Opportunities and Challenges for Social Media Adoption

In the first part of this article we outlined the main ways in which LEAs are making use of social media in their day-to-day activities. Our survey of experts highlighted four main areas of practice where social media usage is becoming particularly useful:

  • Coping with live events
  • Prediction, intelligence and preventative action
  • Community engagement
  • Changes in policing environments

Whilst offering many benefits, the take-up and use of social media is mitigated by a range of practicalities. In this second part, Jon Coaffee reflects on the barriers to take up which were outlined by our panel of experts.

Our survey pinpointed 10 key factors that are likely provide opportunities and challenges for public security professionals utilising social media and that will affect uptake of social media over the next 5 years:

It was generally agreed that greater engagement with the public is an important driver in the take up of social media by law enforcement agencies (LEAs). Experts agreed that it will increase two-way communication and enable valuable security information to be exchanged between LEAs and the public. The effect of this will enable LEA’s will have greater situational awareness ‘on the street’ and citizens will be able to contribute to, and be better informed about, security issues.

However, changes in public opinion will impact the way social media is used for public security planning. For example, in the future, the public may have a different perspective on how important their privacy actually is with respect to safety and security which could both enhance or undermine the use of social media for these purposes.

Privacy, transparency & legal liability regarding the use, misuse and errors in the management of information and practices followed by LEAs in social media are increasingly key issues. Notably, there is a clear tension between LEAs wanting to use social media for intelligence purposes whilst at the same time having to (be seen to) improve the transparency of their organization.

At the same time, as social media becomes easier to use and it perceived usefulness is enhanced, it is likely to have an improved impact and lead to greater and easier interactions between LEA’s and citizens as a result. In so doing, our experts suggest that as long as they feel confident that they contribute to – and in return receive – “public security”, individuals and communities will be encouraged to enhance their use of social media.

Although external influences and public concerns have been most visible in the public eye, opportunities and barriers within organisations are just as critical.  The perceived importance of social media for public security will influence the viability of the presence of LEAs in social media platforms as well as the prevalence of private social media accounts. Active interaction and enrolment in LEAs’ social media accounts is likely to be an important metric of the successful implementation.

As LEAs adjust to the opportunities and challenges of social media in many cases there is likely to require some form of reorganisation including the re-engineering of procedures, processes, and human and technological resources in order to embed social media. There is also a requirement to align them with the new challenges LEA’s were facing.

The financial burden and budgetary restrictions can affect the number of staff and investment in technologies used for social media engagement and operation by LEAs. This can impact upon the adoption, training, information upkeep and monitoring of social media platforms with continual financial investment in social media often tied to demonstrating value for money.

Finally, looking into the future a set of unknowns present themselves. Uncertainty about regulation and legal issues regarding the intentions and usage of social media data represents one of the key barriers to engagement of LEAs on social media. How future changes in legislation will impact the way social media is used for public security planning is not yet clear but will have implications on many of the factors outlined above.

Similarly, new technologies will have a great influence on the activities and behaviour of both citizens and LEAs with regard to public security. Citizens will have more opportunities for networking and influencing. LEAs will have to be flexible in adapting social media in order to continue effective collaboration. Social media technology tools and the related IT infrastructures needed are under continuous development and evolution. In this sense, the continued supply of appropriate IT infrastructure and tools to handle the continuously increasing needs of storage and processing of social media data produced are of paramount importance and must be budgeted for. These will have major impacts on organisations’ structures and budgets.

These 10 factors can be illustrated on a spider-web diagram which also highlights expert assessment of the ‘impact’ and the ‘likelihood’ of that factor changing in the way described. This illuminates a series of important and inter-linked considerations that will either facilitate of stymie social media use by LEA’s in the near future.

Emerging from these opinions are a number of key needs.  Notable amongst these is the need to advance more user-friendly and user-attractive social media applications that are easier to use by a wider array of public security professionals. Also important in these new technological advancements are the ease with which community engagement and public relations can be facilitated through social media in a bi-directional way.  Yet critically other key priorities that emerged in the survey focus upon the governance of LEA’s and how social media is bringing about significant changes in operations and practices which assist LEAs’ to become fully embedded into the digital world. Whist there is a lot of optimism regarding the positive use of social media, a number of concerns emerged regarding how such change would be operationalized; notably around issues of data privacy, financial budgeting and the need for up to date infrastructure. Whilst there is a ‘promise’ that social media will allow LEA’s to do ‘more for less’ through efficiency gains and the facilitation of more joined up policing practices, the start up and running costs of such operations might affect the uptake of such techniques in future years.

MEDI@4SEC will continue to explore these issues both in our ongoing Workshops but also through our Community conversation. We welcome all contributions to this conversation. If you would like to make your voice heard do so on Twitter (@media4sec, #media4sec) and by joining our LinkedIn group.


Jon Coaffee

MEDI@4SEC Project Co-ordinator
University of Warwick


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