“I was very interested to understand the potential of social media in terms of reassurance, gaining trust and improving relationships between communities and the Police. It’s really difficult to talk about these kinds of topics and it changed our point of view.” Workshop participant
Social media is often seen as an immediate, direct and seemingly trustworthy means of exchanging information. It is these characteristics which make social media an ideal match for monitoring and collectively responding to quickly and unexpectedly evolving large events such as protests and riots. While mass gatherings are themselves not a new phenomenon, the use of social media in this context can act as a catalyst facilitating both citizens to organize themselves more swiftly and effectively and law enforcement agencies to monitor the crowd and communicate directly and efficiently with citizens through the distribution of timely information.
In our recent workshop in Athens we explored a range of issues affecting social media and policing of riots & mass gatherings. Participants from law enforcement agencies, local government, social movements, researchers and industry sectors from all over Europe, were engaged in an interactive dialogue and shared their views, experiences and best practices on the use of social media. By examining participants’ conceptions of the ideal future, we looked at the current restrictions and limitations of social media use in these situations together with the necessary changes required to construct the roadmap to its better implementation. Throughout the discussions a holistic picture emerged which looked at the considerations from the perspective of various stakeholders (e.g. protesters, organisers, police officers, event organisers).
In addition, following a more holistic approach for the roadmap, we looked into the legal and ethical implications as well as the procedural, technological and organizational aspects of such transitions.
The workshop considered the issues through three types of mass gathering event:
- Protests/Demonstrations: The potential uses of social media in the context of public demonstrations, protests, marches, rallies and crowd protection before, during and after the incidents including potential emergency situations that may develop.
- Large scale events: The use of social media in the context of cultural, sporting, religious, entertaining and other events in order to identify ways in which they can be used to ensure the safety of the participants and to help event organisers and public authorities prevent, respond and mitigate potential security threats.
- Migration: The use of social media in the context of preparation, organization and movement of migrants before, during and after their journey as well as how they respond collectively to the various situations that they come across.
Much of the discussion during the workshop focussed on the need to balance security and privacy. It was also clear that social media offers itself as an effective and appropriate solution for Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) to reach out to citizens and change the way they police such events. In doing so, LEAs and citizens can work together to maintain peace and security whilst simultaneously upholding constitutional rights.
Social media was found to be very useful on number of key areas in the management of mass gathering events, such as: rumour handling, establishing trust between participants and LEAs, improving transparency for LEA decisions and actions, proper framing of the narrative for occurring incidents and reaching out to non-local population.
A key requirement in such events is for a reliable and credible point of contact via social media that participants can trust. Official accounts which are well managed are needed for government, event organisers and LEAs. Moreover, dissemination of these official accounts is also a vital issue to promote recognition and awareness. To establish trust these accounts need to contain relevant, up-to-date and accurate information and guidance and act as a reliable information hub in order to minimise fake news and rumours spreading. For event participants, this provides a reliable source of information which can assist their safe participation in events. For the wider community, this source of information can assist in handling public expectations and provide guidance and reassurance.
In implementing social media, LEAs need to provide appropriate training for staff in communication skills and expertise in the use, management and analysis of social media. LEAs may also need to upgrade current technological equipment and seek out improved social media management and analysis software solutions.
It is not only LEAs who need to address their social media use in these circumstances. Event organisers can use social media to directly collaborate with LEAs to ensure security and that order is upheld, directly report any security or safety incidents, seek advice and guidance on designing the event with a minimum level of security in mind to protect participants.
The recommendations we developed based on the workshop focus groups take the experience and best practice of participants and experts to make this practice actionable for all involved stakeholders.
Our workshop on Riots & Mass gatherings contributed to the overarching conversation about the digital revolution in public security. Discussions such as these help illuminate different facets of the use of social media and allow involved stakeholders openly and freely to voice their concerns, highlight the opportunities that are being presented and teach others based on their personal experiences and backgrounds.