Spread of social media scanner pages leads police to shield information
Bangor police were investigating a homicide last year when a suspect they were speaking to began receiving a flurry of calls. Details of the case had been posted to a local scanner page on social media, and people who had seen the post were calling to warn the person that he was being investigated.
“Somebody from the scanner page is calling the guy as the detectives are talking to him,” Sgt. Wade Betters, a public information officer for the Bangor Police Department, recalled.
First responders like Betters say that popular scanner pages, in the form of local Facebook groups and pages devoted to tracking scanner traffic of police encounters, crime and other local events, often publish unverified information that makes their jobs harder and, in some cases, complicate their investigations.
It’s been a pastime among some for years to listen to police radio. But the proliferation of scanner pages has allowed listeners of scanner traffic to share what they’re hearing, sometimes leading to people to show up at potential crime scenes and other times allowing rumors — such as one about a triple homicide in Bangor that never happened — to take root.
As a result, Bangor police have stopped broadcasting specific addresses of potential crime scenes and other calls they’re responding to for fear that people following scanner pages will show up and violate the privacy of potential victims or witnesses. In Lewiston and Auburn, police recently switched to encrypted radio that regular scanners can’t pick up.
A number of Maine agencies now caution the public against relying on scanner page posts and urge them to look to authorities or media outlets that have verified information about an incident of interest.
Last month, Jay Fire and Rescue advised residents to disregard information from a local Lewiston-area scanner page because it had spread misinformation on a number of occasions that made the fire department’s job on the scene more difficult or complicated investigations.
“Spreading of false information can cause police or fire agencies to have a more difficult job during a scene or investigation after,” the department said. “It can cause reputations of people and places to be ruined, with no truth to back it up. A lot of calls come in one way or sound super serious and dangerous, and then are found to be completely different or nothing upon investigation.”
Administrators of two pages that follow Bangor-area scanner traffic didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. The administrator who operates a Lewiston/Auburn-area scanner page disputed Jay and Fire Rescue’s characterization of the page as a hotbed of misinformation.
“First responders are trying to prevent the disclosure and recognition of the truth they want to conceal about the crimes and corruption in our society,” the administrator said in a Facebook message, without giving specifics. The administrator did not respond to a follow-up message.
In 2018, a Facebook scanner page falsely reported that former state Rep. Karen Gerrish of Lebanon had been found dead and guns had been removed from her home. Some Maine House GOP members shared the post before realizing it was false. Maine State Police advised residents to ignore and unfollow the page that promoted the false report.
Lt. Dave St. Pierre, Lewiston’s interim police chief, said that scanner pages in his experience “grossly exaggerated” events, triggering a disproportionate amount of panic and threatening the integrity of investigations.
“Oftentimes, I think people often post false or exaggerated information merely to get a reaction,” St. Pierre said. “As investigators, we try to obtain the most reliable witness information possible.”
In a more recent case, Bangor police executed a search warrant and removed three duffle bags full of stolen tools from a house, Betters said. A local scanner page said that the three bags were actually body bags, sparking rumors that there had been a triple homicide in Bangor.
In other cases, scanner pages have published the names of crime victims or posted information about fatalities that reached the next-of-kin before police could notify them in person, Betters said.
“Sometimes they’re quick to release information that we can’t confirm,” Betters said. “But unfortunately, some people do learn of tragic incidents, or of people being a victim, on a scanner page before they’ll learn it from an authority that has actual facts.”
Some people will take it upon themselves to appear at supposed crime scenes, Betters said.
The public has a right to film police encounters, he said, but people who call the police for help aren’t “necessarily looking to have people that are shooting video to post on social media show up to these calls.”
The problem isn’t limited to Maine.
Last fall, as firefighters fought blazes in the Pacific Northwest, sheriffs’ offices in Oregon and Washington and the Portland, Oregon, FBI office put out several messages debunking viral Facebook posts claiming that the wildfires had been intentionally set by far-left antifascist activists. Those claims prompted armed vigilantes to set up illegal roadblocks and chase away those they suspected of being outsiders.
Brian Friedberg, a Harvard Shorenstein Center researcher who tracks misinformation on social media, said that institutions that rely on veracity — such as local press and law enforcement — operate more slowly than the rapidfire nature of social media. That rapidfire nature allows misinformation to flourish when there’s a temporary void of information before officials can speak with authority about the facts of a case.
The nature of Facebook groups encourages people to interact with one another in real time, allowing unfounded speculation to take root.
“Facebook groups create bias-confirming environments,” Friedberg said. The possibility of manipulation, tied to the absence of platform-wide moderation policies, then becomes greater, even if the scanner page administrators aren’t trying to actively spread false information, he said.
Scanner pages have sometimes published information that has proven useful for people who have little information and have good reason to suspect their loved ones are in danger.
Late last month, after she hadn’t heard from fiance Peter Oliver, Jessica Goodwin saw a Penobscot County scanner page’s post on Facebook mentioning that there was a crash in an area near where Goodwin knew Oliver had last been.
Goodwin followed up on that information with the Maine State Police, who sent personnel to inform her that Oliver had indeed passed away after crashing his car on Hudson Road in Glenburn.
Some agencies have begun encrypting their radio communications to stem the proliferation of false reporting. It’s too early to tell if the encryption system the Lewiston and Auburn police departments recently adopted has made a difference, St. Pierre said.
While Bangor police haven’t encrypted their radio calls due to technological constraints, Betters said, the department has stopped listing addresses over the radio system for fear that people will show up to potential crime scenes and compromise discretion.
This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.