Social media is a fact of everyday modern life. For law enforcement personnel, it has created new opportunities to share resources with the public, including as 'tweeting' information about a possible suspect or releasing safety information to the public about terrorist incidents or natural disasters. At first, in the Internet age, police departments were reluctant to change. "Especially when it comes to computers and technology, because most officers want to be out chasing the bad guys and don't want to be behind the computer looking at things," but now most law enforcement agencies have come to embrace the new technology and learned to use it to their advantage (Conan 2013). On the other hand, the explosion of unregulated social media has also created the opportunity for new crimes, including bullying and identity theft. This research proposal will compare and assess the different ways that online 'sharing' has both made law enforcement agencies more engaged and responsive but also complicated their mission.
Social media as a law enforcement tool: The Boston bombings and other recent events
One of the most frightening incidents of mass violence to have gripped the nation in recent months was that of the Boston Marathon bombings. When law enforcement agencies were attempting to locate and apprehend suspects, "police and other law enforcement agencies also used tweets to correct misinformation that spread on Twitter and other media. Once suspects had been identified, their Twitter and Facebook accounts became part of the investigation, even an Amazon wish list" (Conan 2013). The existence of social media like Twitter and Facebook have made people more proactive about taking photographs, which adds to the availability of evidence even in the hectic aftermath of an event. Law enforcement can 'tweet' or 'share' photographs submitted by bystanders or taken by surveillance cameras nearly instantly, versus using television or print sources. The image of a dangerous suspect, a missing person, or any other individual who is being sought after by law enforcement can be immediately disseminated and thus recruit the public as part of its search efforts.
On a very practical level, this enables agencies to gain valuable information for its search efforts and makes it more difficult for individuals to hide; on another level it creates a positive connection between law enforcement and the public. Rather than 'the enemy' or an entity wielding power, the agency is shown as responsive and appreciative to the public's concerns. When the public is regularly informed of law enforcement agencies' efforts, it is less likely to be angry at delays in apprehending suspects. Also, with legitimate channels of information disseminating coverage on a moment-by-moment basis, there is less of a chance that rumor, innuendo, and non-legitimate channels will put forth inaccurate ideas. In Boston, "the department's tweet clarifying that there was no arrest shortly after the bombings saw more than 11,000 retweets. A polite scolding to those tweeting information from police scanners was retweeted more than 20,000 times, higher than any other tweet at that time and indication that the public accepts the fact that they too need to show some restraint" (Bar-Tur 2013). The 'retweeting' of this request shows a level of respect and confidence of the public in the Boston police department, versus previous public-police relationships.
In terms of researching crime, social media also leaves a valuable 'paper trail' with evidence for law enforcement agencies. Most rapists know their victims, for example, but in the pre-online era, it was often very difficult to draw a connection between perpetrator and victim. According to the Cincinnati Police Department: "One big thing is we've had rape cases and burglaries where people were meeting each other via Facebook and became familiar with each other just through chats on the Internet. And when they would meet up with these individuals, the victim would then be either unfortunately a victim of a rape or robbery, and we were able to backtrack it through that" (Conan 2013). Because the social media coverage is in 'real time,' the exact nature of the relationship can be more objectively determined, without the potentially clouding effects of hindsight or memory lapses.
Social media can be helpful for law enforcement for less dramatic scenarios as well. For example, even a local agency can use the Internet to communicate up-to-date information about "blizzard, floods, hurricanes, et cetera…what roads are closed, if there's accidents, what areas of town are out of power, et cetera" (Conan 2013). In the case of an ever-changing natural event such as a forest fire, social media updates can help the community determine where a high risk area is; what precautions to take, and where to relocate in the event of an emergency. This has the valuable effect of reducing panic and also reducing the chances of an unfortunate incident occurring -- members of the public are less likely to get stuck in a snowstorm if the police are tweeting to stay inside and that conditions are impassable, or to put themselves at risk if someone dangerous is at large, as was the case in Boston. This is another instance of how friendly and pertinent updates about natural disasters and community events forge a positive relationship between the law enforcement agency and the public. Instead of viewing the police as punitive or punishing figures with whom they have contact only when committing a minor traffic violation, the police are more apt to be seen as 'friends' in the literal as well as the Facebook sense.
However, social media, for all of the potential positives it offers law enforcement, has also created opportunities for new crimes and made existing crimes easier to commit. Although Facebook and Twitter may make it easier to track and trace a relationship on one hand, it can also facilitate the ability of strangers to connect with one another under misleading premises, or predators to lure underage teens with whom they might not otherwise have contact. Identity theft is also much easier. "Information obtained from public records (e.g., birth, death, and real estate) has been available online for years. By increasing exposure of personal information, social media has raised the threat level. This new entity has a unique nature that makes it powerful and unpredictable. Several characteristics combine to make it especially threatening to law enforcement" (Waters 2012). The nature of social media encourages 'sharing' and interactions depend upon displaying personal information. Seemingly innocent data such as 'checking in' a particular location can be a tipoff for a criminal contemplating a burglary of an unattended house or a stalker seeking to find a victim. Mobile phone numbers can be available through Facebook and can be used to elicit data. It is very easy to conceal information about one's true identity and create a false public profile to obtain data. The instantaneous nature of social media also makes it very easy to put forth information and very difficult to delete it, even more so than email. Information that is unthinkingly 'shared' can come back to haunt the poster very easily. The police have a role in educating the public about protecting itself against identity theft and other new and old crimes made easier by the Internet.
The online environment also facilitates bullying, both amongst teens and even adults in collective environments such as offices. "Pooling of like minds often occurs online. This bolsters confidence and gives the impression of support for socially unacceptable conduct. Copycat behavior can make the first well-publicized transgression the impetus for many more. Social media can engender a mob mentality wherein one small stimulus spurs a wide-scale reaction that feeds on itself and grows out of control. Incidents develop faster, reach farther, and spread more rapidly than anything society has dealt with before" (Waters 2012). Because of the distance and screen of anonminity offered by the online environment, rumors and harassment can 'feel' less negative to the perpetrator, even if they have severe emotional consequences for the victim. When the harassment begins to affect the individual's ability to obtain an education or to do his or her work effectively, it becomes a legal matter.
Finally, for better or for worse, social media has also placed law enforcement personnel under greater scrutiny in terms of their actions. "This public profession, officers' duties occur in a societal arena allotting them no privacy. Social media significantly has increased officers' community exposure. Police often are surrounded by cameras and amateur reporters who broadcast every action and their opinion of it to a worldwide audience. Due to its public nature, policing is an easy topic for network discussion" (Waters 2012). There is far greater officer accountability to the public than ever before, given that officers must be mindful of the fact that they can always be 'watched' via social media and photographs, audio, and bystander data can be quickly and easily disseminated.
It is essential that law enforcement personnel remain savvy about the potential ways in…