Public Crime Reporting on Social Media: A Progressive or Regressive Phenomenon?
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The concept of public crime reporting on social media has received much media and scholarly interest as a socially constructed behavioural response to crime. The move to social media is re-shaping traditional understandings of the integration between offline and online communities. This chapter examines the cultural scripts, which influence understandings surrounding the phenomenon’s transition as default response to crime incidents. Through a cultural criminological approach examining contemporary case studies, an overarching debate emerged of whether the phenomenon reflects a justified act, which highlights the contrasting implications of the phenomenon as encouraging social activism versus facilitating ‘social spectatorism’. The chapter provides a set of recommendations for law enforcement agencies to take advantage of the shift in citizens’ crime reporting behaviours, which may help to improve the breadth of intelligence and the reliability of witness statements potentially advancing the effectiveness of investigations. The discussions provide new ways of understanding public crime reporting on social media as a socially constructed phenomenon that has the potential to reshape how crime can be countered as a social practice.
Visual criminology has become an expanding sphere within cultural criminology, which can be applied to exploring the emerging phenomenon of the public using social media to report crime incidents (Sandberg and Ugelvik 2017). With links to community surveillance and news reporting, public crime reporting can be understood as a cultural phenomenon that emerged on the background of technological and cultural developments, which reshaped the conventional relationships between crime and imagery. Within a globalised technological community, individuals have nuanced capabilities of recording and disseminating crime information on social media from a first person perspective, taking the identity of ‘community news reporters’ that can provide online audiences with real-time evidence into a crime situation (Bock 2016). Antony and Thomas (2010) argue that this has succeeded the traditional inaccessible and highbrow news networks that dominated early social media frameworks where a crime was recorded and reported predominantly by the professional news agencies and disseminated to a widespread audience within the community (Bock 2016). The new method of documenting crime on social media has facilitated a cultural shift from traditional reporting standards, which reflects a change into how the public responds to emergency situations—which has transitioned from contacting the emergency services to capturing the scene using a smartphone and disseminating the content on social media.
The technological advancements of modern society and the acceleration of social media platforms as a part of everyday activities have collectively proven themselves as a facilitator of change for how crime is reported. To understand the cultural shift in its full context, it is important to highlight the traditional framework of crime reporting online to reveal how the public has transitioned from passive receivers of information to what Stokes (2013) and Bock (2016) label ‘media fans’ and ‘activists’ who actively engage in crime reporting online. They add that the first wave of crime reporting can be understood as a single, direct channel that flows from the smaller proportion of ‘media producers’, who create and disseminate crime reports, to a large online audience of ‘listeners’ that absorb the information. This early interpretation of crime reporting as a one-way communication system and arguably depicts the public as an accepting, passive audience that are predominantly consumers of information that is widely agreed as accurate and reliable. The transformation of the traditional crime reporting structure into a two-way flow of information was heavily influenced by the emergence of smartphones and social media advancements (Yar 2012). Yar (2012) argues that the emergence of smartphones into the modern market has become the forefront of mediating public interactions, as individuals have a direct connectivity between the camera lens that is present at the crime incident and the homepage of social media sites, which allows them to create and disseminate real-time information. Stanley (2014, 2017) labels this technological acceleration as ‘Little Brother’ surveillance, which allows the public to broadcast mundane interactions amongst themselves and other to a wider audience. In relation to crime reporting, these developments and innovations have given the public a sense of freedom and means of using the camera lens as a ‘third eye’ to personally document crime-related incidents (Bock 2016; Mills 2003).
This cultural change has led to what can be understood as the ‘second wave’ of online crime reporting which has become fully immersed within modern societies, where large institutions and news agencies are no longer the predominant producers of crime information. Simultaneously, the public are no longer confined to being apathetic consumers but have become a subculture of producers that generate crime reports through imagery (Yar 2012). This growth in individual crime reporters that are using social media for its constant interconnectivity are defined by Yar (2012) as the nuanced hybrid identity of ‘prosumers’, acting as both producer and consumer of crime related content. Stokes (2013) comments that this term reflects the replacement of text with imagery as the main source of news communication, for its ability to present audiences with a ‘first person’ view of a crime incident.
