For pretty much everyone, social media has been a trial-and-error experience. We’ve all had to figure out whether and how it can benefit us, and what the dangers are. Parents have had to learn, and pass on, how best to protect their children from divulging information that could come back to harm them. Businesses have had to figure out how to use social media to extend their audience and to better serve their customer base while not violating laws or offending anyone.
Government agencies, too, have had to navigate these, at times, treacherous waters.
Take police departments. It’s easy to see the benefits of having a presence on social media for them. Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and such, departments can communicate and engage with the public. They can issue warnings quickly and squelch rumors and false information. They can facilitate information gathering, too, allowing a way to gather tips or contact individuals.
Those benefits come with a flip side, though. One is potential embarrassment, as the New York Police Department learned about five years ago. The department, looking for community engagement, issued a call on its Twitter account, calling for photos of its members with the hashtag #myNYPD. Instead of the happy “Officer Friendly”-type responses it no doubt hoped for, its account was inundated with photos of potential police abuse.
Events closer to home have demonstrated the pitfalls for others.
Last year, a Marlborough police sergeant took to Facebook to try to reach an area woman who had missed a court date. That may not have been the best venue for that contact, given its public nature, but he exacerbated the issue by trying to do it in a cute, funny way: by positing the notice as a “missed connections”-type post.
It was amusing, but as local defense attorneys noted, at the woman’s expense. There was no need for the entire community to know she’d missed her court date, which might have been for a good reason. Or not. In either case, she deserved to be contacted in person. Instead she wound up the butt of a joke. One attorney labeled the attempt “cyber-bullying.” The department has since adapted to deal with that.
The sergeant contended his tone wasn’t derisive, but he could only control how he meant it to be taken, not how readers of his posts view them. That’s exactly the problem. Anyone posting on social media can’t control how their post is viewed. That makes the danger it will be misinterpreted or taken negatively more real.
Last week, Hinsdale police used Facebook to try to obtain the public’s help in tracking down someone they initially thought was part of a child abduction attempt. They asked for help identifying the man and included in the post an image of him taken from a security video at the Hinsdale Walmart store. This is a fairly common use of social media by police, and frequently an effective one. In this case, though, once the report was investigated, it became clear the man hadn’t done anything criminal and had, according to Police Chief Todd Faulkner, “no nefarious intent.”
But the police Facebook post linking him to an attempted abduction was shared on social media more than 1,000 times, and news media, including The Sentinel, reported on the department’s post. Even after it was clear the department’s post was premature, it remained online for hours.
Faulkner explained that was a mistake, and surely such things occur. In fact, they’re to be expected. As noted, we’re all still picking our way through the social media minefield. We’d guess in small police departments across the country, the job of posting to social media has fallen mainly to whoever is most computer-savvy or has the most interest. Thus, it’s easy to imagine a communications error resulting in that one person not removing a post immediately.
Faulkner says he wants to revisit his department’s use of social media in any case. He readily noted it’s not his department’s job to punish suspects, merely to find them. And instilling their potential guilt in the minds of social media users is a form of punishment. At least some of those 1,000 or so viewers will likely forever link the man to the idea of a child abduction, without necessarily taking note that, ultimately, that was not the case.
Faulkner is right to revisit his department’s social-media use, as was Marlborough’s intent a year ago. Social media’s dangers demand some thought to the ethical considerations of making public information that may change or be taken in ways that weren’t intended. Faulkner also expressed dismay that the responses, or comments, made regarding the recent post quickly devolved into negative speculation. Welcome to the jungle, chief.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police suggests departments consider five areas in setting a social media policy: the scope of what the policy should cover; when and under what circumstances social media will be used, and by whom; setting restrictions on personal use by staffers; legal issues; and how the policy interacts with other existing policies.
That’s a start, and all departments ought to have a policy before they wade into the jungle.