Anyone with a device able to access the internet is able to join in conversations on social media and participate equally. This is the foundation of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and the key to their success. More and more we are seeing innovative ways of utilizing this flat, close-knit platform including organising protests, raising money for charity and using social media to identify criminals. In a digital society addicted to sharing, posting and narrowing the gaps between each other, are there spaces for secrets?
As Facebook and Twitters’ popularity overshadows all other social media sites, authorities are increasingly utilizing them to assist in prosecutions and evidence. From 2007 to 2010 the use of social media by law enforcement agencies increased by nearly 600%. West Mercia Police, the police force for the Herefordshire and Worcestershire regions, have a verified Facebook page which is used to post regularly about subjects ranging from helping to find a stolen bike to helping to identify a criminal with only a blurry image from a CCTV camera. This has worked well for them so far probably because it is very easy to act anonymously. In the case of a blurry image of a criminal, a person needs only to know the name of the person and private message the police Facebook page.
This kind of law enforcement is not a secret. It is seen on the news frequently but notably during the London Riots in 2011. Many people were brought to justice as they effectively gave themselves over to the police by posting pictures on Facebook and Twitter of them actually holding the looted goods or causing criminal damage. Did these criminals really think that they could show off these pictures online and they would somehow be immune to the justice system? The notable thing which has come with social media is just how many connections there are and how this facilitates (considerably) the spread of information. This is what has made social media policing so successful in catching criminals. There is however a downside to this type of policing.
The officers and detectives policing in this way are likely also users of these platforms. BBC News reported on the use of social media for policing with the title ‘Police Officers Investigated for Social Media Breaches’. It came as research identified 828 cases of misuse by officers on social media, including making racist comments and asking crime victims to become Facebook friends.
The internet is seen as a place without laws and regulation, in reality these people live in the real world and the internet is a part of the real world, so you should be held just as accountable for your actions online as you would in the street. If we are going to utilise social media in this way, and I think we really should, then everyone needs to be properly educated during school or as a requirement to use social media platforms.
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