Reflecting on this cultural shift in crime reporting, understandably this phenomenon is on the rise with social media replacing law enforcement as the quickest method of disseminating and reporting crime information. Miller (2011: 171–173) supports this arguing that social media enables individuals to document viewpoints and experiences through the eye of the camera—an emerging part of popular culture labelled as ‘micro-blogging’. This idea of continuous documentation of individuals’ personal lives reflects the dissolving boundaries between the public and private sphere, with the originally ‘hidden’ experiences of individuals increasingly visible on a global scale to create a prominent social presence. In this new crime reporting dynamic, the public prosumers have harnessed social media to replace the traditional understandings of how ‘reporters’ of crime incidents are perceived. From witnessing crime incidents, the public are using the camera as the third eye, the smartphone as the direct link to their online social media profile and the social media sites to disseminate their content to a transnational audience of fellow prosumers (Mills 2003).
Community surveillance has provided an enriched and unprecedented new sphere of exploration into understanding crime reporting, and how social media and technological developments have created a globalised space for news dissemination. This chapter will delve into the cultural criminological concept of visual criminology and apply its theoretical frameworks to explore public crime reporting online through three parts. First, the chapter will discuss the perspectives and identities that are recognisable from reports, which reflects upon themes of victimology and the motivations of crime reporting. In this context, it will discuss the identity disparities between crimes recorded by the ‘reporter’ recording others as a witness to external ‘offenders’, and more abstractly discuss the rise in a new perspective of reporters recording their own crimes as offenders and how these perspectives are shaping the future of crime reporting.
The second part will take inspiration from the motivations of crime reporting to explore an emerging academic debate that discusses, through two contemporary case studies, whether crime reporting on social media is a ‘just’ and acceptable act. This debate will be discussed with regard to the phenomenon’s cultural and social impact, that public crime reporting reflects a form of social activism which represents cultural and social progression and the opposing critique that crime reporting is a misunderstood perspective that—through unjust practices—reveals the hidden framework of an unattached and regressive society. The exploration into how crime reporting is produced through perspectives, and the growing debate surrounding the ‘justness’ of its practices, reveals the importance of researching the phenomenon’s intertwining themes, which are woven into its cultural infrastructure.
Providing a more constructive approach the penultimate section will reflect on how public crime reporting on social media has been used by law enforcement agencies to enhance investigations, using several examples to show current best practices. To conclude, the chapter aims to provide an in-depth discussion into the perspective features woven into the cultural framework of public crime reporting, the emerging debate surrounding its social and cultural implications and to display how this new phenomenon can positively transform the current methods used by law enforcement to enrich intelligence for investigations.
The Perspectives of Reporters
The impact of social media on crime reporting by reporters can be understood through three perspectives, which help to unravel the motivations behind public crime reporting on social media. The perspectives focus on the reporter, or public member, and their self-proclaimed association with the crime situation. The most common perspective, which is widely recognisable on social media, is the reporter identifying themselves as a ‘live’ witness of a crime providing online audiences with a real-time, first person capture of the crime. Sandberg and Ugelvik (2017) argue that in contemporary society the phenomenon has increased the urge for ‘witnesses’ to use their smart phones to record a crime incident to the extent that it has become a mundane response. This form of public crime reporting has created a shift towards a new form of ‘narrator’ that is the first person at the scene and in some instances has an in-depth knowledge of the context surrounding the crime. This has ultimately removed the need for ‘eyewitness’ statements that were traditionally used to describe crime incidents, as witnesses are now using the camera lens as their ‘eye’ to allow audiences a clear view into their viewpoint of a crime incident. Reporting of this kind still has remnants of traditional crime reporting methods, such as the incorporation of verbal commentary describing the incident alongside a written overview, which provides social media viewers a detailed eyewitness statement of a crime incident.
