Blue Line

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Social media a double edged sword


July 2, 2013
By Olivia Schneider

850 words – MR

Social media a double edged sword

by Olivia Schneider

The police view of social media is not always positive, and with reason. The Rehtaeh Parsons case is a good example of the challenges social media can present to police agencies investigating a potential crime.

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Parsons, a Nova Scotia teen, committed suicide in April, the result, her family and friends allege, of ongoing cyber-bullying by other teens, for which charges have not been laid. Surrounding these events was a social media frenzy calling for more action by federal and provincial police departments.

A major drawback in investigating online harassment is that the Internet moves quickly, while laws change more slowly. Halifax Regional Police (HRP) officer Cst. Pierre Bourdages says there simply aren’t enough resources for a greater focus on social media.

On the other hand, there is another side to the relationship between social media and police. Incorporating it into a police agency’s relationship with the community can work very well. The HRP Twitter account has more than 12,000 followers – more than the Halifax municipal government account, Halifax Metro Transit – or even Garrison, the popular local brewery.

HRP joined both Twitter and Facebook in the fall of 2009. Lauren Leal, the official HRP communication advisor, is one of four people who tweets from the account daily – to date, HRP has tweeted more than 3,500 times. Leal says the push towards social media is primarily to connect with citizens, provide timely information on crimes and help point people with questions in the right direction. “There’s an expectation for us (police) to be part of the discussion,” says Leal, “and with social media it can be a two-way discussion.”

Many Twitter queries are about traffic questions so the HRP Traffic Cop account was created and has more than 650 followers. The tweets from this account warn drivers about delays caused by traffic accidents or answer questions regarding unmarked crosswalks or helmet laws.

Police forces don’t just use social media to give their community information. Increasingly they are turning to the public through social media to help gather information and solve crimes. In April this year, five Canadian police forces – Calgary, Hamilton, Peel, York and Ottawa – took to social media hoping to identify The Vaulter, a bank robber suspected of over 17 robberies across Canada. York Regional Police believe the public may be able to identify The Vaulter, based on pictures and videos circulated through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest.

The HRP recently used Twitter and Facebook to search for witnesses to a fatal car crash. Social media was also used by authorities searching for the Boston Bombing suspects in May and suggestions from citizens poured in.

Ross Bell is a criminologist and professor in the Justice Studies department at St. Lawrence College in Eastern Ontario. When thinking about social media he applies the theory of six degrees of separation. “Looking at the Vancouver Riot, for example, chances are somebody knows somebody,” Bell says. “That’s when it is a very, very powerful tool.”

The downside is that the amount of information received is massive. “You get tips that err in judgement, are false, vindictive and then tips that are true,” he says. “Basic police legwork still needs to be done.”

Of course, the idea of tip hotlines is not new. Police have long turned to the public for help finding witnesses, suspects and additional details on cases under investigation – but in an age where an increasing segment of the population reaches for social media first, many people communicate solely through it.

According to a report from the Media Technology Monitor, seven in ten Anglophone Canadians who use the Internet also use social media and 63 per cent of those users are logging on at least once a day. By using social media the dissemination of information quickly targets a large number of people. Relating back to Bell’s application of the six degrees theory, imagine how many citizens can be reached with the click of a mouse as social media users share and re-tweet posts?

The system isn’t perfect. “One of the biggest challenges is how people report specific crimes,” Leal says, adding “we urge people to use the formal methods.” Leal says in some cases she is able to offer guidance, but in many cases the information is simply passed on. Bourdages, who also tweets on the HRP account, says using social media to report tips or seek help is not timely or safe because the accounts are not manned 24/7, unlike tip lines, which are monitored constantly as part of the police department’s switchboard.

As police continue to wrestle with social media – both its challenges from a policing perspective and its benefits from a communications point of view – it’s clearly not going away. Bell sees definite potential in areas such as increasing recruitment. It can address false perceptions of policing – like shift work or lack of benefits – to show potential candidates some more positive aspects.

She cautions that the HRP will do its best to keep social media use at a manageable level before it makes any plans to expand.