Keywords: crime and social media, social media crime prevention
Social media is becoming routine in everyday interactions, including being involved with crime. While there has been an increase in using it to start and partake in crime, there has also been an interest in using it to help combat and solve crimes.
There are many ways social media can be used to aid the Police, one is by visiting the pages which the user has updated themselves to see if they have inadvertently disclosed information which could hold them accountable for certain crimes by either revealing a picture or information relevant to the crime which has been committed, or noticing a change in lifestyle as a result from the offense. These could be monitored by the Police or sent in as a tip from a source which could lead to the crime being solved quicker than without social media. Studies within America have the support of the Police force and would like to use social media more within investigations, however lack of education on the subject means time could be wasted by not understanding the information as well as finding it. There is also a fine line with using social media to find information relevant to the crime and using this irresponsibly and finding information through unethical means.
The public have also been using social media to help solve their own crimes by drumming up interest and getting others involved and talking about the topics to build publicity to solve a crime. These could have been achieved through the loss of a person or pet or by attending an event where the organisers actively promoting social media use to keep the peace within an event. These have then stemmed into other websites being set up based around this to help solve crimes for the future.
When the general public get hold of information regarding criminals, they have taken it upon themselves to publicise this within their community to warn other people of the dangers within the local area. This has had drastic effects, especially when promoting about individuals who have served their time for crimes in the past. There have been on-going debates over whether this information has been allowed to be disclosed and resulted in several court battles with pages from the internet being removed as the information is not theirs to disclose.
Within the UK, large scale crimes have resulted in companies setting up various pages online and through social media to help solve crimes and promote safe environments. Due to this, there is already a large network of active users who can help promote these messages and support them in reducing crimes. These need to be modified and adapted within the constraints of the companies, which are largely cost based, in order for them to become sustainable for the future in solving crimes.
In September 2012, Facebook reached 1 billion users worldwide (Fowler, 2012) with Twitter following in second place with over 500 million users (Herngaard, 2012). The audience, therefore, to potentially help prevent or to initiate crimes through social media is huge and constantly growing with more people joining these websites and others every day. Social media including Twitter and Facebook are a tool used by the masses for inciting disorderly behaviour. However, as much as social media is being used to start antisocial behaviour, it is also being used to try to combat these actions and be used in a more productive and constructive way.
Information Present Through Social Media
Since social media gained popularity, the public are more willing to disclose private information through these to friends or acquaintances. On Facebook, a study undertaken in 2005 disclosed that only 0.03% of profiles investigated showed no information of value which could be used to either identify individuals or to source information about individuals (Gross & Acquisti, 2005). From this, social media users enable themselves to being visible to anyone who comes across their personal page. This is also the same for Twitter users whose profile is automatically public unless the privacy settings are configured. Therefore many people could be unknowingly uploading personal information about themselves which could be accessed by criminals, their employers or even the Police.
Trotter (2012) mentions that ‘social media is a means for communication, but it is increasingly a source of information for the police’, which is true of particular cases. Certain criminals including Michael Baker from Kentucky, USA posted a picture of himself siphoning petrol from a Police car on Facebook which later led to his arrest over the crime (Siu, 2012). While this case is obvious to the police that the user has committed the crime, other more subtle ways have been used such as flaunting ‘goodies’ which have been stolen or bought through crime.
LexisNexis (2012) investigated over 12000 law enforcement professionals and showed that 69% questioned had use social media as part of crime investigation. The main reason this is not used more thoroughly is due to lack of training or lack of use within office hours or computers. If more law enforcement professionals were able to use social media within office time, this could help officers within investigations to speed up finding information on top of what has been readily provided, with 67% people questioned agreeing that it will solve investigations quicker. This would lead to more time during the working day to work on other investigations, and in turn solving more crimes than before.
Current uses of Social Media by Police
Keeping up with innovation, multiple local authorities within the UK, including the Metropolitan Police, are setting up Facebook pages to create awareness within the community. However, in such an early state of social media being used by the Police, many disclaimers indicate that this is not a method to report a crime but to promote public safety and campaigns within the area. This has increased the visibility of the police forces which may be useful if using social media in the future to help report and solve crime as there will already be a base of users readily connected to the service. The reason that these websites cannot be used to report crimes is due to the lack of Police man hours which could be spent monitoring these websites.