A feature of traditional crime reporting that can be seen in the contemporary phenomenon is the type of ‘victim’ that is labelled by the reporter in the report. This can be understood using Chris Greer’s (2006) analysis of Nil Christies notion of the ‘ideal victim’, a socially constructed identity that defines the parameters of what constitutes a ‘true’ crime victim. This hypothetical identity is interwoven with predetermined hierarchal values, which prescribe the characteristics of a victim’s ‘deservingness’ based on visualisation and context. Consequently, when public members witness a crime, they use these predetermined characteristics to make a judgement of whether the individual deserves the victim status. The comparison of the victim is made against these characteristics (e.g. white, female, very old or young), in order to determine their level of victim status (Greer 2006).
Once this identification of victim and offender has been decided by the reporter and shared on social media, the labels become ‘fixed’ and reinforced as ‘factual’ by the online community. Often this can have a profound effect for the victim, which draws attention to Becker’s (2008) research that a ‘victim status’ becomes a ‘master status’ and consequently a stigma that in many cases can become difficult to dissolve. Noticeably, what does challenge traditional understandings of the ideal victim is the increase in witness reports circulating on social media that incorporate victims from ethnic minority backgrounds that defy the archaic victim characteristics. Activist groups with large social media followings such as Black Lives Matter (2019) regularly share and repost public crime reports that include an ethnic minority victim, which reinforces the idea that the parameters of the ‘ideal’ victim are expanding as activist groups are redefining values that underlie traditional victim frameworks.
Studying the witness perspective of public crime reporting reveals a larger network of cultural and societal hierarchies that indirectly influences the digital identification of victims. The notion also shows how contemporary social activism represents a motivation for public crime reporting by challenging and reimagining the parameters of the ‘ideal victim’, replaced by a more dynamic and inclusive framework influencing online cultural change.
Another well-established perspective that aids current understandings of the motivations behind public crime reporting is based on the identity of the reporter as a victim. The phenomenon has manifested a new form of ‘victim perspective’, which gives the online audience a direct insight into a victim’s account of a crime incident. What is interesting from this perspective is that the reporter immediately associates themselves as ‘deserving’ of the victim status and posts their report on social media with this self-identification label intact (Greer 2006). Consequently, when the online audience views the report, they will be supplied with a preconceived narration of who the victim is in the situation.
In exploring this concept further there are two distinct methods used by victim reporters to record the incidents, either in form of a ‘selfie’ or ‘first person’ stance. Eler (2017) argues that recording a crime from a selfie stance shows similarities to that of news reporters, where the producers use their front-facing smartphone camera to record their face which can include commentary and a direct conversation with the online audience. He adds that this perspective reflects an interconnectedness between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres, as public members are merging the two through imagery to create an online identity that is shared within the online community. An increase in this ‘selfie’ crime reporting is identifiable with domestic abuse victims, who create a ‘timeline’ of abuse images through the form of selfies labelled as ‘Survivor Selfies’ and who document them on social media as an awareness raising technique (Domestic Shelters 2014; BBC News 2017). Notably this shows how social media is perceived as more than simply a place to report crime; rather it is seen as an interactive community which encourages social activism.
On the opposing side of the smartphone, the backwards facing lens facilitates the first person victim perspective whereby the camera symbolises the reporters ‘third eye’ (Bock 2016; Mills 2003). This vantage point gives the online audience a ‘mirrored’ view to the reporter, which displays their outlook of events. A sphere of society, which has adopted this use of crime reporting particularly frequently, is victims of hate crime, who use their camera phones to record and disseminate the content online to again spread awareness and protest. Lombardo (2019) argues that this method has been used by members of the LGBT+ community, who remain a large target for this type of crime particularly in the UK. He adds a recent example including a young LGBT+ couple that were assaulted on a bus in London and that posted an image of themselves with blood stained clothes on Facebook in response. The post received over 10,000 comments and was widely acknowledged on similar platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram (Lombardo 2019). The sheer breadth of online audiences can explain why individuals are motivated to report crimes on social media, particularly for the purpose of awareness raising. The examples show how smart phone features are used by individuals to create the victim focused perspective and reveal its ability to facilitate and impact social and political discussions throughout the online community.
