Police use of social media: Empirical research is necessary

In 2010, Mawby identified police interest in new media as “worthy of further research” (p.135). However, since then few studies have advanced knowledge on this area. This primarily relates to the ways in which social media serves as a communications channel for many police forces. In its broadest sense, communication signifies the exchange of information (Bessonov, 2008) whereas social media, specifically refers to online platforms which facilitate these practices (Ellison and Boyd, 2013). A useful starting point for understanding any phenomenon, whether that is a particular theory, policy or practice is to identify the underpinning context in which this emerges. In doing this, it is possible to appreciate why police forces have started to use social media in communication terms. Additionally, we begin to unveil what the future linked to this aspect of policing might look like. In turn, this blog argues two main points. Firstly, social media is significant to twenty-first century policing. Secondly, empirical research on this area is necessary in order to work towards evidence-based practice.

Undoubtedly external communication is nothing new in police practice. For example, in the 18th century, two-way communication (both information distribution and collection) between the renowned Bow Street runners and London residents and businesses was common, as guided by Henry and John Fielding (Rawlings, 1995). Two centuries later Banton (1964) again highlighted how communication between police officers and civilians largely reflected the peace keeping role of the police, although urbanisation represented a threat to such cooperation. This raises the idea that policing, by its very nature, has relied on officers communicating across society. In recent times, this has intensified in line with two developments. Firstly, the evolution of an ‘information age’ starting in the 1950s, characterised by an evolving societal appetite for news, with social media arguably the latest phase in this growth. Secondly, from the 1970s onwards the notion ‘public engagement’ has become ingrained in political discourse. In policing this has coincided with the introduction of community, neighbourhood and reassurance policing. Set within this context, we have seen the expansion of police corporate communications departments. In light of the opportunities to reach out to a large audience – based on its significant and growing popularity (see, for example, Ofcom 2015) – it is unsurprising police forces have started to communicate via social media. However, with police research for the most part focused on the role of traditional media, it is now time we shifted our attention towards better understanding the growing part of new media in police communication. Unlike conventional mass media forms, this raises new questions on account of its direct communication function, as messages can be exchanged in real-time between the police and citizens, in turn circumventing the traditional media. Support for this type of direct communication by police forces across the UK suggests this trend is likely to continue if not expand (see Mawby, 2010; Horsburgh, 2015).

External communication has long been a feature of policing, with social media an ultra-modern way of facilitating this. The expanding number of police social media accounts in the last five years is indicative of the considered opportunities for communicating in online public spaces. Significantly, due to its contemporary emergence in police practice, it is reasonable to suggest that police forces are at the moment attempting to ‘get to grips’ with how best to use social media. For example, over the last few months numerous police forces across the UK have witnessed a backlash by both social media users and the traditional press over content posted which has been considered contentious. This can be seen with Coventry City’s Police recent attempt to raise awareness of burglary by tweeting photos of unlocked residential properties, discovered by officers on foot patrols. This practice was reported as “controversial” by local and national media outlets who frequently cited examples of online criticism by twitter users and also highlighted the police force’s later decision to delete some of these posts (see for example ITV News, 2016). The same sort of ideas are evident from Greater Manchester’s Police recent request over Facebook which asserted people should avoid giving money to a homeless person near a local supermarket in the area (see for example, Manchester Evening News, 2016).

For police forces across the UK, this likely acts as a warning against the dangers of ‘bad communication’. This points to the need for collaboration between police forces and scholars which will be key if the former are to make best use of social media. In turn, researchers must open up police use of social media to wider criminological discussions. As aforementioned, social media allows for information to be provided in real-time directly between the police and citizens with a ‘one-to-many’ function (one message has the potential to reach a sizable audience) and can facilitate a vast array of communication types (including one-way, two-way and multi-way). Exploring police use of social media offers the possibility to generate new insights into existing concepts and frameworks in light of these notably unique features. This can include formulating an understanding of how this area ties in with crime control, legitimacy and accountability. Put simply, what does crime control, legitimacy and accountability look like in relation to how the police use social media? In doing this researchers can address some of the challenges specific to a police context, while providing an empirical base for future police social media strategies.