Lothian and Borders Police in Scotland are one of the first forces in the country to actively allow Facebook users to report crimes online through their ‘Made from Crime’ initiative, launched August 2011 (Cotton, 2011). The site was to catch criminals who are living beyond their means using the proceeds of crime by allowing anonymous tips through the Facebook page or Crimestoppers Website. Crimestoppers have also launched an application for use on smartphones called ‘TipSumbit’ to help report crimes in USA through tips or videos directly to the Police (Urbaszewski, 2012). Both of these methods allow the user to remain anonymous which can be a certain appeal for witnesses. However, with both communications being relatively new to the field, there is limited monitoring by the Police so tips sent in may not be read and acted upon instantly, which could lead to the information becoming out of date. This could be counteracted by employing more employees within the police in UK, however, due to government budget cuts; the police force has been declining for the last couple of years with over 24,000 police jobs being lost since the general elections (Burns-Murdoch, 2012). For an application or website such as these to work efficiently a significant amount of money would needed to be invested into it for it to have a chance to succeed. The current economic situation in this country is one of many reasons why this improvement in reporting crimes is occurring at a slow pace and has not taken off nationwide.
In 2012, the Leveson Inquiry was brought about after there were breaches in the privacy of both celebrities and the general public which warranted the investigation into the media and how it acted. It recommended a new independent body to moderate the press. Although this is regarding the current press, which is mainly newspapers, similar findings can be applied to social media as news is slowly moving into online media including social media so the recommendation from Leveson can be used for the data provided on social media websites.
Leveson (2012) concludes that ‘there have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist’. This could be used to describe the Police using social media to support investigations it undertakes when looking for evidence online. The Police have not been trained to use it, nor is the data valid so using it would be a breach of ethics. The information, although has been proved useful in certain cases, if it’s not obvious, could lead to the Police ‘jumping the bandwagon’ and following a suspect who may not be the person they are looking for or hold an individual responsible for a crime they did not commit if the information they have provided online was misinterpreted. As all data inputted through social media is self-edited, it may not be truthful, so should not be taken for granted. This is where using social media to help solve or understand crimes is unreliable due to the freedom people have with what they post and upload to these websites.
The general public has tried to use social media itself to self-promote crimes to help solve them. This has worked well through certain websites, mainly twitter, to drum up publicity for the crime to solve it. The majority of cases where this has worked are when a pet has been stolen, such as Charley, a 12 week old bulldog who was stolen and found through twitter due to friends and family tweeting about the puppy to drum up interest (BBC, 2012). Through the combined effort of conversation online and people talking about the missing dog offline, Charley was discovered. This may not have happened, or at least not as quickly, if the attention had not been brought to the front of the public’s mind through twitter. Small firms, such as one in Erie, Pennsylvania, have created their own Facebook sites to publicise lost pets with their owners and have achieved a 50% success rate with users of the site (Van Rheenen, 2012). This could prove to be more effective than twitter as the focus of the website is on missing pets, however, visitors may not go onto the website if they have not lost a pet themselves. The rescue efforts would then be limited to active users of the website.
Certain companies have also tried to rally consumers at large events to help report crimes as they occur during the affair. This occurred at Download Festival 2010 where the promoters encouraged festival goers to tweet through a monitored twitter stream any problems occurring at the festival. There was a 41% reduction in crime compared to the year before (BBC, 2010a). Due to decrease in crime at this large event, other festival organisers could use this as it seemed to have a beneficial effect on the customers by improving their safety.
Controversial Facebook Pages
As mentioned earlier, one major problem with the Police using social media to report or help solve crime is the lack of funding to use it as a reliable resource set up and monitored through the Police. This has led to groups of individuals creating Facebook groups to warn others of the problems within their local communities. The most publicised case of its kind was in Northern Ireland where ‘Keeping our Kids safe from Predators’ was launched. At first it was used by parents to alert others about paedophiles in the local area which has been brought about more through Sarah’s Law, which is a Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme which allows parents to ask the Police whether or not a person with access to their child is a sex offender (BBC, 2010b). This does not provide as much information as Megan’s Law in America which also provides parents with information such as addresses of paedophiles. The information provided through this should be given to the parents who ask for it and not passed on to others.
