The Police on Social Media: The Challenge of Being Engaging Gatekeepers

Dr Heather Horsburgh

Ralph (2016), in an earlier blog post for the Policing Network, highlighted a need for more research into police use of social media. My research – 11 interviews with senior communications staff, 9 interviews with police officers, an analysis of the national and regional Police Scotland Facebook and Twitter accounts, and analysis of local and national (broadsheet and tabloid) Scottish newspapers – examined police media use in Scotland. Specifically, I was interested in the impact that social media is having on how the police view/approach the traditional media, and on how social media can impact police accountability. Consistent with previous research, I found that although the police were positive about the utility of social media in enhancing community engagement, they found engaging on social media a challenge. This blog will detail some of the challenges the police have when trying to engage on social media.

One of the recommendations to come out of my research was that the police should invest less (but not no) time and resources into maintaining a relationship with the traditional news media and more resources into utilising social media. The reasons for these recommendations are discussed elsewhere (Horsburgh, 2015). The suggestion that the police should dial back their level of interaction with the traditional media may set off warning bells for some. Certainly, the traditional news media like to proclaim that they hold the powerful to account (Aitken, 2016)). However, the extent to which the public get to know about the police and crime issues that affect them most, though the news media, is questionable. The media rarely provide enough information to enable a fair judgement of police effectiveness (Lawrence, 2000; Surette, 2011; Horsburgh, 2015). Of course, I am not arguing that the news media don’t play an important role in bringing fundamental issues to our attention, which is why the recommendations included to invest less time and resources in the news media, but not to close the door completely.

One of the potential benefits of social media is that social media platforms are an avenue for the police and the communities they serve to have meaningful, two-way conversations, where the police can communicate information that is in the public interest, and the public can communicate with the police – and each other – about the policing issues that are important to them. This arguably leads to greater accountability and legitimacy for the police; the public can (and do) use social media to discuss specific incidents of police performance (good and bad), which is something the traditional media can then follow up on. However, as mentioned, despite the capacity for social media to have a positive impact on the police-public relationship, there is a steadily growing and consistent body of research that suggests the police are not using social media channels to their full potential (Crump, 2011; Kudla & Parnaby, 2018). Specifically, they are using it as if it is just another means to push information out to the public, without trying to engage in a two-way conversation. Indeed, my research suggests that although the police are good at communicating information that is relevant and local to the communities they serve (as opposed to the statistically rare and sensational crime that gets news media attention), their level of engagement with the public online is lacking.

I argue that one reason for the lack of interaction on the part of the police is due to the competing demands of being engaging gatekeepers, where the police find it difficult to be both engaging and social media monitors. Indeed, when conducting interviews with police officers and communications staff, it was immediately apparent that they viewed social media as just one more thing that had to be policed. Reasons for monitoring social media included to protect police investigations from the spread of sensitive information, to prevent the use of offensive or inappropriate language, and to ensure the police message was getting out without being changed or diluted by the public response that followed. Further, interviewee responses indicated that it can be difficult knowing what to say and how to say it. Police officers and communications staff without a communications background found this particularly challenging. Interviewees were very aware that just because they could share information, doesn’t mean that they should; among other things (e.g. reputation), they need to communicate information that 1) will be interesting to the public, and 2) not contribute to fear of crime in particular areas or groups of people. Once they decide which information to communicate, they also need to decide how to say it, which can be tricky, as the following excerpt shows:

it’s like you’re now starting to write in 2 or 3 different languages cause…our Facebook site is dumbed right down…as there’s no point in talking in traditional police speak on Facebook because… people just switch right off, so you’ve got to adjust your style of communicating. And then it’s different again for the media and it’s different for our website so we’re all over the place. You’ve got to remember what hat you’re wearing when you’re putting something out because you’re always trying to maximise your feedback and maximise that engagement from the public (Communications Officer D 2012).

As much as interviewees liked to talk about how important social media is for engagement and so on, most interviewees displayed sentiments that made it apparent that they viewed most public input as something of a nuisance that needed to be handled or ignored. For example, one interviewee states:

…a lot of people use Facebook, particularly as a sort of… virtual rubber necking thing. So, you know, they’d ask questions about why, why are the police at 22 High Street. Well, you wouldn’t phone up the police and ask that. You possibly wouldn’t stop a police officer in the street and [ask that]? You wouldn’t walk into a police station and ask that, so why are you asking it on Facebook? We’re not going to tell you if you’re just a member of the public (Communications Officer F, 2012).

The ‘just a member of the public’ comment is particularly telling. If the police are to utilise social media to its full engagement potential, they need to take public input seriously. Of course, they cannot reply to all comments for practical as well as procedural reasons, but they need to start viewing public input/questions as opportunities to engage or as providing intelligence on issues the public need to be informed about. If they perceive comments from the public as a nuisance, this will likely show in their interactions (or lack thereof).

The challenges outlined above, make it difficult for the police to fully engage with the public on social media; which might go some way to explaining the lack of engagement that is evident in the extant research. In order to enhance community engagement and to improve accountability, these issues need to be addressed. The police are already doing a good job of sharing relevant information with the public (though this, too, could be enhanced), they act as effective gatekeepers to sensitive information, but they now need find ways to improve their level of engagement with the public. They need to find a way of being ‘engaging gatekeepers’. If they can do this, social media can be an invaluable tool for police engagement and accountability.

Dr Heather Horsburgh is a Lecturer in Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of the West of Scotland. Email: Twitter: @HeatherHorsbur1



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