The ubiquity of camera phones and a citizen’s ability to upload video content and commentary to social media has increased the visibility of the police. Research suggests that social media has shifted the power to the people to influence public opinion. Social media video content depicting police conduct that, is perceived as unjust, may influence how the public perceives the police. Current research indicates that this new visibility may moderate police behavior and influence individual officer tactics and use of force decisions. Police organizations should have a plan that includes a proactive post-incident fact-based social media campaign to mitigate the spread of misinformation. Future research should concentrate on designing scholarly research methods to measure the effects of social media on policing.
The public’s access to mobile communications devices enabled with photo and video recording capabilities (camera phones) and participation in social media has increased the “visibility of the police and exposed the public to police misconduct” (Brown, 2015, p.293). In the age of social media, the public can immediately view interactions between the police and a citizen and formulate an opinion without the benefit of the facts or context (Braga, Winship, Tyler, Fagan, & Meares, 2014). A single incident captured on social media and perceived by the public as unfair or excessive has the ability to undermine the public’s trust of the police. For the police to be effective, they must be recognized by the public as being “procedurally just” (Rosenbaum & Lawrence, 2017, p. 295).
The Pew Research Center (as cited by Miethe, Venger, & Lieberman, 2019), reported more than 75% of adults, 18-24-years old, are active on some type of social media platform such as Instagram, Snapchat, or YouTube (p. 35). The report further indicated that approximately 75% of all Americans turn to social media to view news reports and video content. In an environment today where social media posts are actually creating news, the actions of the police and negative effects are rapidly magnified and compounded. The immediate perception often becomes a reality, and the public judges the actions of the police as just or unjust. (Pyrooz, Decker, Wolfe & Shjarback, 2016).
Walsh and O’Connor (2018), conducted an exhaustive research on the literature related to the effects of social media and the implications for policing (p. 1). The lack scholarly research has created gaps in the knowledge regarding the effects of social media on policing (p. 9). The research further indicates that the social media phenomenon is an emerging area of study; however, there is no unified body of knowledge establishing a relationship to social media and criminal justice theory, policies, and operations (p. 1). Therefore, social media’s impact on policing must be implied or inferred absent of scholarly research.
What has been the effects of social media on policing?
Our police agencies enforce laws through compliance or by applying various levels of force as a means of social control. Since the inception of modern policing, how the police engage the public and to what degree the police employ force as a means of control has remained mostly hidden from public view. This opacity changed when the media began filming and broadcasting the civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. It changed again in the 1980s with the advent of the camcorder or personal video camera. Incidents like the Rodney King police beating and television shows like COPS revealed the power of video to influence public opinion. However, in the past decade, video surveillance and sousveillance, the latter meaning an activity that was video recorded by the participant or bystander, is “ubiquitous and has resulted in policing’s new visibility” (Brucato, 2015).
Visual evidence often lacks the full context of the encounter or the police officer’s perception (Parent, 2006). The viewer or consumer of social media information must rely on their observations and the comments of others to form an opinion about whether the police actions were justified or excessive. Uploaded photos, videos, and unregulated reporting has significantly impacted the way in which the public perceives the police. This new visibility, and type of citizen reporting, creates distrust for authority, promotes false anti-police narratives, and promotes fear of the police (Bock, 2016).
The role of social media to influence and affect domestic and international events cannot be understated. Social media has become a relevant public source of information that is not constrained by the editorial controls of traditions media. Video clips involving police use of force (PUF) incidents strongly influence public attitudes about the police and whether the observed conduct was “excessive and unjustifiable” (Miethe, Venger, & Lieberman, 2019, p. 35). This perception, coupled with the discernible appearance of police civil rights violations, can result in social conflict (Graaf & Meijer, 2018).
For example, in the United States (US), the perception is that there is an increase in police shootings. Social media and technology (e.g., cell phone video, etc.) likely contributed to this perception (Alonso, 2018). In addition, Goode (2018) hypothesizes that the concentrated nature of PUF on social media platforms contributes to the perception that these incidents are extremely prevalent. How the public perceives an incident is often shaped by the first things that are viewed and discussed on social media (as citied in Brown, 2016).
In 2019, Miethe, Venger & Lieberman (2019), examined the influence of traditional and social media sources on public perceptions of the police. The study consisted of an online survey of 581 individuals who were asked to evaluate the police use of force actions depicted in the video and reported by different media sources. Study participants viewed four PUF videos from different media sources (i.e., traditional media, social media, and control group videos where no media source was identified). The participants were told the alleged crime of the subject in the video. The subject’s alleged crime was either reported as a suspected shoplifter or suspected murderer. To increase the salience to the individual survey participant, the videos used in the study depicted details of a specific environment, conditions, and a specific media source.
The findings suggested that PUF video attributed to traditional national TV network news were evaluated as more trustworthy than the same videos attributed to social media sources. Participants also rated PUF as less excessive when the police used force on the alleged murder subject. Lastly, the personal salience of PUF incidents may have been moderated by the level and type of reported media usage (Miethe et al., 2019).
More specifically, 48% of the participants indicated they trusted the source of video content attributed to traditional media outlets, whereas only 37% indicated they trusted video content from social media sources (p. 42). The participants evaluated 64% of the video content attributed to traditional media was evaluated as an accurate depiction of the incident, whereas only 57% of the video content attributed to social media was considered an accurate depiction (p. 42). The study reflected a high level of suspicion about the credibility of video and message content presented on modern social media platforms (Miethe et al., 2019).
According to Miethe et al. (2019), the results revealed that the typical participant was critical of the PUF and found the actions of the police to be excessive even in the incidents that involved the subject suspected of murder. However, the results further indicated that the participants were less concerned when the subject of the PUF was a violent suspect. For example, the participants generally agreed that it was not excessive force when the police chased and tackled an alleged fleeing violent suspect. Conversely, approximately 68% of the participants believed that when the police “slammed” a female to the ground from behind for attempting to walk away was excessive PUF (p. 43).
