Policing by proxy: How social media is changing everyday practice in Northern Ireland

Social media is now a dominant model of personal communication and social interaction. Its rapid rise of social media platforms has gone hand-in-hand with the emergence of a highly-motivated audience. The ways individuals receive, perceive, react to, and disseminate information have potentially experienced the greatest sea change since the invention of printing press. And whilst this has opened up many possibilities it has introduced concepts of information legitimacy, credibility and provenance – anyone in possession of a smartphone can record, edit and publish information so quickly that it prohibits fact-checking, leading to skewed or false interpretations of information or events (both by design or through a lack of knowledge) yet gain extensive coverage to a widespread audience at an unprecedented speed.

As a law enforcement agency this shift has presented us with significant new challenges. Those wishing to advance criminal or anti-social aims have been provided with a new arena where access is free and its reach can be unlimited. It has thrust us into an operating environment where legislative and jurisdictional boundaries are blurred adding more space which can be exploited by a highly motivated and tech savvy criminal element.

Our Chief Constable’s organisational vision defines the role of the Police Service of Northern Ireland as ‘Keeping People safe’ by ‘Policing with the Community’. Our social media platforms across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube allow us to advance these core function goals by providing a direct to audience communication channel with the community we serve.

We use social media in four ways to meet these aims.

Inform

The provision of information is key to enhancing public security. Social media provides a way of delivering this information. This ranges from real-time updates concerning traffic disruption and road closures to enable the public to go about their normal activities to general information on burglary prevention strategies or fraud alerts to bolster our prevention activities. We hope that by providing this information individuals are enabled to make informed decisions about their lifestyle, movements or security with the ultimate aim of ensuring public security.

Another key stream of information is Crisis Communications. Social media platforms are increasingly being employed by individuals who may be caught up in a particular incident, whether to record the event or glean further information. An example would be the 12th July parades which present several challenges due to tension between communities in the province. Here instant communications can be issued in response to the dynamic operating environment to advise on safety and safe passage around the area for members of the public. By utilising this technology we are able to communicate instantly with those in a particular geographical area, or across our entire jurisdiction and provide information to keep people safe.

Breaking down barriers

Engage

Our strategy of Policing with Community relies upon strong relations with all sections of our population. In Northern Ireland there has been a reticence regarding face-to-face contact may stem from a stigma in certain communities about communicating openly with members of the PSNI which is grounded in historical distrust. Social media has provided a way of interacting and engaging with a huge swathe of the population. Social media platforms have provided a means to tell our story and spark debate with our followers about our role within society and how we enforce the law across all sections of the community we serve. One of the most encouraging aspects of this engagement and interaction has been the ability for us to communicate directly with sections of the community who wouldn’t normally come into contact with Police. By using social media as a communication tool we have been able to humanise the Police in an effective way which is responsive to the wants or needs of the audience.

Investigate

Social media platforms provide a wealth of open-source information which can aid, inform, and direct the path of a criminal investigation:

  • Information about a crime can be crowd-sourced very quickly via a crime or witness appeal.
  • Photographic evidence gleaned from social media can add to an investigator’s case when interviewing.
  • Using social media to appeal for the whereabouts of a missing person (particularly if they are deemed to be ‘high-risk) is the instant equivalent of conducting door-to-door enquiries and showing a photo to thousands of people asking “Have you seen this person”.

In this regard, social media acts like a multiplier adding value to our own efforts. Valuable human resources to be deployed with greater effectiveness whilst enquiries and appeals are conducted by digital means as citizens’ efforts combine with our own to gather more and better intelligence. A key benefit of this approach is the ability to fully audit investigative activity and evidence actions should there be a requirement to do so at a later stage.

Interpret

Horizon scanning – exploring what the future might look like to understand uncertainties better – using social media allows the PSNI to maintain an organisational knowledge of public opinion around contentious issues, reputational risks and individual events. The ability to use information gathered via social media to inform Police operational strategy is a significant benefit to our organisation and allows us to respond quickly and effectively to a variety of issues as they unfold, rather than retrospectively. This, again, has the aims of Keeping People Safe and increasing public confidence in our ability to deal with the issues that have an impact at the individual, community and societal level in a progressive manner.

Our social media presence grows daily allowing us to communicate with more and more people every day. This in turn provides people who may, or may not, have ever had dealings with the Police a way to look at how we police the community, praise or criticise our actions, and learn information which may actively or passively impact directly on their, and the greater public’s, security.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland was formed in 2001 following the recommendations of the Patten Review and is one of the largest employers in Northern Ireland. The PSNI’s aim is ‘Keeping People Safe by Policing with the Community’.

Constable Chris McWilliams joined the PSNI in 2008 and worked as a frontline Police Officer until 2015. He was the project content manager during the re-development of the multi award winning PSNI website and currently works for the International Programmes office. Chris is putting the finishing touches to his Masters dissertation ‘Radicalisation 2.0: Pathways to violence in a digital age’.

Author

Chris McWilliams

Police Service of Northern Ireland

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