Information obtained through this has been made public on Facebook pages which have led to convicted criminals being the centre of hatred from the wider community. One unnamed offender claimed the content found on the website was a breech to his right for privacy which led to degrading treatment through the site. This in turn led to actions against him in the real world which jeopardised his safety. This individual was convicted and charged for his crimes over 20 years ago and believed he had served his time; however the parents within the community did not and deemed him still to be a danger to society, which escalated into the abuse online. A judge ruled that the man was within his rights to a private life, regardless of past convictions and the page was shut down within 72 hours (Silverman, 2012), however follow up pages have been set up but not to the extent of the original one.
The results from this case have produced an on-going discussion to whether or not parents should be allowed to publicise information they have obtained to protect local children. However, this case has confirmed that criminals have a right to privacy, no matter how long ago they were convicted. Nevertheless, from this, there could be a way for parents to be able to obtain the information, such as maps of areas (large enough not to be able to identify individuals from it) to show if they live in a high risk area of criminals. This could give parents peace of mind without having to obtain sensitive information from the Police. Though, the Police have limited resources so producing and maintaining a system such as this would be unfeasible at the moment. Funding could become available if there was an increased demand for this and if they could prove it would be worthwhile for the communities exposing the privacy of past criminals.
The London Riots
In Summer 2011, riots broke out across the country after starting in London. There was a large presence online with starting and organising riots, but also with helping to clean up after the riot. Crimestoppers, a crime fighting charity, reported a large increase in twitter followers during the riot which it used to promote ways to report crimes or posted pictures of crimes happening in the local areas to help the Police with their investigations (Hall, 2012). They regarded social media as a quick effective way to contact the public to give information about the rioters including where to avoid. Additionally, the Metropolitan Police also set up a Flickr site after the riots to try and catch criminals who were still at large (London Disorder Haringey, 2012). Although they do not promote this, it is still present on the internet for anyone to use and to come forward with any additional information they have.
After the riots, Crimestoppers set up several online ways it can provide information to the public as well as receive tips about crimes through their website. A sizable network of followers on Twitter and their website means that if a large scale crime was to occur again, Crimestoppers would be well equipped to provide information to the public and would probably gain tips quicker and in greater numbers. Although Crimestoppers only allows crimes ‘not of an urgent nature’ to be reported on their website, if the demand increased for reporting crimes online, more employees could be used to monitor the tips on the website which would be answered quicker.
From addressing the points within this report, it is clear that the general public needs to be educated with regards to social media. As it is a relatively new technology, the rules and regulations regarding this are being modified everyday when a new problem arises. A school in Somerset has started to address problems within social media by teaching students about it as part of the curriculum (Walker, 2012). This will assist new users of the dangers of writing information online and who is able to see it. This should be introduced nationwide as lessons such as this are invaluable for children as it can open their eyes to the dangers of what they post online.
Using social media as a way of reporting crimes is a difficult issue to address. Due to the lack of funding within the Police which is constantly being cut by the government and charities such as Crimestoppers relying solely on money raised for the website to still operate, the chances of a network being set up and managed on a 24 hour basis may not happen within the next few years. However, using social media to monitor criminals and crime taking place would be a cheaper way to fight crime as no infrastructure would need to be set up as they would use the established social networks. Training would need to be undertaken by the officers who would be responsible for monitoring to avoid such blunders as shown by the Lothian and Borders Police in Scotland (Enoch, 2012) where Police Officers were seen befriending criminals. Strict budget cuts are forever present within the Police, so finding the money and time for officers training for social media may prove costly and ineffective in the long run. An alternative way could be to hire an external online research company as they would have greater knowledge on the subject. This could be cheaper than ‘in house’ but as the Police need to be secure with all information obtained and used within investigations, this may not be a suitable solution. However, until the issue of cost is overcome within the Police, then the recommendations cannot become a reality.