Social Media: Our New Detective in Police Investigation

Does social media help or hinder police investigations?

Whether we like it or not, we are in the digital generation. For many of us books and libraries have taken a back seat to internet sites such as Google and Wikipedia and electronic devices including Amazon’s kindle and Apple’s iBook. This digital generation also presents itself through the dominant use of social media, particularly across favourable networks including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We use these outlets to contact our friends, meet new ones, and find out the latest news and trends. But there is more to what social media offers.

Experts say social media is revolutionising the way police fight crime.

A recent news story emerged on social media that introduced us to a different use of the digital platform. American tourist, David Willis, took to social media to alert the public of his accidental entrapment in the Waterstones bookstore of Trafalgar Square.

The tweet David Willis sent to Waterstones while trapped in the store.

The tweet David Willis sent to Waterstones while trapped in the store.

The incident demonstrated not only the modern mindset that leads individuals to reach for their social networking sites when in crisis, but also the sheer reach of social media.

Presently the tweet has been retweeted by 17,029 Twitter users and favourited by 13,089. Willis was released after just over an hour, Waterstones saw the tweet, sent help and responded to the masses following David Willis’ updates via their Twitter account.

Can social media be used as a crime-fighting tool?

The significance of social media in the modern day goes a stage further. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) have recognised how there has been an exponential increase in the number of law enforcement agencies now using social media. Shino Tanaka from Mountain View Police Department, USA, suggests one reason for this change is because “Social media engagement allows police to practice transparency and build long-term trust with citizens through dialogue online, in a way that can be more immediate and widespread than face-to-face outreach.”

Would you rather talk to the police through a screen than face to face?   

Social media is also being used as a method of reporting crime. Experts say that social media is revolutionising the way police fight crime, and is playing a key role in the reporting of sexual abuse and assault. Forces in Australia were among the first to use social networking sites for public help and access to potential witnesses and tip-offs. Carolyn Worth, manager of the Centre Against Sexual Assaults (CASA), says “It has been our experience that social media has assisted people to disclose sexual assaults that they would not feel comfortable discussing either in person or over the telephone.” In March 2013, CASA launched an app – The Crime Stoppers-style Sexual Assault Report Anonymously (SARA) app –, which lets victims submit details of an attack anonymously from anywhere in Australia.

However, police in Regina, USA, agree that social media can be a great tool for solving crimes, but argue that it may also hinder or frustrate an investigation. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are particularly useful for collecting evidence in regard to child exploitation cases. Police can assume a false identity in order to uncover sexual predators. Problems arise when friends or family share information – such as names of potential suspects – on social media against police wishes.

Collecting evidence from social media: the positives

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Stinson Hunter: ‘The Paedophile Hunter’

You may have heard of Stinson Hunter, otherwise known as ‘The Paedophile Hunter’. Channel 4 recently documented Hunter’s vigilante project of uncovering paedophiles by posing as underage children online. The evidence he collects – from introductions to confrontations with sexual predators – is filmed, posted on Facebook to an audience of half a million followers and passed on to the police. While this may be helpful for law enforcement, Hunter’s use of social media may hinder police investigation and ‘compromise the safety of vulnerable victims who would be best protected by the police’. Hunter’s project labels individuals as paedophiles prior to police investigation. Subsequently, justice may be ill-served, as there is the potential that suspects are wrongly labelled as paedophiles prior to the ‘doing’ of the criminal justice system. The actions of Stinson Hunter have even led to individuals committing suicide. Hunter has been threatened with legal action himself if he does not ‘stop what he’s doing immediately’.

One Londoner took a photo of himself and a number of stolen items and uploaded it onto Facebook.

Man posing with suspected stolen goods during London riots.

Man posing with suspected stolen goods during London riots.

Social media as a net to catch criminals was also recently witnessed during the 2011 London Riots. It may seem careless and unlikely, but it is surprising how many criminals took photos of goods they had stolen and posted them online. One Londoner took a photo of himself and a number of stolen items and uploaded it onto Facebook. Such a move undoubtedly aided the police to apprehend the looter.

