No Social (Media) DistancingPolice and the Future of Social MediaBy Cherri Greeno, Waterloo Regional Police ServiceSocial media is a large part of both our personal and professional lives and, consequently, impacts the way police services communicate and engage with their communities. And, like it or not, it’s not going away.When police services made the decision to engage in social media years ago, they did so with enthusiasm, seeing an opportunity to reach different audiences in several different ways. It was an opportunity to build relationships, share information, and tell our story. It also provided an opportunity to receive feedback – but at what cost?While there are many benefits to using social media, there are also many serious drawbacks for police services. Most police organizations, as well as community members, argue that what started out as an opportunity for positive virtual conversations has now turned toxic. Lies are told. Threats are made. Misinformation is spread. Libelous comments are posted.In a world where it’s easier than ever to target someone online, we must ask ourselves, “Is the risk worth it? Is a police service’s social media presence draining resources? Is it affecting the mental health and wellness of both community members and police members? Are we openly allowing a platform for harassment to exist?”Gone are the days when individuals cared so much about an issue that they would put pen to paper and write a letter to the editor of a media outlet or to an organization. Now, individuals and groups can remain entirely anonymous online, even using fake names to relay a message – whether that message is true or not. This makes such negativity difficult to ignore and difficult to report and stop. So the question becomes, “Is it possible to maintain a social media presence while protecting members of the community, as well as members of your service?” The answer is yes.“ SOCIAL MEDIA OFFERS A CLOAK OF ANONYMITY FOR PEOPLE WHO WISH TO SPOUT VITRIOL AND HATE WHILE HIDING BEHIND A USERNAME. YOU CAN ALLOW INFORMATION TO BE SHARED, BUT WHEN IT GETS TO THE POINT WHERE IT HAS NO VALUE, THEN IT SHOULD BE SHUT OFF. – SCOTT BLANDFORD, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, PROGRAM COORDINATOR, POLICING & PUBLIC SAFETY, WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITYFighting Trolls Recently, some police services have begun to shut down the comment section on their social media platforms. They have instead provided other forms of open communication (direct messaging, a phone number or an email option) for anyone wishing to make a comment or engage with the service.Scott Blandford, a retired London Police Service police officer who is currently an assistant professor teaching in the Public Safety and Policing programs at Wilfrid Laurier University, believes that this is the exact action police services should be taking in order to force those who wish to comment to do so in the right way – through two-way, respectful communication. “By calling in to speak to you, you are weeding out those people who just want to go on to spout hate. It forces them into a two-way conversation, not a one-way conversation,” said Blandford.This is not to say that social media does not provide value to police services. It does, particularly given the fact that it allows organizations to disseminate and receive information quickly and efficiently. It can also assist in mobilizing public participation if and when needed.According to a 2016 Law Enforcement Use of Social Mediasurvey by the Urban Institute and the International Association of Chiefs of Police 1, law enforcement agencies use social media for a wide range of activities. The study found that more than 80 per cent of law enforcement agencies use social media to notify the public of safety concerns, engage with the community, manage their agency’s reputation or notify people of non-criminal issues (e.g., road closures).But, according to a study entitled Police in social media: To protect and share?2, social media can also be a “mixed blessing for the police, since social platforms attract criticism and even insult.” The study points to the example of the New York Police Department (NYPD) when the service asked users to upload images of police officers with civilians using the hashtag #myNYPD. The social media pages were soon filled with photos of officers allegedly using excessive force against civilians, resulting in the exact opposite goal of what they were hoping for.Allowing negative comments to flood your page can, in turn, affect how the community as well as public decision-makers perceive your content and the policing profession in general. Because those who submit offensive, inappropriate, and false submissions tend to become the loudest voice in the room, that is the voice that is heard and seen by viewers (your community). When readers are constantly exposed to this negativity, they become less trustful of the content that is being supplied and, thus, less trustful of the police service that is publishing the content.Blandford also noted that this creates a void that gets filled by those with “Google PhDs” who are committed to developing a negative narrative.Right to Offend? Both the Waterloo Regional Police Service and Niagara Regional Police Service have made the decision to turn off their comments after repeated discriminatory, sexist, racist, and threatening messages were left on social media platforms. Without resources to constantly monitor, delete, and block these comments and users, the decision was made to no longer make the option available. Soon after, members expressed their gratitude. Neither service received much negative feedback resulting from that decision. In fact, it was quite the opposite, with some members coming forward to say thank you. They said that reading daily negativity was affecting their morale and that of their families.To those who argue that such a decision is a form of censorship, we argue that it’s simply a form of ensuring a safe and friendly platform for all users. According to Blandford, “People will say, ‘You’re a publicly funded service, and it’s my right to say what I want.’ Well, yes, to a certain extent, but that content doesn’t have to be published. Social media offers a cloak of anonymity for people who wish to spout vitriol and hate while hiding behind a username. You can allow information to be shared, but when it gets to the point where it has no value, then it should be shut off.”As social media continues to grow and new platforms arise, it’s vital that police services find a middle ground – away that supports the benefits of the platform but that also supports the wellness of the community and police service members. It’s also important that we remain mindful of those working behind the scenes – whether it’s your public information officers or corporate communication professionals. They deal with a vast array of online bullying and harassment 24/7, which can easily lead to increased stress, hopelessness, exhaustion and depression. Employers have a legal duty to protect their employees from defamation and bullying on their corporate social media accounts. Take time to check in on them, ask if they are okay and have wellness resources readily available to help them if needed. Most of all, let them know they are appreciated.Social media is here to stay. The medium has value for police organizations if used properly. As police services, we are obligated to keep people safe and well. This does not simply include the physical community, but the virtual one as well.1 https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/88661/2016-law-enforcement-use-of-social-mediasurvey_5.pdfhttps://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/ download/10459/10038Cherri Greeno is the Director of Corporate Affairs for the Waterloo Regional Police Service and Chair of the OACP’s Ontario Media Relations Officers Network. She can be reached at cherri.greeno@wrps.on.ca.
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