There has been lots written about the use of social media in the recent UK riots, and perhaps I will return to that subject in the future. In these posts however, I want to focus on how police forces can use social media in serious and major crime investigations, and talk about some of the potential downsides that this new technology offers.
Part 1 focuses on some of the uses of social media in major crime investigations.
In any major incident happening anywhere near people with a mobile phone signal, you can bet that there will be coverage on the social media networks. In the case of the Hudson plane crash in the USA, the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Michael Jackson, and numerous other events, Twitter was the first place the news broke. For police forces this is both a benefit and a challenge.
Around 7:28pm on Wednesday 13th July 2011 the emergency services were called to the Broadfield Lane Industrial Estate in the small Lincolnshire town of Boston after reports of an explosion in an industrial unit on the estate.
When police got there they found that five men had been killed and a further man had been seriously injured.
The initial response on Twitter was rapid – at or about the same time that the 999 call came through to police headquarters, the first tweet on the subject went out, talking about multiple fatalities.
In the absence of an official message, people rushed to fill the vacuum on the social media sites.
As you can see there was a significant degree of questioning and understandable concern from people nearby, and those with friends and relatives nearby. There were those who thought it might be an Islamic fundamentalist bomb factory, others an exercise, whilst others guessed at gas explosions. Luckily this event happened before the riots, otherwise it could have been a trigger for something far worse, and the explosion occurred at a time and place making it unlikely to have been a terrorist attack.
Ultimately, by the time this was the main item on the 10 o’clock news, #BostonExplosion was trending on Twitter (trending simply means that Twitter automatically sees this as a subject with lots of people interested in it. Twitter describes it as a way to help people discover the “most breaking” news stories from across the world).
Once the police released an audio update on the situation, this was picked up by Twitter, and the official line began to get out. There was however nearly 3 hours when the social media world was making up rumours and trying to guess what had happened.
Lesson – police forces need to think about what will be happening on social media, and they need to consider it quickly. An agreed and measured press release in 3 hours no longer works as the sole method of communication. When I speak to SIOs (Senior Investigating Officers for such incidents) they are often concerned, rightly, with managing information flows. Reveal too much and a force runs the risk of looking foolish at best, or revealing critical investigative avenues to the criminals at worst. However a simple reassurance message can be released “we are aware of the incident and are attending. “Further updates will be posted using this hashtag” “Please do not come to the scene” etc. Rumours that are obviously untrue can be quickly dealt with “we have no indication that this was a terrorist incident” for example. Quick communication does not mean losing control. No communication on the other hand does risk losing control.
Community issues, confidence and reassurance
After the incident there were discussions that continued on Twitter, Facebook and on the comments threads on various websites. Again a police force needs to be aware of what is being said for investigative and intelligence reasons, but also to reassure the public.
Comments posted within a day or so included “…this is what happens when you get involved in illegal ops is no great loss as they are defrauding every tax paying BRITISH citizen what else are they involved in?… get rid of them they are only sponging on us and our country send all their families back to where they come from ASAP” (from a website comments thread) and the following on Facebook from the right-wing English Defence League.
As well as indicators of community tensions towards the eastern European community in Boston there were comments about the police. “…police were aware of this illegal alcohol manufacture – if we are to believe what the locals are saying. Lives have been lost and there will be the cost of investigating this, and no doubt compensation payments/court cases, all because of the police’s inability to investigate crime” and “All the locals seem to know they were illegally distilling vodka so why didn’t the police know??”.
Lesson – as well as the opportunity to investigate crime, forces need to consider community tensions as expressed online, and to use the opportunities presented by comments such as all the local knew this was going on to seek intelligence about the incident and possibly prevent other tragedies occurring. I use the word tragedy deliberately, as the following comment, posted on a YouTube video of the incident seems a good way to drive my point home.