The COMPOSITE report found that police use of social media varied markedly across Europe.
Every country used social media as a source of criminal information but far fewer have, as yet, adopted the UK approach of developing a strong online presence.
The report’s authors put forward a strong five-point case as to why police forces should develop their social media communications:
1. Policing and crime are consistent hot topics across social media
People are blogging, tweeting, posting etc. about crime and policing the whole time anyway.
If police aren’t online, they can’t contribute to the debate.
2. Unofficial police social media sites are common
There are plenty of unofficial police social media sites, typically hosted by supporters of the police.
The report cites an unofficial Facebook page in Berlin with 15,000 fans and a Twitter feed in the Dutch region of Haaglanden with 2,500 followers.
If police don’t get active online and become the most popular source of police information, others will fill the void.
Without a credible police presence, the space for rumours and speculation is bound to be swiftly filled by others, some of whom will have malicious intent.
3. Social media empowers citizens to conduct their own investigations
Unless these campaigns are guided by police expertise, there can be major difficulties and ordinary members of the public will find it difficult to distinguish between official police information and other sources.
We are increasingly seeing stories of private individuals conducting criminal investigations online like the case of the husband who used Facebook to track down, entrap and assault a man who had sexually assaulted his wife in the past.
4. Many people get most of their news and views via social media
Traditional forms of communication do not always reach the target audience.
The report notes that many young people in particular no longer read local newspapers (many of which, of course, have gone out of business in the UK) and that if the police need to reach this group either to broadcast or request information, they need to be using the most popular forms of modern communication.
Many English and Welsh police forces have made excellent use of locality based Facebook pages where they post local information and request intelligence about local crimes.
5. Social media is part of everyday life
Police officers are confronted with the real world effects of social media.
For instance, forces from many different countries reported that they had to police many issues which happen online including:
Online stalking and abuse (see here for new CPS guidelines defining the boundary between legal and illegal online behaviour)
Declarations that someone is going to commit suicide made on social media or websites
The reporting of child abuse and other crimes online
The organisation of large scale illegal parties is often done online
The report concludes that police forces who have a voice in social media are able to develop a reputation for honesty and accuracy which can be invaluable at times of large scale crises.
The best UK example of this is the way that @SuptPayneWMP and other police officers used social media to help mitigate the effect of the August 2011 riots on their local communities.
For details, see Superintendent Payne’s account on his blog.
Even when police make mistakes, or undertake controversial operations, social media can be an important way of engaging in a dialogue with the public and giving a more detailed, human account of the reasons behind decisions than can be done in a formal press conference with the mainstream media.