Crucially, long-term research is required in order to keep this body of literature relevant over time. The ever-changing nature of digital technology and, in particular, social media, in conjunction with the increasing total number of social media users (Ofcom, 2015) and the manner in which people interact on social media is also constantly transforming. This is shown with the ‘rise and fall’ of various platforms since the turn of the century. Aside from understanding users’ online behaviours in general, researchers also need to recognise diversity across police social media profiles. Current studies tend to locate this within national and regional-level accounts, therefore overlooking police officials and in particular officers who engage with social media in a personal capacity. Some evidence (see Denef et al, 2012) suggests individual officers in parts of the UK are using social media in order to facilitate community policing. As a result, future research will likely need to appreciate the ways in which potentially distinct police accounts employ social media as well as the theoretical implications of these practices. In keeping with the nature of developments in policing outlined at the beginning of this blog, this should contribute to an understanding of how communication via social media can best facilitate citizen-focused policing.


Liam Ralph is a PhD student at Edinburgh Napier University researching police use of social media in Scotland. Email: 10005254@live.napier.ac.uk Twitter: @liamdralph

6 thoughts on “Police use of social media: Empirical research is necessary

  1. There is a tendency for officers to treat social media in a trivial manner hence some posts being deleted. As part of their training they should be given some social media ethics training to ensure messages are corporate and comply with all possible rules and force policies.

  2. Murray Lee and Alyce McGovern’s study ‘Policing and Media’ (2014) provides an interesting interpretation of the growth of new ways of police communicating in Australia. However, I agree that there is room for more empirical research. There is a risk that senior police officers in England and Wales, and potentially elsewhere, are seeing the increased use of social media as a panacea; this may partially be driven by austerity (it’s cheaper than meetings in cold church halls or putting more officers out in areas of high footfall) but also by the attraction of the ‘new’ … which is not to suggest that social media does not have its place. But how effective is it? And Neal is right, there are plenty of officers who have ruined their careers and damaged the reputation of the Police Service by inappropriate use of social media both in their capacity as police officers and their private lives – arguably it’s never really private.

  3. Thanks Liam,

    A really useful blog – I’ve been supporting UK Policing make best use of social media since 2008 (i.e when they started using Facebook and Twitter) please let me know if I can assist with any of this work.

    My one suggestion I would like to make concerns paragraph three of your blog, your analysis of what happens when Police communicate something which causes an unwelcome response from the community (or sections of the community) that they are engaging with? Where your analysis has yet to be developed is to look at the issue of scale. I.e. there are currently 2,500 official UK Policing Twitter accounts posting daily/regularly, there are hundreds of official UK Police Facebook accounts posting regularly, plus Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat etc. When Police accounts get it wrong it helps to view this as a percentage of actual engagement, i.e. numbers of accounts and numbers of postings. When you know the scale you are better placed to devise the solution AND deliver the solution at the right level. (I’m happy to discuss this further should you wish). A lot of our thinking around this was influenced by Nichola Naseem Taleb’s work on risk management.

    Finally, and I recognise you haven’t precisely said this, there is a tendency to think that, because the problem emerged or became visible on a social media platform, this somehow indicates that the organisation/institution does not understand or “get” social media, I would argue that is is almost always not the case and leads to a poor policy and governance responses. This week, for example, the dating platform OKCupid created a similar, in fact ,worse social media problem than any police account – in their questionnaire question “Would the world be a better place if people with low IQs were not allowed to reproduce?” – inevitably concerns have been raised about this but no one suggested that OKCupid didn’t “get” social media. The key here for leaders is to understand that because the problem emerges on a digital platform does not mean that the platform is the problem. I.e. the need for people to address the problem not the platform. Neither of the two examples you give are examples of the police accounts misunderstanding social media and to address those issues through the lens of social media would be to miss the point.

    I’m happy if you get in touch if you want to discuss further.


    • Hi Nick,

      First of all, thanks very much for taking the time to read my blog-entry, I really appreciate this. I have to say, I enjoyed working on this and it’s been great to speak with police officials involved in social media about my research. Police use of social media will hopefully become an exciting area of study and I really hope that this can be of benefit for police forces (this was the main point I was trying to convey, in addition to the theoretical openings for academics).

      Secondly, thanks for your comments and for the reference. It will be great to share our ideas going on into the future, especially as this project develops.

      Best wishes,


  4. Pingback: The Police on Social Media: The challenge of being engaging gatekeepers – BSC Policing Network

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