A Frederick County couple's YouTube videos of what they called "pranks" on their children have sparked a viral outrage in recent weeks, leading people from across the globe to notify law enforcement and media outlets and launch investigations of their own of what they saw as abuse.
Heather and Michael Martin, of Ijamsville, had filmed nearly 300 videos on their "DaddyOFive" YouTube channel, many of which showed them berating and yelling at their children, breaking their toys and instructing the kids to hit each other, with the adults often laughing as their children cried.
But while local law enforcement agencies worked to determine where the videos were filmed and whether they contain abuse or criminal activity, many members of the online community had already decided — and were hard at work seeking justice. YouTubers, bloggers and everyday spectators began collecting information on the Martins and broadcasting their findings.
The uproar is one of several local cases in recent months in which an online community has investigated and drawn exposure to perceived wrongdoing. Local law enforcement agencies report receiving more tips through interactive means in recent years.
More broadly, sites and communities like Websleuths and the Reddit channel "Reddit Bureau of Investigations," which includes over 40,000 users, are dedicated to such web-based sleuthing. Experts point to trends in behavior online and among internet communities to explain the phenomenon.
On April 28, Rose Hall, 31, the biological mother of two of the children featured in the DaddyOFive videos, was granted emergency custody of her kids — something she said wouldn't have happened without the work of the investigators within the YouTube community.
"All of the people out there, I told them they're my kids' angels. [My kids] don't know how lucky they are that people are showing that they care," Hall told The Baltimore Sun.
Last month, after one of the Martins' videos went viral, YouTubers, bloggers and everyday spectators began collecting information on the Martins, including finding and interviewing Hall. Many broadcasted their findings to social media networks and passed on information to law enforcement.
Maj. Tim Clarke of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office said the agency has received many calls and around 20 links to an archived database of the Martins' videos — most of which have been deleted or made private on the official DaddyOFive account. The videos are now being investigated by both the Frederick County agency and Baltimore County Police.
Nationally, such online sleuthing has been a presence for several years. In 2013, Reddit users dedicated threads to finding suspects responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. The investigation led to users wrongly identifying suspects; Reddit's former general manager Erik Martin issued a public apology. (Reddit did not respond to requests for comment from The Baltimore Sun.)
In March, an anonymous internet sleuth told The Sun via Twitter that he found the YouTube account of James Harris Jackson, the Hampden man facing murder, terrorism and hate crime charges in the fatal stabbing of a 66-year black man in New York. The researcher — who is also credited with uncovering the website and manifesto of Dylann Roof, the man sentenced to death for the 2015 racially motivated murder of nine parishioners at a South Carolina church — said Jackson's account was subscribed to multiple white nationalist channels and had liked racist videos.
That same month, Rachel Marie Pietro of Middle River was charged with child abuse and assault after a video that showed her striking two young children went viral on YouTube and other social media platforms. The case is ongoing.
Baltimore County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, who represents Middle River, reported the video of Pietro after seeing it on Facebook.
"I could see people were sharing the video and had comments. So I started thinking 'if this isn't old and this is happening in real time, is anybody calling the police?'" she said.
And as more crimes and interactions with police are being displayed and live-streamed online — like Baltimore County Police's standoff with and fatal shooting of Korryn Gaines last summer or the "Facebook killer" in Cleveland in April — social networks themselves are starting to investigate. Facebook announced this week that it is hiring an additional 3,000 people, on top of the existing 4,500, to review videos and posts of crime and other questionable content following killings shown live on its site.
Kent Norman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of the book "Cyberpsychology," said social media has changed the landscape of how people report and involve themselves in investigations in a fascinating way.
He couches it in relation to the "bystander apathy effect" — the phenomenon in which people do not respond to a victim in an emergency situation when others are around, assuming someone else will intervene. That tendency often doesn't kick in when in the realm of social media, he said.
"On one level, you know that there are thousands of other people who are seeing this. … But then the internet also makes you sort of feel like you're the only person. In your head, you're viewing this information, but you're only aware of yourself viewing it, even if you can see the numbers," Norman said.
Law enforcement agencies in Maryland have long encouraged tips to be shared online. Major Clarke said Frederick County has witnessed an increase in citizen reporting over the past five years.
"It's increased only because of how easy it is to make those tips through social media," Clarke said.
The Baltimore Police Department saw a 174 percent increase in tips in 2016 over 2015 after the launch of an anonymous text-to-tip line. In hopes of increasing the amount of information the department receives from the community, Baltimore Police launched a mobile app in January that allows residents to submit crime tips, receive alerts and peruse other department data and information, including Facebook and Twitter pages.
"It's kind of like, 'There's no stupid question.' There's no stupid information. If it's provided to us, we appreciate it," said Clarke, noting that the DaddyOFive investigation is ongoing and now involves Child Protective Services.
Though he says the level of interest in the DaddyOFive investigation has been unusual, it hasn't been overwhelming and has likely sped up the process.
But many, particularly in the YouTube community, have taken their efforts further than just reporting the incident to police.
The Martins' videos first got viral attention after being mentioned in a video by popular YouTube talk show host Philip DeFranco. After seeing DeFranco's video, Illinois resident Kayla White interviewed Hall for her "The Chambers of My Heart" YouTube channel.
White said it takes time before offensive or inappropriate videos are removed by YouTube staff. It's typically other users who constantly fight and flag these videos for removal, she said.
"Within YouTube, there's different small communities. ... They don't put up with this [expletive]," she said.
YouTube confirmed it removed all DaddyOFive videos that violated community guidelines and ads from the channel in April, but the video-sharing platform declined to comment on how staff police the website.
Nicholas Tomasheski, a 22-year-old freelance journalist in northern Ohio who goes by the name of Nick Monroe, did an extensive dive into DaddyOFive — interviewing Hall and Martin's alleged ex-wife Amy, sifting through Michael Martin's many tweets, poring through court documents and records supplied by Hall, analyzing the many DaddyOFive videos, tweeting at law enforcement and posting his multiple findings on WordPress.
People on social media have also flooded his Twitter feed with tips and sent him Paypal donations, Monroe said.
"I get so many tips, my phone is going off all day. I put it on vibrate, and it's vibrating constantly," he said. "It's basically gone past the story of being reported and forgotten about."
Daniel Stokols, a professor at the school of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said the nature of the internet today makes such collaborative investigations more likely to happen.
"The internet is a kind of mechanism of finding like-minded others and coordinating with them. ... So now people might react to something on DaddyOFive or some other channel, they can find other people who have similar views and they team up and get engaged with it and motivated and they make it kind of a project," he said.
For Hall, the online sleuths have been a godsend and have helped her become reunited with her children, she said.
In October 2016, Hall, a resident of Williamston, N.C., reported the videos to the Martin County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina after a family friend alerted her about the videos. The sherrif's office couldn't respond to the incident because it was outside its jurisdiction.
Hall saw no progress until the Martins' videos went viral last month.
The Martins have issued a public apology for the videos and said they were undergoing counseling.
Clarke, of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office, said his agency assisted in transferring Hall's two children into her custody. A hearing took place Friday; it was subject to a gag order, Hall said.
"I'm actually starting to have hope again. ... They're my heart," Hall said of her children. "They both have a piece of me."
Baltimore Sun reporters Jean Marbella, Kevin Rector and Jessica Anderson, and The Associated Press contributed to this article.