What becomes interesting in researching the perspectives of social media reporting online is how the boundaries between reality and the producer’s perception of reality, and what is factual, become blurred (Sandberg and Ugelvik 2017). The reliability of the public member as a witness or victim provides an interesting sphere of research, as imagery is often falsely labelled by the wider community as ‘factual evidence’ that only captures the truth of a situation. Pande (2017) argues this misconception stems from the absence of a standardised ethical guideline to regulate public journalists on social media, which for journalism agencies was developed and disseminated by the professional journalism sphere to promote best practices. Antony and Thomas (2010) add that the absence of traditional regulations removes the requirement for public producers to adopt journalistic values such as withholding a value judgement when creating and disseminating content online. They add therefore that social media has become a dystopian reality, where platforms are continuously filled with unregulated content that distorts the public’s perceptions of the context surrounding crime, including who the ‘person to blame’ or the offender is in the situation (Office for National Statistics 2019). The misperceptions of crime incidents can lead to gender and regional biases and stigmas held by the audience, which discriminates individuals as offenders and reinforces cultural conflicts which further oppresses and marginalises subcultures (Pande 2017). As a consequence, many experts have begun to adopt an ‘anti-public journalism’ ideology due to the lack of ethical guidelines has led to much criticism concerning the unreliability and trustworthiness of publicly generated content (Antony and Thomas 2010).
Perhaps a more abstract and upcoming perspective, which has significantly impacted how crime is reported online, is the manipulation of technological advancements by offenders who produce and disseminate their own crime reports. Sandberg and Ugelvik’s (2017) cultural criminological framework helps to explain why offenders have begun using smartphones to record and disseminate imagery of themselves committing offences. This new form of crime reporting has facilitated an interconnected web of extremist imagery that forms a visual culture, often removed from the mainstream online audience. Members of extremist groups are often heavily embedded within this visual culture and record their crimes as a way of contributing towards the wider snapshot culture (Solon 2017). The viewpoint extremist producers draw upon in particular is influenced by gaming culture, using body cameras as the role of director to recreate a ‘first person shooter’ type simulation. The Christchurch shooting in New Zealand provides a prime example, in which the offender used the Facebook live feature to create a ‘real-time production’ incorporating video and music which garnered over 4000 views before it was removed (BBC News 2019). The ‘live’ feature provides offenders with a direct link to their social media audience, on which they can share the real-time experience of the crime unfolding to an engaged online extremist community (Solon 2017). This nuanced trend of crime reporting reflects a darker turn towards using social media as a platform to disseminate extremist content that is becoming commonplace especially during terrorist attacks.
Using sociological and criminological frameworks to explore the number of dynamic perspectives and identities that are entrenched within the public crime reporting process reveals an underlying set of motivations. Through further inspection of these viewpoints a number of conclusions can be made. The development of the public crime reporting has provided a new framework of perspectives for understanding visual criminology. These frameworks directly influence and challenge the conventional understandings in defining and remoulding how victimology in news reporting is understood. Furthermore, it is these perspectives which reflect the ongoing debate that critically examines the reliability of public crime reporting and how disseminating publicly generated data online can create false narratives and accelerate cultural conflicts. What can be observed is a growing debate circulating across the criminological sphere, which discusses whether the motivations behind public crime reporting influence its portrayal as a ‘justified’ act in modern societies. These conclusions reflect a nuanced research sphere focused on understanding criminal behaviours and motivations in the social media age.
The Debate Surrounding ‘Just’ Crime Reporting
To fully engage with and understand the rise in public crime reporting, it is important to explore beneath the surface of common academic and wider public perceptions of the phenomenon. Importantly, scholars have identified the need to uncover the underlying semantics within cultural, political and social values that directly influence individual’s motivations to report crime alongside the societal implications that may arise as a result. Recurring within the literature is the debate, whether public crime reporting on social media is a ‘just’ act. From one perspective, the phenomenon reflects a positive use of social media as a form of activism that outlines modern social injustices, whereas conflicting literature argues that the common practice of social media reporting has led to the emergence of the ‘bystander’ phenomenon. This debate will be outlined using two contemporary case studies that each present an opposing ideology, which through examination will either challenge or complement current understandings.
