The police and social media

November 24, 2013

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THE chief minister of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, recently urged policemen to utilise social networking sites to reach out to the public during emergencies.

We have commonly seen that in developing societies the institution of the police lacks the initiative to make optimum use of technology and social media.

Extremist groups fight simultaneously at the physical level and on cyberspace. To execute their immediate agenda and launch attacks, the terrorists make use of physical space, sometimes for a few hours, or a few minutes.

However, in order to wage a psychological war they ensure their continuous presence on social networking sites. The proliferation and effects of such sites have generated a new debate on how to counter their presence and ensure surveillance of social networking sites.

Referring to the Rawalpindi incident on Muharram 10, the Punjab law minister condemned the negative use of social media. There is an impression that social media fanned the flames of hatred after the incident.

An example from India would be useful in this regard. In September, hate-inciting, fake YouTube videos and doctored photographs were used to cause widespread rioting in Muzaffarnagar, UP. Fifty people lost their lives.

To reinforce their influence, extremist groups increasingly rely on social media but our law enforcement and regulatory agencies still don’t know how to tackle the challenge. Social media can be effectively used to bring the police and community on one page. In mega urban centres, apart from the physical presence of the law enforcers, people expect the online presence of the police.

Technology has introduced innovations but also added to the existing challenges facing law enforcement officers. At the other, end, extremists have easily moved from websites to more active social media.

Recently in Nairobi, militants attacking a shopping mall used social media to claim responsibility.

The Syrian Electronic Army, a group of computer hackers, has resurfaced with a different account after their previous one was suspended by Twitter. Misuse of social media for furthering its mission has resulted in a global debate on how to regulate unbridled social media sites.

Social media has enabled protesters to quickly organise and communicate with each other. To keep the protesters under control, police must know how to monitor these types of communications. Further, social media sites are also helpful in identifying witnesses, victims and perpetrators.

Police need to learn quickly about social media to keep pace. Many police forces around the world have started to use it for engagement, intelligence and investigation, and often release pictures or videos of wanted criminal and terrorist suspects on their websites.

The websites of police departments in Pakistan, on the contrary, are neither public friendly nor interactive. This is a pity as police websites could help in the introduction of e-policing in urban areas.

In the case of emergencies, sites such as Twitter and Facebook are effective ways to disseminate crime alerts, investigation updates, safety alerts and to counter propaganda.

According to a study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “81pc of 728 [US police] departments surveyed said they used social networking”.

To detect criminal activities many countries have equipped and empowered law enforcement agencies to monitor social media. To identify rioters in the 2011 riots, the London Metropolitan Police used social media during the investigation process. Help was taken from the extensive CCTV network that captured images of the rioters and these images were posted online with an appeal to the public to identify the suspects.

On the eve of mega events like the G20 conference and London Olympics, the London police monitored sites using Radian 6 and Repknight software. During the Olympics, the police monitored 32 million social media articles and 10,300 tweets.

At home, in the age of mass communication, our law-enforcement agencies lack clearly defined media policies. In the absence of such policies, police are facing persistent and blatant bashing on the media.

Communication is important for effective policing. Gone are the days when police officers seeking information depended solely on khuli kutcheris or ‘open courts’ and touring villages. Traditional methods can be retained but social media would be a critical addition to the current means of policing. Increased public say and interaction will automatically help improve relations between the law enforcers and the community.

Social media sites have proved helpful in the collection of evidence. It has also helped identify the location of suspects. Several criminal cases have been cracked thanks partially to social media, as police kept tabs on suspects, the less sophisticated of whom bragged about their exploits and updated their pages naming the people and places they had visited.

According to the findings of a four-year study comparing the effects of social media and radical ideology, social networks were the major drivers behind the evolving of violent extremists. More than 100 current and former extremists were interviewed for the study, which found that social media enabled people to develop associations with extremists and terrorist groups.

Says Greg Barton, the director of Australia’s Monash University’s Global Terror Research Centre, “Terrorists and radicals are often lonely individuals who lack any sense of belonging”. Consequently, those with such inclination are easily trapped by extremist organisations often through social media.

Many websites in Pakistan inject extremism, and there’s no reason why the police should not counter this negative narrative through the same means by promoting de-radicalisation via social media. In other words, social media can be effectively used for peace.

The writer is a deputy inspector general of the police.

alibabakhel@hotmail.com