Snitches get ... glitches? Facebook post exposed 900 Missouri lockdown tipsters

Just how many people will drop a dime on their neighbors for violating shelter-in-place orders and social-distancing protocols? The number could be higher than you’d think — or maybe not anymore, not after what happened to tipsters in St. Louis County, Missouri. Last week, KSDK reported that an internal document got posted to Facebook exposing the names and contact data of over 900 people who had called to complain about violations. The publication of this data has tipsters outraged — but perhaps not as outraged as their initial targets:

A spree of social media posts this week warn that St. Louis County released the information it got from people who reported businesses in violation of the stay-at-home order.

The document, released in response to a Sunshine Law request, included names and contact information of the people making the reports. In their messages, some asked for anonymity. …

The Facebook post headline said, “Here ya go. The gallery of snitches, busybodies, and employees who rat out their own neighbors and employers over the Panic-demic.”

What most of them did not realize was that the forms they used were subject to public-records demands, even though the form itself provided a disclaimer on this point. The person who initially posted the information on Facebook pointed to the disclaimer to argue that he had no responsibility for any consequences that follow from the release of the information. However, he did also say that he intended the release to disincentivize snitching in the future, too:

A person whose Facebook profile name is Jared Totsch told the I-Team that he posted the documents knowing that there might be consequences for the people named within.

“If they are worried about retaliation, they should have read the fine print which stated their tips would be open public record subject to a Sunshine request, and should not have submitted tips in that manner to begin with,” wrote Totsch. “I released the info in an attempt to discourage such behavior in the future.”

This episode flew mainly under the radar until last night, when several British tabloids seized on the KSDK report. The Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Independent have all run the story anew, complete with their global social-media reach. The renewed and expanded attention highlights anew all sorts of questions, some of them less amusing than others, about liberty in the time of COVID-19 and the limits of transparency at any time.

First off, when do tipsters’ personal information become public data? The county attorney insisted that the police could not redact that information, but that is almost assuredly wrong. Anonymous tips and complaint processes have long been established for both civil and criminal enforcement, especially for workplace safety violations. That provides employees a safe method of allowing enforcement of such regulations without fear of retaliation. Beyond that, do police routinely release personal info for people who call in tips on drug deals? Gang violence? Organized-crime activity? This release will dry up a lot of information for St. Louis County, Missouri, not just about COVID-19. As satisfying as it might be to those who oppose shelter-in-place requirements, this is a really dumb decision.

Second, the 900+ tips in such a short period of time should raise a few eyebrows and return us to our first question: just how many of our neighbors would call police to complain about us? Fewer than those who would refuse, but it’s a much closer call than you might imagine:

What do you do if your neighbor has 15-20 people over and it’s in violation of stay-at-home orders? A survey found that 36% of voters would report their neighbors to the police. Forty-three percent (43%) would not. …

There is a huge partisan difference. By a 44% to 31% margin, a plurality of Democrats would turn their neighbors in. By a 60% to 25% margin, Republicans would not. Independents are evenly divided.

A few other points are worth noting from the crosstabs. The younger the respondent, the more likely they would be to snitch, with pluralities favoring reporting under 35 years of age. Trump voters are much more opposed than most other demos as 24/61, while a near-majority of Biden voters are pro-snitching (47/30). Independents are nearly evenly split but lean against reporting (33/39). No demo has a majority in favor of reporting, but a few demos have majorities opposing it: Trump voters as just noted, rural voters (53/38), men (32/51), Republicans (25/60), very conservative (24/63) and somewhat conservative voters (33/52).There is also a larger-than-usual contingent of unsure respondents, overall 21%, which suggests that this might change over time, too.

This raises another question, too. Just how many of us see ourselves as ‘whistleblowers,’ while others see us as busybodies and collaborators in an encroaching police state? The longer that these emergency measures remain in place, the more those two points of view will come into conflict, with potentially dangerous results. This is one very important reason that “flatten the curve” measures need to be time-limited to just getting necessary health-care resources in place. The suspension of normal liberties and the heightened fear make for a bad long-term combination, or the recipe for a police state with which a third or more of our neighbors feel inclined to collaborate.

Update: Our friend and former colleague Noah Rothman warned six years ago about being on the path of becoming a “snitch nation”:

There is value in collective self-policing, a feature of health societies that will never and should never disappear entirely. And public shaming has a rich, if lamentable, Western tradition dating back to the stockades. But the rise of an informant culture in America is distinct from self-policing, and many appear to participate in the encouraged practice of informing on others more in service to a base desire to indulge in a little schadenfreude than anything else.

Whether these developments suggest that America is going down a dark path is perfectly debatable… for now. Fearless public discussion and debate is precisely what is at stake. This century has been characterized by regular demands that we all watchful eye on our neighbors. Maybe, though, it would be better for the pendulum to swing back a bit to an era when minding your own business was an admirable trait.