The first study explores how a network of student subcultures have emerged online following the positive use of social media as a social activist platform to circulate their perceived institutional betrayal of universities concerning sexual abuse cases. The second case study discusses how public crime reporting on social media has consequently influenced the emergence of the ‘bystander effect’, which presents a rise in unethical recording of crime victims. The comparative analysis of the two cases will present an in-depth examination into the contemporary debate surrounding public crime reporting as a just practice.
Crime Reporting as Social Media Activism: Gender-Based Violence at Universities
Many scholars have discussed the hegemonically dominant cultural and institutional values, which indirectly influence gender-based violence in University communities but have not yet studied its connection to the upsurge in social media crime reporting. The transition of University institutions from a place of personal empowerment to a place of concern regarding sexual abuse and harassment has gained increased attention from the media, academia, activists and the wider community (Lewis et al. 2018). This stems from the publication of contemporary research such as the British national survey on Violence Against Women Studies (2016) and the publicly accessible legal action cases in the US that involved 100 colleges (Lewis et al. 2018). Busby (2019) adds that cases similar to these, particularly in the UK, revealed the sheer scale of abuse that based on an underlying ‘lad culture’. Sexual health charities such as Brook revealed that more than half of the surveyed students had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour, but only 8% of the cases have been reported to institutions (Busby 2019).
The research published begs the question, why not more victims report their experiences to institutions. Lewis et al. (2018) suggest this is due to the perception of ‘institutional betrayal’, a nuanced phenomenon created as a result of victims experiencing difficulty in reporting sexual abuse, consequently leading to a breach in trust with university institutions. Universities have been increasingly criticised by students for their insensitive and undermining approach to sexual abuse reports, by having limited psychological well-being support, ineffective reporting procedures and not working cooperatively with other universities to tackle the issue (Somerville 2019). Oppenheim (2019) argues that these factors have created a ‘university bubble’ in which victims and offenders will socialise, work, study and live within the same parameters. It is these growing tensions and frustrations of students towards universities, fuelling institutional betrayal perceptions, that has led to an increase in students turning to social media to report their experiences of crimes as sexual abuse victims.
Social media has become a platform for university victims of sexual abuse to document, report and share their experiences of a crime. Oppenheim (2019) argues that social media acts as a ‘safety mechanism’ for victims, as it provides a network of support outside of the ‘university bubble’, allowing victims to raise awareness of sexual abuse at university. She found that students at Leicester University, for example, used social media to share their experiences of sexual assault on campus, an act which they believed represented a sense of empowerment and social presence to inform and raise awareness to an online audience. What this article emphasises are the disparities between the support given to sexual victims online and offline, which explains why many students and young people are in favour of reporting crime experiences to a more actively engaged audience on social media.
Oppenheim (2019) found that the most recognisable audience was the wider student community, who rallied and encouraged victims to issue formal complaints. This study hints at the creation of a new online student subculture through crime reporting, which was created from a shared distrust in universities and knowledge of social injustice. Lewis et al. (2018) argue that this subculture was formed as a branch of a new young feminist subculture, in which universities represent the ‘hotspots’ of its growth. By joining the subculture, students are given a chance to resist the underlying oppressive university culture through feminism and collectively strive to actively change their futures.
An example that demonstrates this cultural progression online is It Happens Here (2019), a student-based movement created by Oxford University students to raise awareness of sexual violence on campus. They have a strong social media presence that spreads across major platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The platform allows victims of sexual abuse to anonymously report their experiences including how their universities responded. This subculture reinforces the transition of crime reporting online by building upon the institutional betrayal of universities, a value which has coincidently globalised across the UK and into the US where surrounding university subcultures have emerged in solidarity to the movement.
The global impact of these subcultures—built upon the growing tensions between students and universities—can also be seen in #StandUpJapan, a social movement created following the release of an article which ranked universities based on how sexually promiscuous the female students were (Yamasaki 2019). These cases show how crime reporting has become embedded with gender-based social and political tensions, where the creation of globalised subcultures have accelerated the transition of young people reporting sexual abuse on social media. Lewis et al. (2018) argue that these subcultures have significantly influenced the re-evaluation of archaic university norms, developed new policies and the strategic development of universities, an impact they otherwise would struggle to achieve offline in the current climate.
