Social Media Use in Identifying and Investigating Criminal Conduct
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Proactive policing strategies and multiple forms of police misconduct and violence have disproportionately affected people of color who live in urban, disadvantaged communities (Brunson & Miller, 2006). Justification of this behavior is rooted in historical narratives and a belief structure, often perpetuated in the criminal justice system that views Black men as “symbolic assailants” (Anderson, 1990; Bridges & Steen, 1998; Brunson & Miller, 2006; Holmes, 2000; Jackson, 1997; Jacobs & O’Brien, 1998; Kennedy, 1997; Smith & Holmes, 2003; Quillian & Pager, 2001). Feagin (1991) warns that these covert and routine strategies have widespread, cumulative effects on both individuals and the collective consciousness of Black communities.
Writing through the recollections of his interview subjects, he cites the experiences of his interlocutors to make the point that the cumulative impact of racial discrimination accounts for the special way that Blacks have of looking at and evaluating interracial incidents [ . . . ] What many whites see as black “paranoia” is simply a realistic sensitivity to White–Black interaction created and constantly reinforced by the two types of cumulative discrimination. (Feagin, 1991, p. 115)
Given this frame then, the use of social media to predict criminal activity is problematic. Are police culturally equipped to understand the nuanced linguistic styles of youth communicating on social media? Sociologists suggest that many youth and young adults who live in violent neighborhoods may project a tough image or follow a “code of the street” in their community to stay safe and protected (Anderson, 1999). Could the same be true online? Does an individual who talks about drugs and violence on social media actually engage in these activities? According to Jeff Lane (2016), online is the new digital street on which the code of the street meets the concept of networked publics, or the space and community that is “ . . . restructured. by networked technologies” (boyd, 2008). The questions posed above are urgent as “Police and prosecutors see the street online and offline. [ . . . ] It is on the terms of the digital street that justice turns” (Lane, 2016).
We start from a standpoint that “ethnic prejudices and ideologies are not innate, and do not develop spontaneously [ . . . ] they are acquired and learned [ . . . ] through text and talk” (Van Dijk, 1993, p. 146) and that embedded in the interpretation of online discourse central to social media policing is who’s talking to whom and about what. Traditional criminal profiling relies on the correlation between behavioral factors and the past experience of law enforcement in discovering criminal behavior associated with those factors; thus, profiling rests on the perceived accuracy of the profile as a predictor of criminality (Carter, 2014).
Proponents argue that if crime is greater among certain races, racial profiling makes sense (Carter, 2014). However, opponents show that there does not exist disproportionate rates of criminal activity in minority communities (and certainly not rates proportionate with the amount/intensity of aggressive policing of said communities) and point to societal costs of the practice (Carter, 2014). Carter argues that excessive and undue policing of Blacks is a contemporary analog of slavery, an extension of the long-held myth of Black criminality, which served, and ostensibly still serves, to justify and reify the inhumane treatment of Blacks (Carter, 2014).
African Americans are disproportionately subjected to law enforcement attention, and thus, disproportionately prosecuted, convicted, sentenced to jail, disenfranchised from voting, and increasingly removed from the mainstream world of jobs, families, and community involvement (Carter, 2014).