A similar case presented itself to the police of Portland, USA:

Collecting evidence from social media: the negatives

Although, there is a downside to collecting evidence this way, false information can trump accuracy and individuals may be falsely accused. In the case of the Boston bombings there were numerous amounts of false reporting via social media. Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student, had his name repeatedly blasted across social media as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. Twitter quickly spread the ‘news’, with many news sites falsely stating his name as a suspect. This particular case demonstrates how easily we can be led to believe anything spread across social media.

In April 2013, CNN published an article titled, ‘5 viral stories about Boston attacks that aren’t true’. One of the fake stories discussed received over 448,000 likes and had been shared over 92,000 times just twelve hours after the initial attack. The problem here is not only the panic such stories stir amongst the public, but also the effect it has on investigators. It becomes dangerous when the police must first determine the legitimacy of viral reports before real evidence. In other cases, friends or family of suspects may release false information in order to derail police investigations.

Finding missing people with social media: a help or hindrance?

We’ve probably all come across a post on social media asking for information regarding a missing person. There are hundreds of Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags dedicated to helping find missing people. As well as Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for individual cases, there is a Facebook page and Twitter account for the organisation, Missing People, stating that they act as ‘a lifeline when someone disappears’. The Facebook page has over 40,000 likes and the Twitter over 60,000 followers. Both networking sites post information and images on a regular basis in order to reach as many people as possible. In the case of Tony Loftis’ missing daughter, social media played a vital role, and Loftis is in no doubt that it saved his daughter. The thirteen-year-old was found after twelve days with a 42-year-old sexual predator after Loftis set up a social media campaign which led to the tip about his daughter’s whereabouts.

One twitter user's campaign to find April Jones.

One twitter user’s campaign to find April Jones.

A similar campaign was set up in attempt to find seven-year-old April Jones, who was abducted whilst playing outside her home in the mid-Wales town of Machynlleth in October 2012. Social media carried Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags such as #findapril. In this particular case, however, the campaign was unsuccessful, as April Jones had tragically been murdered.

Celebrities can also be a key player in finding missing people through social media. Due to their influence and bulk of followers, a retweet of a post regarding a missing person can push the information out to a huge audience. In May last year, celebrities including Stephen Fry, Philip Schofield and Matt Dawson threw their support behind the Big Tweet for Missing People, which took place on the 25 May.

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Young girl spotted at Europa League finals baring remarkable resemblance to Madeleine McCann.

In May 2014, football fans took to Twitter in belief that they had spotted Madeleine McCann at the Europa League final. A picture of a young girl baring remarkable resemblance to the missing child, with even the same eye defect, went viral including a retweet to the Met Police. It became apparent, though, that the girl in the photograph could not be Madeleine, as the flaw was in the wrong eye. Despite failure on this occasion, the mass tweeting demonstrates the scope of social media, and the collaboration of the public within the digital platform.

So what could the future hold?

With social media, no one is ever out of touch. The digital platform can certainly assist investigations, improving the openness of policing by connecting to masses of people and bringing the police and public closer together. Most forces have their own Twitter or Facebook page, and can use this platform to alert the public to missing persons, suspects and crimes, and ask for help and information the public may possess.

A graph illustrating the 10 most common topics tweeted by police forces across the globe.

A graph illustrating the 10 most common topics tweeted by police forces across the globe.

For example, in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, the police and public took to social media to analyse photos and videos of suspicious individuals with backpacks on the day of the attack that fitted the official descriptions.

However, despite success stories there will always be potential for damage. Social media may hinder police investigations through false reports and ‘trolling’, validating its unreliability. However, not all police are involving social media in their investigations. In December 2014, police investigating the death of fifteen-year-old Dario Bartoli from Surrey asked anyone with information to contact them directly before sharing it on social media. The investigators acknowledged the possible implications of including social media in their investigation.

Who knows what the future holds for the platform within crime fighting. Through social media, anyone has the opportunity to contribute to investigations, and with more people looking for criminals – from behind computer screens or within police stations – there will be fewer places for them to hide.

Follow the author on Twitter: @lucybushell

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