Considering the findings, Miethe et al. (2019, have made a compelling argument that video content may have the persuasive power to shape public attitudes about PUF. Police have only a limited ability to avoid being recorded and no ability to control the distribution of police-involved video incidents. Therefore, police have a significant challenge in changing public attitudes about PUF and other video depictions of police and citizen encounters.
The Miethe et al., (2019) study suggested that what matters most to the public is the media source, content, and salience to each individual viewer. What the public observes in a video encounter between the police and a citizen also mattered. The mass distribution of police related content and unlimited access to videos have and will likely continue to shape public opinions and perceptions of the police. This study highlighted the importance for the police to immediately disseminate the facts following a PUF incident using all forms of media. If the public is left to speculate, they may follow the narrative presented by others, which may negatively influence public opinions and how the police are perceived.
In 2015, Brown conducted a study to determine if the police had modified their policing behaviors due to the “ubiquity of camera phones” (p. 293). According to the author, the three most recent techno-social developments that have the potential to influence police behavior are 1) the ubiquity of camera phones, 2), public awareness of the police and capacity to engage in citizen journalism, and 3) the proliferation of social media and online platforms that allow the citizens to submit content with post-event narratives.
Pursuant to the study, patrol officers in Ottawa and Toronto, Canada participated in a survey regarding the impact of social media on their personal behavior. In the study, 94 % of the respondents reported that they were aware that they had been recorded in the performance of their official duties (Brown, 2015, p. 302). Most reported that during these occurrences, their attention was on the issue at hand rather than determining if they were being recorded. More than half, 51% reported the thought of always being recorded was always present on their mind (p. 302). Regarding the impact of being recorded, 38% stated they discussed their concerns about being recorded and “going viral” with their peers (p. 302).
The most significant finding indicates 74% of the respondents reported personal behavioral changes because of the capacity of the citizen to record and upload a video of the police. Regarding the use of force, 59% of the officers stated they had moderated their use of force behavior because of citizen video recording (Brown, 2015, p. 303). It should be noted the behavioral changes went beyond the use of force decision making. Most officers reported the potential of being recorded also caused them to change what were previously considered routine activities such as eating food, parking illegally, speeding, and watching a child’s game while on duty.
According to Brown (2015), the participants reported that they were aware they were being watched; therefore, it influenced many of their actions such as speeding and use of force decisions. Because of this awareness and change in behavior, the author concluded this study revealed that this new visibility tends to moderate police use of force and individual behavior, which may improve police and citizen outcomes.
Scholars, criminal justice practitioners, and the media have speculated about the possible influence of media on citizens’ perceptions of the police. However, little is known about how media consumption influences these perceptions (Dowler & Zawilski, 2007; Weitzer & Tuch, 2005; as cited in Foster, 2019). Across the broad spectrum of policing, there does not appear to be a published scholarly study that specifically reports a correlation between social media and police training methodology (Walsh & O’Connor, 2018).
The Internet and social media appear to have shifted the balance of the power to influence the public from the traditional media to the hands of the people and various social media platforms. According to Heflin (2018), this shift from traditional media sources to the unregulated internet and social media sources has created a gap in credibility (as cited in Miethe et al., 2019). Absent context, a person may rely heavily on their personal opinions, biases, and life experiences when evaluating a video depicting PUF. Research indicated that the mass distribution of police-related content and unlimited access to videos may shape public opinions and perceptions of the police (Miethe et al., 2019).
Public opinion may be shaped by publicly viewed video content; however, content presented by traditional media outlets is perceived by the public as more credible. The research further indicated what mattered most about video content was the salience to the viewer and whether the actions of the police were fair in relation to the actions of the citizen. If the public is left to speculate, they may follow the narrative presented by others, which may negatively influence public opinions and how the police are perceived. Therefore, following a potentially controversial incident, the police should immediately disseminate the facts using all forms of media (Miethe et al., 2019).
The current research suggests that the ubiquity of camera phones and the public’s ability to record and share police videos on social media appeared to have moderated police behavior. Research indicated, individual officers overwhelmingly reported that they were constantly aware that they may be recorded by the public. They further reported that the potential for police related video to be uploaded to social media influenced their personal tactics and behavior when they interacted with the public (Brown, 2015).
According to an analysis of the data, police professionalism training, community police initiatives, policies, and rules failed to change or sustain police behavior (Brown, 2015). However, these types of initiatives, in conjunction with this new visibility, may influence the actions of the police, and public perception of the police. When an individual officer believed they were being observed, they changed their behavior and came into compliance with societal expectations (Foucault, 1977, as citied in Brown, 2015).
There is a gap in knowledge and the implications of how social media may have affected police operations. This area of study has been largely overlooked by researchers (Walsh & O’Connor, 2019). Based on the data presented herein, it may be reasonably inferred that the Internet and social media may influence how the police are perceived by the public. Leaders, policymakers, and training professionals should be aware of the potential implications of this new visibility created by social media, and train police to succeed in this new operational environment. Future research should concentrate on designing scholarly research methods to measure the effects of social media on policing.
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Dr. Dan Rousseau is an Adjunct Professor, Division of Criminal Justice, College of Safety and Emergency Services, Columbia Southern University. Dr. Rousseau has over thirty years of military and law enforcement operational and training experience. He is a retired Supervisory Special Agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and a retired officer of the United States Army Reserve. Dr. Rousseau’s research interests include emerging issues in the criminal justice system. He has earned a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice from the University of Central Florida, a Master’s in Education from Central Michigan University, and a Doctorate in Criminal Justice from California University of Pennsylvania.
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