Social Media and Law Enforcement: A Study on the Adoption and Use of Social Media Monitoring in Canada
Police agencies globally now have access to several technologies that monitor social media, exploiting its data and content for investigative purposes. Such practices fit into larger discussions of policing shifting towards more proactive methods of crime control that seek to pre-empt crime and disorder. This exploratory research draws on 15 interviews from members of law enforcement from two local police agencies in Southern Ontario (referred to as ‘metropolitan’ and ‘medium-sized’) in order identify how local police in Canada monitor social media and what justifications prompted these agencies to do so. What this research study reveals is that social media monitoring needs to be understood in a context of larger socio- cultural, political and economic developments of late modernity, and in particular, growing concerns over risk (Garland 2001), rather than merely internal policing conditions. Such developments have shaped police adoption and use of social media monitoring. This research study also reveals that social media monitoring involves the use of automated and/or manual searching practices used to exploit social data and/or its content. These are two different sets of practices that are distinguished as ‘manual’ and ‘automated’. The former is linked to the exploitation of content, while the latter is linked to the exploitation of data. More often than not, they operate concurrently. Third party software enable automated searching practices and includes both purchased and open source software, while manual searches include the use of built-in search features within social platforms. Police often monitor social media for a specific purpose, or to respond to an external complaint. The practice can be either continuous, or targeted. Social media is often used in targeted ways to proactively monitor the so called ‘usual suspects’ (Sanders and Hannem 2012). It is used in continuous ways to monitor major events including student ‘keg parties’ and political demonstrations. Social media monitoring may enable more (cost)efficient ways to keep tabs on individuals and to ‘socially sort’ (Lyon 2002) users in order to identify ‘problem populations’. Such surveillance practices further add to a growing ‘culture of control’ (Garland 2001) that has reshaped criminal justice institutions and crime control policies.