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Law Enforcement Response to Social Media Warfare

Law enforcement agencies and officers are stuck right in the middle of social media warfare. Criminal activity is riddled with social media warfare tactics as are law enforcement’s efforts to fight crime. Social protest and civil disobedience is organized quickly using social media and often more quickly than law enforcement can respond. Crimes of fraud and harassment are perpetrated using social media warfare tactics, which creates a challenge for law enforcement to keep abreast of tactics and criminal activity. Another challenge is policing the personal use of social media by law enforcement officers, which at times has been embarrassing and compromising for law enforcement agencies around the world. This chapter examines some of the issues and challenges that law enforcement agencies are addressing in the realm of social media warfare.

Law Enforcement Officers' Personal Use of Social Media

Given the thorough integration of social media into everyday life and the ease with which people can instantly share their thoughts, opinions, and status with family, friends, and strangers, some people, including law enforcement officers, will post items that other people may find inappropriate. This becomes particularly problematic when an employee of a public safety agency posts or is depicted in such material. Because of the significant adverse effects public safety employees’ misuse of social media can have on them as witnesses, on agency operations, and on a department’s relationship with the community it serves, many police agencies have addressed their employees’ use of social media, whether proactively in the form of policy, reactively in the face of an incident, or both [1].

Some law enforcement employees, particularly those accustomed to using social media regularly to communicate with friends or followers, often post material with little or no consideration of who may have access to it or how it may be shared. Not surprisingly, there are many examples of the perils faced by officers or other department employees who post first and think later.

Further complicating the issue for police agencies and because of evolving generational standards of what constitutes private information, younger officers and other agency employees are more inclined to share information publicly that in the past was communicated only to family members or close acquaintances.

Because of the ever-increasing frequency of government employees’ use of social media both on and off duty, many law enforcement agencies have recently adopted policies and guidelines that specifically address this issue. These policies set forth the expectations and rules governing employees’ use of social media, and violation of them might subject the employee to departmental discipline. Several law enforcement agencies integrate a cybervetting component into the comprehensive background investigations they conduct on applicants and on-board employees.

Law enforcement always has been a dangerous profession because officers risk their lives daily. In the past, officers could take several steps to help protect themselves and their loved ones from threats. Social media has brought danger home to officers and their families because they cannot shield themselves as easily from the repercussions of their job responsibilities. More and more law enforcement agencies are beginning to understand the influence and pitfalls of social media and are adopting policies addressing the use of social media in order to protect their employees.

Information obtained from public records (e.g., birth, death, and real estate) has been available online for years. By increasing exposure of personally identifiable information, social media raises the threat level for law enforcement personnel and their families. There are few constraints in the use of social media and almost anyone can post anything online with little fear of repercussion. An anonymous online environment encourages inflammatory and shocking behavior and makes it easier to perpetrate the theft of personal or financial data. Individuals sometimes create screen names or new identities that allow them to act outside their normal inhibitions and participate in caustic and less ethical activities they would otherwise avoid. Anonymity of social media users makes it far more difficult to address these issues. Social media can create a mob mentality where one stimulus may spark a wide-scale reaction that feeds on itself and rapidly develops faster, reaches farther, and spreads more rapidly than anything law enforcement has had to deal with before.

Rapid access to personally identifiable information about law enforcement officers makes it easier for an individual to learn personal facts about an officer. This can help to eliminate any cooling off period during which individuals might reconsider their retaliatory actions. Outraged offenders easily could get to officers’ doorsteps before their patrol shifts end, leaving them unable to defend their homes or families.

There have been cases of comments posted online by officers that have led to disciplinary actions. These behaviors are the key focus of social media policies currently in place. Postings by the public over which departments have no control can be even more damaging. Regardless of their level of truth, negative comments create lasting impressions.

To protect employees, law enforcement agencies are implementing internal management mechanisms to lessen this potential threat. Ongoing training on current issues, the hazards of social media, and self-protection is important, but so is having a dedicated social media manager who facilitates the elimination of employees’ personally identifiable information from social networking sites and maintains consistency for all personnel.

Law enforcement agencies can also benefit from paying attention to comments about a department, its programs, and personnel that are posted on social media. Agencies can identify and mitigate negative images or potential dangers. Consistent monitoring of networking sites provides an early warning system against any threats being developed or discussed online [2].

A typical law enforcement agency will have a policy that covers employee personal use of social media that covers employee personal use of social media affecting the workplace and or the department’s ability to perform its public mission. Many departments recognize the role that social media plays in the personal lives of some employees. However, since the personal use of social media can affect employees in their official capacity, law enforcement agencies are cautious about how employees use social media in their private lives.

Policies generally state that engaging in prohibited speech outlined in the policy may provide grounds for discipline and may be used to undermine or impeach an officer’s testimony in legal proceedings. Many policies include the following concepts:

  • ? Employees shall not post speech that negatively impacts the department’s ability to serve the public.
  • ? Employees may express themselves as private citizens on social media sites as long as employees do not make, share, or comment in support of any posting that includes harassment, threats of violence, or similar conduct.
  • ? Employees will not make, share, or comment in support of any posting that ridicules, maligns, disparages, expresses bias, or disrespect toward any race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other protected class of individuals.
  • ? Employees will not make, share, or comment in support of any posting that suggests that department personnel are engaged in behavior reasonably considered to be unlawful or reckless toward public safety.
  • ? Employees shall make reasonable efforts to remove content appearing on their social media accounts that violates policy upon learning of the offensive content.
  • ? Employees shall not post or otherwise disseminate any confidential information they have access to as a result of their employment with the department.
  • ? Employees may not make any statements, appearances, endorsements, or publish materials that could reasonably be considered to represent the views or positions of the department.
  • ? Employees may not use their city e-mail address to register a personal account on social media [3].

Most departments expect employees to be attentive and careful in their use of social media and are cautioned that they should be aware that their use of social media may be perceived as representing their city and city government, and should tailor their use accordingly. Many social media use policies are specific about unacceptable uses and include the following concepts:

  • ? Using social media in a manner that does not comply with federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and with city and agency policies.
  • ? Using social media in a manner that violates the copyright, trademark, or other intellectual property rights of any person or entity, or otherwise violates their legal ownership interests.
  • ? Using social media in a manner that includes ethnic slurs, profanity, personal insults; material that is harassing, defamatory, fraudulent, or discriminatory; or other content or communications that would not be acceptable in a city workplace under city or agency policy or practice.
  • ? Using social media in a manner that violates the terms of contracts governing the use of any social media content, including but not limited to, software and other intellectual property licenses; displays sexually explicit images, cartoons, jokes, messages, or other material in violation of City Policy Preventing Sexual Harassment in city government [4,5].
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