- some positive identifications were made, which @FanSince09 passed along to Detective Joseph Murray, who thanked the public for its resourcefulness. "This is how Twitter is supposed to work for cops," he tweeted.
Detective Murray is, no doubt, referencing the risk of vigilantism -- that is, the public taking justice into its own hands -- that in the past has resulted, for example, in Reddit users misidentifying a missing 22-year-old Brown student as the Boston Marathon bomber. This false ID was picked up and repeated so frequently on social media that it eventually trended on Twitter before the lead was confirmed to be false.
"I give a lot of credit to PPD in terms of their social outreach," @FanSince09 told me. "Everyone feels comfortable enough to let them handle it, and they kept everybody really knowing that, 'Hey, we're working together with you guys on this. We're not ignoring the tips.' When it's that kind of attitude, people don't get angry and feel like, 'Oh, we have to solve this ourselves.' "
As long as the "Twitter Justice League," as he jokingly refers to it, acts responsibly in concert with law enforcement officials, "there's not any collateral damage."
This kind of relationship is one that the Philadelphia Police Department wants not only to maintain, but to strengthen. "We find [social media] a very useful tool for meeting people," Lieutenant Stanford of the PPD shared with me, "in terms of meeting the public, getting to know our citizens, our citizens getting to know us."
Along with the official PPD handle, Lieutenant Stanford told me there are as many as 60 officers, like Detective Murray, who are trained to utilize social media for such purposes -- and he's one of them. "Social media is the way of the world," he concluded. "The impact is immediate."
If only other institutions could move so quickly.
Despite the fact that the September 11 attack on those two gay men was initially reported as a "hate crime" by The Washington Post, The New York Daily News, Gawker, The Wire, HuffPost Gay Voices and a number of other media outlets, there is literally zero chance that the suspects will ever be charged with a hate crime.
"Pennsylvania doesn't have a state hate crimes statute that includes sexual orientation as a protected class," Sara Mullen, the Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told me. That means the assailants can only be brought to justice for the physical damage they caused during this isolated incident, which Lieutenant Stanford speculated would result in an assault charge.
Meanwhile, the fear and intimidation their act of violence has caused throughout the greater LGBT community will never be recognized in a Pennsylvania court of law.
And once again, @FanSince09 won't let this wrong go un-righted. "This [attack] is absolutely a hate crime," he firmly told me. "Hopefully, this [media coverage] can bring some attention to how draconian the hate crime laws are in Pennsylvania -- and we can do something about that."
Thankfully, somebody is. Equality Pennsylvania's Executive Director, Ted Martin, informed me that conversations in the state's legislature started "immediately when this event happened." The General Assembly's 58-member Pennsylvania LGBT Equality Caucus has been holding meetings to figure out how best to move forward with hate crime legislation.
Additionally, Martin has been talking with Democratic State Representative Brendan F. Boyle, the chief sponsor of House Bill 177. That piece of legislation would provide legal protection for victims of "ethnic intimidation," or an act perpetrated with malicious intent towards an individual or group's "actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity."
The bill is currently in the House Judiciary, but Martin is hoping the recent attention following the September 11 attack will put pressure on the committee to take action.
As for @FanSince09, the anonymous Twitter hero in all this, he just wants people to know that "really anybody can" do what he did. "If you don't like something, you know you can really enforce a lot of change through social media just by everybody getting together and using their talents. It's basically like the new age of community organizing -- if we do it in a responsible way."
For the record, he also successfully predicted the 3-7 outcome of last night's Phillies-Padres game in San Diego -- sort of. Does "hopefully somebody scores a run" count?