Social media and policing of mass gatherings

In an earlier blog we previously identified how social media has posed both a challenge and an opportunity for police and security services during riots and mass gatherings. In this article we outline the issues that we will be exploring further in our forthcoming workshop.

Mass gatherings vary in nature but are a significant concern for all public security planners. Due to their inherent nature, mass gatherings are prone to various threats. These include the potential for riots, mass panic that can lead to stampedes or other accidents and violence among participant groups. At the same time any mass gathering presents an appealing target for terrorist attacks. Due their size the human impact of any safety breach at these events can be considerable and result in large scale casualities.

Whilst many mass gatherings can be planned in detail in advance and held in a clearly defined location such as sports events, cultural festivals and even political rallies, the increasing frequency of spontaneous events presents law enforcement agencies (LEAs) with varying pressures to ensure safety and security. Social media platforms have transformed the dynamics of events involving mass gatherings giving rise to an online community which has several distinguishing features and expectations: interactivity, immediacy and mass-inclusivity. Social media have also facilitated the organisation, promotion and co-ordination of events through enhanced communication between large numbers of people during events. While this has presented law enforcement agencies and security planners with new challenges, it has also created a landscape of new opportunities for policing.

If law enforcement agencies are to use social media effectively as part of contemporary community engagement, police will need to adapt to meet the expectations and protocols of the online community.

Social media has already been used as an organizational tool. Its prevelance amongst the public has been illustrated through a series of events including the detailed analysis of the London riots in 2011. However, LEAs and other security stakeholders have been, on occasion, slow to adapt to these changes. Nevertheless, some national and/or regional LEAs are increasingly using open social media sources to observe a mass gathering event throughout its entire development phase before, during and after as they realise how valuable an asset it is in the fight for public safety.

The policing of riots and mass gatherings is a critical issue for law enforcement agencies that poses key questions which we are continuing to address in the MEDI@4SEC project:

  • How can current policing structures, policies and budgets be re-invent or re-designed to support the use of social media for managing and policing mass gatherings?
  • Can a communication strategy be developed which ensures the appropriate use of social media platforms by authorities in a positive, friendly, instructive and helpful tone that promotes citizen engagement and fosters citizen-police collaboration and trust?
  • How can social media platforms (and which ones) can be employed to provide targeted communication to specific (and sometimes hard to reach) groups to fit their specific needs?
  • How could a plan be best designed, developed and implemented to establish the protocol for social media use during security-related incidents and investigations?

Any responses will require balance to be sought: a balance between monitoring and response; between listening to the public and providing them with information; between gathering intelligence and operating in an ethical way.

We will be exploring these issues in our forthcoming workshop in Athens. The aim of this event is to bring practioners together to help understand these issues further and to share experiences and good practices. The workshop will examine these important questions through a number of real situations, through the social media practices that are utilised and via the specific challenges they present. In particular, we will focus on large-scale events (e.g. parades, festivals, sporting events) where large numbers of people congregate for a particular activity and can be targeted by criminals or terrorist; protests, demonstrations and riots where civilians can mobilise and organise themselves into groups quickly and where social media can enable them to coordinate their movements; and gatherings resulting from mass migration, an increasing challenge across Europe, which often leads to mass gatherings or encampments that can persist for weeks or even months.

Places at the event have now been filled but you can still contribute to the discussion by sharing your experiences on the LinkedIn group before the event and by following and using #media4sec on Twitter on the day of the workshop itself.

Author

Nikos Moustakidis

KEMEA

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