Social media should not be taken for granted. Police forces all across the globe got the message, loud and clear.
“Captured. The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody”. This was the first concrete piece of information during the 2013 Boston bombings. And it did not come from CNN, BBC, ABC or any other mainstream news organization. While traditional media were too busy with speculation, definite confirmation that the crisis is over came from the Boston Police Department’s Twitter account. After this, it became clear to everyone – social media should not be taken for granted. Police forces all across the globe got the message, loud and clear.
According to a 2015 survey, conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 96.4% of agencies use social media in some capacity. The survey that includes a total of 553 law enforcement agencies from the United States shows that social networks are the most commonly used for criminal investigations (88.7%). The numbers confirm that Facebook (94.2%) is the social platform of choice for the majority of law enforcement agencies who took part in the survey, followed by Twitter (71.2%), and YouTube (40.0%). And even the agencies which are not currently using social networks are having a change of mind, since 73.9% of them respond that they are considering its adoption. It is very easy to understand why that is, considering that 85.5% of agencies say that social networks has helped them solve crimes, and 83.5% of them state that digital platforms has improved police-community relations in their jurisdiction. Across the pond, numbers are even higher.
The 2012 survey conducted by Accenture, a global management consulting company, showed that all police forces in England and Wales use either Twitter or Facebook accounts, while more than 2,050 police officers have individual Twitter accounts.
Inform, engage and investigate
In the Briefing published in 2014, Police Foundation recommended law enforcement agencies to exploit possibilities offered by social media as very useful tools for providing information, engaging with the public and collecting intelligence. Truth be told, police always had a way of disseminating its message to the general public. Given the nature of information that is coming from a police force, media were always, to an extent, eager to report about it.
In the new millennium, the social media gave law enforcement agencies new, much more direct, channel of communication. Wide range of information can be shared via digital networks. For example, Gloucester Township Police Department used photo-based social platform “Pinterest” to create a lost and found database that allows its residents to easily locate their property. Usefulness of social media as an information providing tool increases exponentially when critical incidents occur, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks and demonstrations.
In 2011 Facebook and Twitter became the primary means of communication on which police relied during the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot, New Zealand earthquake and the flooding in Queensland, Australia, to mention a few.
When it comes to engaging the public, social media proved to be a real game changer. Never before have police forces had at their disposal a media so powerful that it could reach thousands of people yet so personal that it could speak with each of them. As the coercive hand of the state, it is vital for the police to be perceived also as a protective force. People need to view a policeman as one of their one, and social media, used properly, can help create that image. Carefully structured digital campaign can accentuate the human face of police and, by doing that, increase the level of trust and legitimacy the police enjoy within the community. A good example of this is Greater Manchester Police’s “Twitter day” held in 2010. During “Twitter day” every incident that GMP control room notified was posted on Twitter witch gave public a glance into everyday life of their police officers. The action turned out to be a very successful one, given that number of their Twitter followers during the same day rose from 3,000 to 17,000.
However, not all social media campaigns guarantee success. In a digital world nobody has complete control over what is being said. The openness of online networks can be a double-edged sword, which is something New York Police Department found out the hard way. In 2014 NYPD asked their Twitter followers to post photos of themselves with the New York’s Finest and hashtag it #myNYPD. It was not long before NYPD regretted ever starting this publicity campaign. Instead of pictures of smiling cops posing with citizens, hashtag #myNYPD was overwhelmed with images of police brutality. Public simply refused to play along and hijacked the hashtag.
Another useful way of utilizing social media is for information gathering. There is a great number of examples where police used social media to appeal to potential witnesses to come forward. Youtube proved to be a very good platform for posting CCTV footage of a bank robbery. Picture of a missing person can be shown to thousands with the use of Pinterest, Instagram or any other photo based SM platform out there. In addition, relative anonymity of social media users can encourage people to give information to the police. Also, using social networks is a two way street. Police officers can use their own profiles to collect intelligence and monitor suspicious individuals. Facebook and Twitter can help policeman to gain an insight into their communities and thus aid them in their investigations.
Kill a rumor with a click of a button
A recent study done at University of Washington has shown that tweets from “official accounts” such as police departments can slow the spread of rumors and misinformation, and prevent what is known as ‘twitcident’.
This newly forged term is used to describe a situation when avalanche of internet comments threat to overshadow the event that sparked reactions in the first place. Luckily, researches from UW found that there is a cure in a form of accurate tweet from a reliable source. The study looked at two incidents – alleged police raids in a Muslim neighborhood during a hostage situation in a Sydney cafe and the rumored hijacking of a WestJet flight to Mexico.
The first rumor spread in 2014 during the siege in which a gunman took 18 hostages at a café in Australia. It started when a local radio talk show host reported that police were raiding homes in a largely Muslim neighborhood. The truth was that police officers were there on a previously scheduled tour of a local mosque. This rumor lit up Twitter and within a few hours there were 1,279 tweets related to it. But, once Australian Federal Police issued a single tweet in which they denied the alleged claims – the rumor disappeared.
The second rumor spread following the same scenario. It occurred during 2015 WestJet flight from Vancouver to Mexico. More than 27,000 related tweets surfaced after flight-tracking websites picked up what they believed was a “hijacked” code coming from the plane. It turned out to be an instrument error on the ground. WestJet’s tweet denying the incident corresponded with a rapid drop in online chatter.
Two ways to go about using Twitter
There are many ways law enforcement agencies can use social media. In a paper published in 2013 three researches looked at the strategies used by British police forces during 2011 riots and identified two distinctive approaches – instrumental and expressive.
London Metropolitan Police (MET) decided to use instrumental approach to engage with the public during the riots. The style of communication they used was official and depersonalized with a visible gap between them and public. MET used Twitter mainly to either seek or provide information.
Greater Manchester Police (GMP) went in a completely different direction and used expressive crisis communication strategy. Their style put emphasis on a highly personalized, informal way of communication that included direct interactions with individual followers. GMP tweeted messages of support and reassurance. They even went on to take part in discussions that were not directly riot related.
Both strategies have their strengths and weaknesses. Instrumental approach gives effective support of primary policing functions and prevents public from interfering with its actions. However, it does not really connect you with the people. On the other hand, expressive strategy creates much closer relation to the public. This approach will almost certainly increase the number of followers for anyone who takes it. And even though its informal way of communication poses a threat of sometimes overstepping boundaries, it also increases level of tolerance for any possible mistakes. This strategy is the reason why, among other things, Greater Manchester Police’s Twitter account currently has more than 300,000 followers.
In general, police presence on social media does not really have a major downside. It allows law enforcement agencies to develop a deeper connection with the community. Putting a human face to police force will only make their job much easier. Twitter or Facebook can be a great way to either spread or obtain information very quickly, to answer peoples questions and make them understand the role police plays in a society. Using social media police can increase transparency of their work, and by doing that strengthen its legitimacy. Social media are out there, and ignoring that fact is foolish, irresponsible and counterproductive. Law enforcement agencies cannot really afford to be those things.