Together, these cases highlight the correlation between the growing (awareness of) institutional betrayal and the rise in young people using technology and social media as a just method of reporting sexual abuse crimes. This transition has consequently led to the emergence of a number of student subcultures that are reinforcing this change and providing an accepting space for victims to report crimes; a space that has yet to be introduced into university communities. Badalge (2017) supports these conclusions arguing that witnesses are adopting the role as social activists, who although they are not physically intervening in crime incidents, they are creating social upheaval within the online community. This case study reflects on the debate, showing that online crime reporting can support social activists as a just method.
The Rise in Public Crime Reporting and the ‘Bystander Effect’
Analysing how the public responds to emergency crime situations, it appears that individuals’ reactions to an observed crime has changed significantly. By exploring the research into the phenomenon, the growing concern of social media’s negative cultural and social influence become more recognisable. The common practice for the public to respond to crime incidents by raising their smart phone camera to directly report the incident to social media has been labelled as a regressive aspect of society (Uelmen 2017). This socially constructed phenomenon of online crime reporting was coined by Darley and Latané (1968) as the ‘bystander effect’. Investigating why witnesses of crime incidents are behaving passively, (instead of intervening or calling for help) they identified two factors. When individuals approach a crime incident where a crowd is present, they experience a decreased level of self-responsibility based on the belief that another spectator will intervene (Badalge 2017). Tatham (2016) adds that human beings are also rational actors, i.e., on approaching the crowd individuals will assess the behaviour of others who will socially influence the decision-making process. If the individual believes that the members of the crowd are more knowledgeable of the situation than themselves, they will follow the actions of the crowd by remaining a bystander from the preconceived belief that the situation is under control (Darley and Latané 1968).
An interesting aspect in transferring the research on the bystander effect and its influence on public crime reporting on social media is the tension between the individual and the wider community regarding their just motivations for reporting the incident to social media. Members of the wider community may believe that public reporting reflect a growing number of social spectators who treat crime incidents in a similar manner to theme parks (Uelmen 2017). Badalge (2017) applies this concept to the Malaysian Airlines incident in 2017, where he describes the witnesses as a ‘silent audience’ who—instead of intervening—fed a live stream to the social media audience with multiple videos and images of the scene, causing global public outrage. The transition from active interveners to passive bystanders using social media to report crimes has led to the development of what Uelmen (2017) labels an online community that reinforces the bystander effect by encouraging users to record crime instances and share them online. He turns to the social media group WordStarHipHop as an example to showcase the popularity of these communities; WordStarHipHop has over three million visitors per day. This differs largely from the ‘social activist’ perspective on the debate, showing how public crime reporting online is being conducted for more regressive reasons by creating spectator environments that distorts crime reporting’s progressive nature.
Hill (2016) argues that these socially constructed communities are able to sustain themselves by encouraging and relying upon the public to update the sites with self-generated crime imagery, thus replacing law enforcement as the place to report crime. Research into these new online communities explains why the bystander effect has become commonplace and how social media maintains its role as the new sphere of crime reporting. This section outlines the two sides of the debate: the one that shows that the public are responding ‘unjustly’ to the situation by not intervening and the other showing that perhaps the new phenomenon of social media crime reporting represents a new form of intervention.
To explore the critical perspective of the debate whether crime reporting online is just, examining the public’s response to recent terrorist attacks proves an interesting case. There seems to be an increase of bystander-focused crime reports created, uploaded and circulated around social media by the public following terrorist attacks. This has occurred during several attacks such as in Westminster, London (2017), where witnesses recorded and took images of the victims which were then uploaded online (Botsford 2017). Through analysing social media posts following the Westminster attack, Botsford (2017) highlights the public’s concerns of the bystander effect; e.g. “really disagree with some of the photos … published of the Westminster victims, beyond disrespectful.” Botsford (2017) adds that this is not an entirely new phenomenon as there were also instances of public bystanders following the devastating crash in August 1997 in Paris involving Princess Diana of Wales. Cases similar to the ones in London and Paris reveal that the bystander effect has become a globalised behaviour, which raised critical discussions of how the public reporting of terrorist incidents reflects an unjust practice.
