Compiled by Kotie Geldenhuys
Many people grew up without the Internet and the excitement of social media, but platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp opened up a whole new world of communication to millions of people. Clement (2019) argues that the number of worldwide social network users is expected to grow from 2.65 billion in 2018 to around 3.02 billion in 2021, around a third of the entire global population. As Internet access and smartphone use expand worldwide, social media use shows no signs of slowing down. Social media however doesn’t always have to be entertaining: it can also be an excellent policing tool.
The use of social media platforms continues to rise, not only by the general public but criminals also use social media to communicate, cause and promote crimes online. Law enforcement has responded by using social media and associated technology as crime fighting tools. In addition to fighting domestic crimes via social media, law enforcement agencies have leveraged the information to fight terrorists who use social media as recruitment tools, often via technology that disguises their online activities (Jones, 2017).
A way to communicate
Social media created new opportunities for the police, not only to communicate with the community about wanted suspects, missing persons and to share success, but also to collect evidence and solve crimes. It provides the police with unprecedented access to the public, and vice versa. Via Facebook and Twitter, the police and the public can communicate in real time with one another about incidents and events. Social media also transforms how the police manage the visibility of their personnel and activities. Walsh and O’Connor (2018) note that law enforcement agencies use social media for the purposes of risk communication, impression management and soliciting assistance. According to MacGilllivray (2018), some of the benefits of tweeting, posting and sharing information by law enforcement agencies include:
- The sharing of real time information as police departments are using the immediacy of social media to their advantage to quickly and succinctly notify the public about anything from protests in progress to police activities. A brief tweet from police about an incident can immediately be retweeted to keep more people informed to avoid an area.
- The enlistment of the public’s help as the police can also use the amplification power of their followers to distribute sketches or photos of suspects, security camera footage and details about missing children and the elderly. The chances of reaching someone who recognises the person the police are looking for increases with every re-tweet and shared post.
- The obtaining of information as social media also makes it possible to track criminal activity.
- Law enforcement officers are able to share details and perspectives directly with the public via social media to cut out the middleman (such as the media) who might change the details.
- The sharing of successes by sharing photos of firearms and drugs removed from the streets and even posting pictures of hard working law enforcement officials that would normally not get too much recognition, can be a positive public relations exercise. This method is regarded as a friendlier version of law enforcement to the public who sometimes do not have a positive opinion of law enforcers.
Social media communications also attempt to enlist citizens in the detection and reporting of criminal events. They are mobilised as additional "eyes and ears" through social media platforms in cases where authorities release posters of wanted or missing persons or provide safety tips. As this encourages public vigilance, law enforcement simultaneously enhance their reach and knowledge. Given their reliance on voluntary participation and individuals' desire to help, the success of these arrangements hinges on public trust and support (Walsh and O’Connor, 2018).
A source of evidence
The omnipresence of mobile devices in our daily lives and our use thereof to access social media platforms, creates an unlimited source of evidence which can be relevant to criminal investigations. Investigating officers have become highly skilled in locating and retrieving evidence from social media platforms. Whether they surf the Internet to identify open source information or use subpoenas and search warrants to retrieve information through legal processes, law enforcement agencies have utilised evidence from social media sources to identify suspects, locate witnesses and convict defendants. As the number of individuals using social media continues to increase and the volume of digital evidence contained on social media platforms and in social media accounts grows, the challenge for law enforcement becomes bigger in how to efficiently collect, process and analyse the evidence in an effective and timely manner (Hamrick, 2019).
As social media are embedded in the flow of everyday life, they offer permanent, searchable and remotely accessible archives of previously private details and occurrences. Alongside helping to clear cases where criminals have, quite illogically, bragged about or documented their exploits online, public or semi-public content can supplement and verify other evidentiary material (such as alibis), providing new justification for offline interventions (Walsh and O’Connor, 2018). Social media can help to provide police with a host of information they may not have otherwise discovered, as well as with new witnesses.
Widely use by police
LexisNexis (2014) states that more than 80% of police departments in the USA actively use social media as an investigation tool and there is compelling evidence on how social media aids the process. Some of the law enforcement officers who participated in this study said the following:
- "I authored a search warrant on multiple juveniles’ Facebook accounts and located evidence showing them in the location in (the) commission of a hate crime burglary. Facebook photos showed the suspects inside the residence committing the crime. It led to a total of six suspects arrested for multiple felonies along with four outstanding burglaries and six unreported burglaries."