Social Media and Law Enforcement Potential Risks

By Waters, Gwendolyn | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2012 | Go to article overview
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Social Media and Law Enforcement Potential Risks


Waters, Gwendolyn, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Law enforcement always has been a dangerous profession because officers risk their lives to form a barrier between criminals and society. In the past, police could to some extent protect themselves and their loved ones from threats. Today these risks have changed. The power of the Internet--social media in particular--has brought danger home to officers and their families. They cannot shield themselves as easily from the repercussions of their jobs defending the community.

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The Internet has been available for widespread public use since the early 1990s). (1) In its two decades of existence, the Web has become an integral part of everyday life. It is difficult to recall how society functioned without it. Compared with the lifespan of the Internet, social media, which began to evolve in 2003, remains in its infancy. Users add their own content to any social media site that allows it. (2) Web pages, such as Facebook and Wikipedia, are not static; individuals continually modify them by adding commentary, photos, and videos. The Web no longer is a fixed object for passive observation. It has become a dynamic venue for proactive--often passionate--interaction. The growth, power, and influence of social media have proven phenomenal as evidenced by the decline of traditional newspapers and the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. (3)

Law enforcement agencies recognize the influence of social media. Many departments are drafting and adopting policies addressing the use of networking engines. (4) In many cases, however, these plans miss a crucial part of the issue. While departments are concerned with minimizing the negative impact that speech not protected by the First Amendment may have on the department's interests, they sometimes may neglect their responsibility to protect their employees.

Characteristics

Information obtained from public records (e.g., birth, death, and real estate) has been available online for years. By increasing exposure of personal information, social media has raised the threat level. This new entity has a unique nature that makes it powerful and unpredictable. Several characteristics combine to make it especially threatening to law enforcement.

The structure of social media encourages self-promotion. (5) It offers easy access to an unlimited pool of potential "friends." (6) Individuals who crave validation can achieve a feeling of connection not available in their offline lives. People who have a desire for attention, notoriety, or fame are attracted to it. To get noticed, they often post entertaining or provocative information.

Constraints do not exist for social media. Anyone can post anything online with little fear of repercussion. The anonymous online environment can encourage inflammatory and shocking behavior. Individuals sometimes create screen names or new identities that allow them to act outside their normal inhibitions and sometimes participate in caustic and less ethical activities they otherwise would avoid. Anonymity hampers efforts to control these actions. (7)

Pooling of like minds often occurs online. This bolsters confidence and gives the impression of support for socially unacceptable conduct. Copycat behavior can make the first well-publicized transgression the impetus for many more. Social media can engender a mob mentality wherein one small stimulus spurs a wide-scale reaction that feeds on itself and grows out of contro1. (8) Incidents develop faster, reach farther, and spread more rapidly than anything society has dealt with before.

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In tile past, simple things, such as post office boxes and license plate confidentiality, provided protections. These are ineffective today. Instant access to private information makes it easier for an individual to learn personal facts about an officer. This also eliminates any "cooling off" period during which individuals might reconsider their retaliatory actions.

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