Drawing on victimology studies, Uelmen (2017) highlights the cultural implications of the phenomenon arguing that in recording terrorist incidents the victims become objectified, as public members dissociate themselves from the scene and exploit their privacy rights without receiving any form of consent. Badalge (2017) labels this objectification as ‘unethical witnessing’ which has led to a rise in digital frustrations. Hill (2016) comments that this regressive practice is a result of a dissolution of empathy with the victims, who are stripped of their ‘human identity’. Alternatively, Hill (2016) adds that the onlookers (labelled ‘gawkers’) do not consider who is watching within the online audience. In the context of terror attacks this raises the issue that—due to the direct stream between the bystander’s camera and social media—family members and friends of the victims may unexpectedly discover the information online as opposed to being informed by law enforcement. This raises the question from a law enforcement perspective of whether this new phenomenon has become obstructive and impedes their efforts following crime incidents.
Reviewing the criticisms surrounding public crime reporting online has highlighted the phenomenon as an unjust and regressive practice that encourages witnesses to become un-empathetic bystanders resulting in growing cultural division.
Exploring the contemporary debate into whether public crime reporting represents a positive or negative influence on the social, cultural and political spheres in an interconnecting online and offline community illustrates a clear disparity within society of what is the most ‘just’ response to reporting crime incidents. There is a clearly conflicting set of ideologies, in which social media was identified by some as a positive space for the public to take the role of news reporter and inform the online audience about social injustices as a form of social activism, while critics have argued that this had led to the development of an unattached and passive society that has reinvented how crime incidents are responded to by the wider public.
The different cases have shown how the phenomenon encompasses both viewpoints, highlighting public crime reporting on social media as both a progressive and a regressive phenomenon. What does not change within the debate is the understanding that reporting on social media has a larger impact than traditional methods of reporting to offline agencies. Despite the criticisms from scholars, law enforcement and the wider public, social media will continue to represent a coherent space for individuals to become the producers of their own content and share crime experiences. This exploration in this chapter so far suggests that—as the bridges between the online and offline borders continue to dissolve—the debates surrounding public crime reporting will only continue to expand given new technological developments.
Law Enforcement Use of Public Crime Reporting
The penultimate section of this chapter discusses how the data produced by public crime reporting on social media may be gathered and used by law enforcement agencies to aid in investigations. Bousequet (2018) argues that the growing amount of crime reports uploaded online offers a considerable opportunity for law enforcement agencies to improve the effectiveness of investigations. Framing intelligence gathering around the imagery created by public crime reporting can be seen by several law enforcement agencies on an international scale. The contemporary methods used show how law enforcement agencies are combining smartphone applications with public crime reports to encourage the transition back to law enforcement agencies as a place to report crime with the most positive impact. What they particularly focus on is capturing the evidence provided by witnesses of crime to be used alongside their testimony to improve the reliability and accuracy of the witness’s perspective (Bousequet 2018).
Paterson (2018) suggests that the aim of this approach is to fill a widening gap in the legal system by allowing witnesses to record and store data that can be used in the courtroom. This indicates a clear focus on protecting the witness’s accountability. The approach can be detected in a number of applications developed by law enforcement agencies. For instance, In Nice, French law enforcement agencies have incorporated an application labelled Reporty, which takes advantage of the public turning to their phones as the initial response to a crime incident (The Connexion 2018). Reporty allows members of the public to livestream, film and report crimes to law enforcement. Police can use the uploaded content to extract video, audio and location of the event. Similar apps have been developed in the UK labelled the Self Evident App and in Sydney, Australia, as the iWitnessed app, which allow the public to report and capture key real-time evidence following a crime incident that becomes accessible to law enforcement to use in investigations (Kayhan 2018; Stanley 2017; Witness Confident 2019). Witness Confident (2019) highlights the benefit of using innovative tools and their ability to reduce the amount of police time and resources by taking the opportunity of using public crime reports to improve the intelligence breadth of investigations.
