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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.


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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).


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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).


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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).


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Police agencies use social media for a variety of reasons. Data from International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) suggests that 96.4% of police agencies use social media in some capacity (IACP, 2015). The most common use of social media is for criminal investigations (e.g., a police officer finds evidence or additional information about a missing or wanted person, gang participation, or web-based crimes such as cyberstalking or cyberbullying).


The police may perform a manual search on a social media platform or request specific information from social media platforms. In some instances, the police may also install software on a targeted individual’s computer and perform analysis on social media data that have been captured (Trottier & Fuch, 2014). Social media is also used for community outreach and information sharing. Online policing practices are formed from a multiplicity of technologies available to various agencies. These technologies provide a wide spectrum of access to social media content with differing relation between the police, social media users, and those who manage the platforms. One’s visibility on social media and communication of everyday experiences, practices, and activities provides the perfect platform for covert criminal surveillance by the police.


To that end, social media policing reduces transparency and increases the power imbalance in police work as it further underscores the unbalanced “ . . . asymmetrical relations of visibility . . . ” between police and the public (Trottier, 2012b, p. 234).


Daniel Trottier argues that the use of these strategies—what he terms “social media policing”—may represent a new paradigm for profiling and preemptive policing (Trottier, 2012b). With this approach, one predicated on the resistant readings demonstrated in our model, social media and its products are recontextualized in terms of its utility for crime reduction, investigatory purposes, and production of evidence—all uses that are well outside the intended purview (Trottier, 2012b). Moreover, while room for these uses is regularly included in Terms of Service agreements, investigations by law enforcement officials on social media violate users reported privacy expectations (Trottier, 2012a).


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Social policing requires that social media users monitor their own output and that of their network, as close network connections and relationships may become liabilities if output is deemed problematic by law enforcement (Trottier, 2012a). All told, as stressed by Trottier, the arrangement is an asymmetrical one—the very platforms that amplify user visibility, allow police to act invisibly—and a counter to the rhetoric of “ . . . mutual transparency . . . ” (Trottier, 2012b).

The IACP maintains a Center for Social Media in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, and the US Department of Justice, in an effort “to build the capacity of law enforcement to use social media to prevent and solve crimes, strengthen police-community relations, and enhance services” (Orin, 2011).


The site also provides access to a survey on law enforcement’s use of social media and a primer for such agencies’ establishing a social media presence.

The IACP’s stated social media mission is echoed on the websites of the technology vendors whose products and services they employ. The website of Geofeedia, a location-based social media monitoring service, speaks of the importance of geo-location in the monitoring of social media to pinpoint hotspots and to anticipate trouble. It also features testimonials from law enforcement agencies across the country.


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These testimonials, however, must be read within the context the discursive relationship between broader society and law enforcement. This relationship, as we have demonstrated, excludes communities of color and by so doing turns the technological gaze on them. It can be reasonably argued then that technology such as Geofeedia that affords its clients the opportunity to “Discover trends and patterns within the world’s largest set of location-based social data to inform better decision-making” (geofeedia.com) inherently allow for racist practices as the parameters they employ are user defined and not response driven. If communities of color are socially constructed as problematic sites, then this is where the technological gaze goes, in anticipation of a problem—the social controls morphing into punitive cognitive controls.


David Lyon emphasizes that the role of computers in electronic surveillance is an intermediary for human-on-human observation—as in storing and processing massive troves of personal data (Lyon, 1994, 2003). Increasingly, material derived from social media is being used in police investigations (Trottier, 2012b). Traditional surveillance—such as a guard tower or closed circuit television—involves a comprehensive view from above (Trottier, 2012b), whereas surveillance via social media offers a synthesis of views from both above (Trottier, 2012b). Thus, social media offers more ways of seeing more people, due in large part to the saturation of social media and its associated practices in people’s everyday lives around the world (Trottier, 2012a).


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This enables greater and more robust social surveillance, which is defined by Alice Marwick as the “ . . . ongoing eavesdropping, investigation, gossip, and inquiry that constitutes information gathering by people about their peers.” This process, amplified by ubiquitous social media exposure, allows users to collect “ . . . information about their friends and acquaintances . . . ” (Marwick, 2012). For Marwick, social surveillance is distinct from other surveillance types in three different areas—power, hierarchy, and reciprocity—assuming distributed, equitable, and reciprocal relations in each (Marwick, 2012).

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