Over the last decade there has been a global trend among police organizations toward proactively engaging and communicating with the media and public. This trend has only intensified with the development of new media technologies and social networking platforms, which police are increasingly embracing as part of their attempt to foster stronger police-public relations. In this way, new media technologies and social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have emerged to become not only useful tools for police in the investigation of criminal activities, but also have become important in the facilitation of more direct lines of communication between police and citizens. These developments are not surprising given the increasing professionalization of police media activities in recent decades, at the same time as the public has witnessed the threat of extinction to traditional media and journalism formats.
The Growth of Social Media Use by Police Organizations
When it comes to social media, police have come to recognize the benefits that sites such as Facebook and Twitter provide in promoting direct and unmediated communications between police and the public. While large-scale communications between the police and the public have traditionally been conducted via the mass media, social networking platforms enable police to avoid the sometimes uncertain process of negotiating information dissemination with journalists and media outlets. Furthermore, social media has also enabled police to foster relations with individuals and groups with whom their traditional mass media activities may not have reached, especially young people. By supplementing their more traditional mass media activities with social media strategies, police have been able to foster stronger police-citizen communications networks, with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter now firmly embedded in the public relations activities of many police organizations. Police use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to achieve the following, among other things:
- Seek information and assistance from the public to help solve crime
- Display footage, images, and information that may help solve crime
- Keep the public informed about police activities and crime events
- Warn the public of dangers
- Reduce the fear of crime
With police organizations under growing pressure to increase public confidence in police and reduce the fear of crime, sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among others, have changed the police face of these challenges. Research from Australia and Europe has demonstrated the capacity for social media platforms to assist in the communication of key media messages, with many police organizations developing clear policy guidelines for the use of social media by the organization and its individuals.
A good example of this is the New South Wales Police Force in Australia, which has developed three policy documents that relate to social media engagement by the force: the Media Policy (2013), the Official Use of Social Media Policy and Guidelines (2011), and the Personal Use of Social Media Policy and Guidelines (2011). Each of the three policies provide guidelines on how media engagement, including that of social media, can be used to help the force achieve its goals, as well as outlining the responsibilities and expectations of individuals with regard to media and social media activities. Such policies have becoming increasingly important for all criminal justice organizations engaging with social media. The potential for social media misuse—either by individual criminal justice officials or members of the public—at best has the potential to embarrass police, and at worst may lead to the disintegration of courtroom proceedings and a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
While considerations of the various legal and ethical implications of social media engagement are still being played out in many police legal departments, recent examples of misconduct or poor judgment have shown that police still have much to learn about some of the ethical considerations of social media. For example, in the United Kingdom and United States, a number of officers have already been terminated or have faced disciplinary
action for tweeting inappropriate content or broadcasting outspoken views on politically or operationally sensitive matters. What these examples demonstrate is that, despite the lead of many organizations, there is still much more to be done in terms of developing clear guidelines and training around social media use. Using social media to engage with the public also raises a number of other areas of concern, including:
- The reporting of crime via social media: Many organizations have noticed a spike in the reporting of crime via social media, rather than via emergency or other contact services.
- Fake and unofficial accounts: Fake police accounts proliferate online, misleading the public, spreading misinformation, and harming the reputation of police organizations.
- Lack of dialogue: When police fail to respond to contact from citizens or do not communicate clear indications about the likelihood of individual responses, the public can often feel disillusioned, reversing the potentially positive impact of social media on police departments’ images.
Benefits of Social Media Engagement for Police and Citizens
Despite the concerns that have been raised about unmediated police–citizen interactions via social media, the benefits of social media have been felt across a range of jurisdictions worldwide, helping police to achieve positive outcomes. There are a number of historic examples that have demonstrated the constructive ways in which social media can enhance police-community relations.
In the aftermath of a series of riots in England in August 2011, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr were used by the Greater Manchester Police to allay community concerns and fears, seek witnesses to riot-related offenses, publish photographs and descriptions of alleged rioters, and “name and shame” those convicted of riot-related offenses. Social media was also the tool of choice during a series of natural disasters in Australia in late 2010 and early 2011. When the state of Queensland was battered by Tropical Cyclones Yasi and Tasha, the Queensland Police Service took to its newly established Facebook and Twitter accounts to inform the public about weather patterns and impending threats, offer safety measures and tips, report public transport closures, detail emergency services responses and, most important, disseminate myth-busting information aimed at quashing rumors that threatened to cause unwarranted panic and confusion. Both police organizations were praised for their use of social media during these events.
On a day-to-day level, too, social media is being heralded as the new way forward in community policing initiatives. In late 2011 the New South Wales Police Force launched Project Eyewatch, the 21st-century response to the Neighborhood Watch program. Key to the Project Eyewatch campaign has been the use of Facebook through which police at a local level can interact with and inform the public about local crime issues. Eyewatch allows citizens to actively participate in crime prevention activities online from their own homes, share their concerns with police, and be part of the solution to crime in their local areas.
With police being arguably the most visible or public face of the criminal justice system, and potentially having the biggest stake in obtaining and maintaining public confidence in their activities, it is perhaps not surprising that they are embracing these communication tools. New technologies have extended the capacity of police to communicate with greater efficiency and effectiveness. Furthermore, these technologies can be used to enhance the professional status and institutional legitimacy of police organizations, as well as their claims of transparency and public.
- Denef, Sebastian, et al. Best Practice in Police Social Media Adaptation. Berlin: European Commission,
- Lee, Murray and Alyce McGovern. “Force Selling: Policing and the Manufacture of Public Confidence?” Policing and Society: An International Journal of Research and Policy, v.23/2 (2013).
- McGovern, Alyce and Murray Lee. “Police Communications in the Social Media Age.” In The Courts and the Media in the Digital Era, Patrick Keyzer, et al., eds. Ultimo, Australia: Halstead Press, 2012.
- New South Wales Police Force. “Media Policy.” Sydney: New South Wales Government, 2013. “Official Use of Social Media Policy and Guidelines.” Sydney: New South Wales Government, 2011.
- New South Wales Police Force. “Personal Use of Social Media Policy and Guidelines.” Sydney: New South Wales Government, 2011.
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