Amsterdam Center for Social Media

This week in social media research: Crime, police and social media

Tessa van Charldorp

Plenty of research talks about the growing digital knowledge gap between social media users and non-users. Within this theme, three articles caught my attention this week that shed light on a very specific kind of gap: the gap between social media users who take part in criminal activities or help solve crime and the way social media is used by authorities such as the police.
blog TvC crime social media
“Gang members carry guns and Twitter accounts”
The first article “Internet banging: New trends in social media, gang violence, masculinity and hip hop” implicitly points out this gap. Patton, Eschmann and Butler show us that people use social media not only to chat and discuss, but also to vent, express (extremist) views, hate, bully, troll, flame, steal, threaten and announce (for example upcoming criminal activities). Specifically, the article focuses on internet banging, where social media is “used to provoke, perpetrate, and publicize violent acts.” (p. A59). Gang members take part in internet banging mainly for “self-promotion” and “to gain and maintain street credibility.” The article references a few ‘successful’ police interventions over the last few years in which police caught gang members discussing crimes on Twitter they had already committed or were about to commit. One of these interventions even led to the arrest of 63 gang members in New York earlier this year. However, while this kind of social media usage seems to be entrenched in the life of gang members, the police seem to be mostly absent from or only just learning about such social media outlets.

Helping police efforts
A second article that demonstrates the lack of police presence on social media, is “Social media and the 2011 Vancouver riots” by Schneider and Trottier. Their qualitative media analyses point out that authorities can learn from social media activity during and after complicated real-life events such as riots. The authors use the Vancouver riots that occurred during the Vancouver Canucks hockey team Stanley Cup match against the Boston Bruins as a case study. Within 10 minutes of game-end, an individual set up a Facebook group ‘The Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photo’s’, which received 102,784 likes and 12,587 postings within a 14-day period. The majority of posters felt like they were helping the police by posting pictures and identifying rioters, and wanted to see justice brought to the rioters who destroyed their “Beautiful City”. Quotes from the Facebook page furthermore show that there was a sense of a community that was built up within two weeks. However, upon close reading, we also see through the analyses that the police was not present on the Facebook page. There could be plenty of opportunities for the police to strategically use not only the picture data, but also the community who seemed to be very willing to help identify possible rioters.

Experimenting with social media
Luckily, the third article sheds some positive light on police and their use of social media. The article “Force to sell: policing the image and manufacturing public confidence” shows that in Australia, police organizations are working hard at marketing a positive image of the police through old as well as new media. Lee and McGovern found that although police directors were still ‘guessing’ as to how to effectively use social media, at least they are “experimenting” with social media.

This week’s articles teach us a number of lessons. Social media are not only used for sharing and networking purposes, but also for announcing or bragging about criminal activities. Furthermore, social networks can be set up to help act against criminal activities, such as riots, and can quickly built communities that may be of aid to the police. Simultaneously, police presence on social media is relatively scarce. Although there have been some interventions in the US on for example Twitter and although the police in Australia are learning to use social media as a PR tool to acquire trust and legitimacy, authorities still have a lot to learn. In the mean time, criminals and citizens who want to help catch criminals have had a head start.

* Picture taken from Dailymail.co.uk

Articles used:

Lee, M. & McGovern, A. (2013). Force to sell: policing the image and manufacturing public confidence. Policing and society: an international journal of research and policy, 23(2), 103-124.
Patton, D.U., Eschmann, R.D., & Butler, D.A. (2013). Internet banging: new trends in social media, gang violence, masculinity and hip hop. Computers in human behavior, 29, A54-A59.
Schneider, C.J. & Trottier, D. (2013). Social media and the 2011 Vancouver riot. 40th anniversary of studies in symbolic interaction. Studies in symbolic interaction, 40, 335-362.


Category: crime, Facebook, police


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