The lay of the land – rising to the challenges of social media

What is the state of the art use of social media in the domain of public security and policing? What influence and impacts have been reported? What are the opportunities and challenges? To link the MEDI@4SEC project activities and outcomes to the existing body of knowledge we have completed a review of the current literature. Here we provide a summary of our main findings and outline some of the key questions that will be further discussed during the project, further underlying the importance of MEDI@4SEC’s role in an ever changing public security environment.

The recent massive increase in social media use has drastically transformed people’s communication and information habits. It has provided law enforcement authorities with new sources for intelligence sources and increased platforms through which to communicate with the public. But one of the main challenges for law enforcement agencies is the adoption of formal policies and processes within agencies that enable a unified, consistent approach to modern technology usage. To do so requires agencies and policy planners in the public security domain to recruit and train specialized staff, dedicate clear budgets to its implementation and define a clear legal framework and procedural protocols for its effective use. One of the most important questions with the use of new technology is how we balance between enhancing security and respecting privacy rights of citizens.

For example, experience of recent riots and mass gatherings has illustrated how the police and private security organizations can enhance security by monitoring people’s behavior, signaling unrest and communicating with the public. In these instances it is vital to advance a communication strategy to ensure the uniform use of social media by authorities in a positive, friendly, instructive and helpful tone to promote citizen engagement, collaboration and trust. Such interactive communication can provide a substantial resource for situation awareness but the challenge is how it can be done in an ethically aware way.

Social media has also enabled citizens to enhance public security through the investigation and prevention of crime, both in conjunction with and independent of the police. This phenomenon referred to as Do It Yourself (DIY) Policing has shown notable successes in the Netherlands where police forces are making a concerted effort in co-creating security jointly with citizens. Although offering clear benefits, this approach presents risks is that citizens’ acts are biased towards certain groups in society or that they take the law in their own hands. Can we understand DIY policing activities as signals for missing activities in law enforcement? And in which areas can it be a meaningful addition to traditional police work?

However, social media has a dark side. The ugly use of social media by citizens includes trolling, online bullying (cyberbullying) of which some activities are criminal offences and some or not. The legal status of trolling-related acts differs by country and by action. While the literature we studied suggests that organic, community-driven counter-trolling actions are cheaper, faster, more effective and more responsive than actions of public authorities, these cannot substitute the strong arm of the law in cases of serious harassment, stalking, and abuse of individuals online.

Taking this one step further, emerging technologies are not only revolutionizing policing practices, they also facilitate criminals in organizing themselves and committing crime. The Dark Web, here defined as a part of the internet not indexed by common search engines were people can communicate anonymously and securely, has emerged as a key space for “high tech” (organized) crime. By its very nature this is a difficult area to police and in fighting crime on the dark web no “one-size-fits-all” measures can be applied. But should strategies differentiate between the types of crime (e.g., child pornography vs crypto markets vs violent extremism activities)? Should policies rely on flexible and adaptable innovations, to avoid limited applicability in a cybercrime community that is capable of rapidly quickly develop countermeasures? Should a “total-block” strategies be applied or should a balance between freedom of speech and crime solving be solved? Could the “good side” of the community be utilized by empowering “good users” for positive counter actions and stimulating “social policing”.

The opportunities, challenges and key questions highlighted here will be explored further throughout the project. You can take part in this conversation and we look forward to your valuable insight. To find out more visit our about pages, sign up for our mailing list, follow  us on Twitter (@media4sec) and join our LinkedIn group.


Marijn Rijken


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