Tweeting Vigilantes — Social Media’s Role in Grassroots Crime Fighting

By on May 30, 2013

Not everybody uses social media to post silly pictures of their cats; some use it to track down criminals. Increasingly, social media is playing a role in police work and in public endeavors to help solve wrong doings. Sometimes, as in some high-profile cases this year, people have gone too far in their quest to cyber track “bad guys.”

How Social Media Helps Fight Crime

The benefits of social media for police departments in America are numerous. With most of the population in possession of both a camera-enabled cell phone and a social media account, snapshots and videos taken in crowded locations can often be used after a crime to determine the where, when and how of a crime. As a student of an economic crime investigation program will learn, there are many benefits of using social media; for example, social media may help in uncovering fraudulent expenses by company employees or tracking the whereabouts, actions and purchases of people accused of evading taxes.

In Seattle, detectives report using details from witness accounts to later find photographs or videos of perpetrators online. These photos can then be used to find the people tagged in them. A small clue, such as a ripped jacket, might be the key to piecing together a series of events or to identifying perpetrators of a crime.

Social media also helps get the word out fast for police departments who need public awareness to ramp up quickly. Runaway kids, natural disasters and traffic accidents are all situations where police might want social media users to pass on information to their circles. In this way, missing kids can be identified and returned home quicker, evacuations can be made smoother and traffic rerouting can happen with just a few clicks from the public information officers.

Additionally, tips from witnesses of crimes now take the form not only of verbal communication but also snapped photos, shaky-but-helpful videos, and geotagging. If a homeowner thinks burglars are invading his neighbor’s house, while calling 911 he can also take a quick video from a safe distance to catch the perpetrators if they leave before police arrive. Or if someone thinks they have information about a case the police are working on, they don’t have to wait for a telephone operator to be available: a quick series of tweets might let the police get the most vital information more quickly. If you saw something you’d like to report, but aren’t sure where you are, use your phone’s GPS to find your location and then send a map to the sheriff’s department.

The Pitfalls of Crowdsourced Crime Fighting

Unfortunately, using social media doesn’t always have good results for law enforcement. We always hear about “prank calls,” but prank social media posts are also possible. Misinformed “informants” who spread their inaccurate version of events too widely might negatively influence other people who have accurate information, but feel less sure about sharing it. Inaccurate social media posts about a crime could have a negative impact on a case if the post is shared widely.

As advanced as they are, our smartphone cameras are still fallible in low lighting, and audio reception might be poor. This has resulted in cases of mistaken identity where netizens believe they have captured a criminal in a photo, but really it’s an innocent person who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while wearing the wrong color shirt. In these cases, the unfortunate citizen who was wrongly identified may face extreme embarrassment and even cyberbullying.

Additionally, photos and videos can be manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes, all that happens is that the photos are out of context. If the blurry background of a still photo shows two men with outstretched arms — can we be sure that they are hitting each other? Could they be shaking hands? Could they be playing? Unraveling the threads of truth behind such clues sent via social media can take law enforcement a lot of time and other resources.

Also, a reliance on the blazing speed of social media to send tips and receive alerts may cause an unrealistic expectation of service from the police. If a tweeted tip is sent on Monday at 8:45 a.m., that’s not to say that an on-duty officer saw it within the next hour. That tip might not be thoroughly evaluated or followed up until much later. Meanwhile, the tipper expects action to be taken immediately. If you suspect that there is a crime happening that needs immediate involvement by the police, don’t hesitate to call 911. Social media is useful, but it still hasn’t taken the place of the telephone.

About the Author: Aimee Han worked as a public affairs representative for law enforcement in Washington State before retiring to Southern California. Han enjoys social media and blogging about her grandchildren.

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