Policing Social Media

Article excerpt

THE 2011 VANCOUVER riot brought extensive property damage and physical violence to the city's downtown core following the final match of the Stanley Cup Playoff. While this is a common occurrence when a Canadian hockey team advances in the playoffs, this specific riot illustrates an amplification of policing through social media. This amplification is made up of two seemingly opposing trends. On the one hand, social media users are identifying and shaming suspected criminals. Sites such as Facebook are remarkably effective platforms for citizens to persecute each other, following a broader online culture of sharing and interacting. On the other hand, police and other investigators scrutinize social life on these platforms. Citizen activity, far from supplanting conventional policing, actually enhances its scope, with citizens often unwillingly enrolled in this process.

In this paper, I propose a theoretical framework to make sense of the sociological relevance of social media policing, specifically the interface of individuals and investigative agencies. Social media policing, as we will see, is composed of individual and institutional activity. Individuals may be active participants, but police also foster unwilling partnerships. Surveillance Studies typically focus on top-down efforts, and recent scholarship considers bottom-up forms of counterscrutiny by citizens using domestic technologies. Social media are online locations where users build profiles and share personal information with each other. Sites such as Facebook rely extensively on user-generated content, content that is contextually relevant and distributed through social networks. Social media are a de facto location for interpersonal sociality, and investigative agencies are investing their efforts to exploit this sociality. Social media have the potential to level visibility (Beer and Burrows 2007), but as police occupy these sites, top-down and bottom-up efforts converge, producing a visibility that combines the mandate and impunity of police scrutiny with the unique optics of everyday life. Police scrutiny includes exploiting social media interfaces, but also superseding them. Investigators can access users' personal details in a way that facilitates otherwise exceptional techniques.

In the following section, I consider sociological, criminological, and Surveillance Studies literature to theorize social media policing, notably how institutions such as police take advantage of interpersonal activity and visibility. The response to the 2011 riot in Vancouver illustrates how police are adapting to the volume of information on sites such as Facebook. This is then connected to two approaches currently employed by law enforcement agencies on social media: investigations through interfaces and investigations through backchannels. I then consider how relations between police and users amount to a mainstreaming of undercover investigations and the use of criminal informants.


Social media amplify policing not because of their technological sophistication, but rather because of their social saturation. The concepts explored below anticipate the extent to which Facebook and other services have become embedded in social life, and together present a framework to explicate how police scrutiny benefits from information exchange already taking place on these sites.

Social media's saturation is a result of their domestication, or the extent to which they are embedded in everyday life (Silverstone and Haddon 1996). The saturation of information technologies in the domestic sphere often manifests as tensions, for instance, between privacy and publicity, or the commercialization of the homestead when it becomes a site for market research. Sites such as Facebook complicate this concept. Whereas most technologies emerge in other spheres such as the military and then spread to the domestic realm, Facebook's origins are firmly entrenched in everyday life. …