What becomes noticeable through researching these nuanced methods is law enforcement’s solicitation of remoulding the bystander effect by innovative technological means encouraging the transition of the public from passive spectators of crime to active witnesses, recognising their potential in aiding investigations. Law enforcement is facilitating this conversion by replacing the role of social media as the main platform where crime reports are shared. These examples express an intriguing development in understanding public crime reporting as a phenomenon that provides opportunities for law enforcement. They further display growing law enforcement efforts to capitalise on changing crime reporting behaviours to benefit intelligence gathering and investigations.
These developments have been met with some concern by scholars, who raise the question of unethical practice. Bousequet (2018), for instance, argues that the methods used by law enforcement—such as the gathering and storing of publicly generated data that includes details of the producer, victim and offender—raises concerns regarding public privacy. To overcome this potential obstacle, he argues that agencies should apply a balanced approach to using public crime reporting media. It should be used, as the information is made publicly available by the producer, but agencies should respect that the public desires a reasonable amount of privacy.
A point that should also be deliberated is that despite the efforts and resources that law enforcement agencies invest into these applications they will not be successful without regaining the trust between institutions and the public. As shown in the case examples, many individuals choose to upload crime reports on social media for its ability to enforce social or political impacts. Therefore, future applications will need to demonstrate that they too can have a progressive impact. To achieve these changes, police should aim to demonstrate to the public the value of using publicly produced reports and to show how their use has benefitted wider society; for example, through successful cases that used publicly generated crime reports to prosecute offenders. Such an attempt can be seen, for instance, in the description of the Self Evident App, which recognises these growing tensions and highlights how the data uploaded by the public is recognised by the UK Crown Prosecution Service as legitimate evidence, which has secured convictions in the courtroom (Witness Confident 2019). These factors will need to be considered in future developments of law enforcement applications to ensure adequate public—agency cooperation helping to support contemporary investigations. Exploration into the innovative methods used by law enforcement agencies reveals an institutional development that is redefining the phenomenon of public crime reporting.
This chapter has aimed to explore public crime reporting on social media as an emerging cultural phenomenon that has become the topic of academic, public and political interest. The nuanced common practice has been examined in detail to highlight the theoretical, interactional and symbolic frameworks that are interwoven in current debates. Taking a cultural criminological approach revealed the symbolically rich nature of public crime reporting, with the goal to provide innovative contributions towards understanding contemporary visual culture (Sandberg and Ugelvik 2017). The chapter has aimed to showcase the phenomenon as a contemporary opportunity for law enforcement agencies to use publicly generated crime reports to improve the effectiveness of intelligence gathering and to rebuild the policing platform as the main space that crime reports are reported to. To fully explore the phenomenon the chapter has applied cultural criminological theories to showcase the impact it has in contemporary society in two ways. The first highlighted the dynamic perspectives and identities that frame how the reports are produced; the latter examined how these features reflect a broad debate into whether the phenomenon represents just behaviour.
Conducting an analysis into the multiple perspectives on crime reporting reveals themes of gender, victimology and social stigmas, influencing the cultural understandings of public crime reporting online. The effects of the incorporation of the camera lens into smart phones shows how technology has allowed the public to produce reports through innovative perspectives and reflects a nuanced set of theoretical frameworks to understand victim and offender identities. The chapter highlights how social activism remains an overarching motivation for crime reporting on social media, which shapes the context of reporting crimes to an interactive online audience. By delving further into the perspective of the offender, the chapter further identifies a new pattern in crime reporting by violent extremists and terrorists producing their own crime reports as a form of propaganda, manipulating social media sites to disseminate their content. This new wave of crime reporting presents an unprecedented path of exploration, which highlights the negative implications of the phenomenon and showcases how the motivations behind crime reporting can be malicious.
What emerges from the comparison of perspectives and identities intertwined within the phenomenon is an overarching debate whether the motivations of public crime reporting are just. This chapter explored this debate through the application of two contemporary case studies. The first case explored the rise of sexual abuse and harassment victims at universities reporting crimes on social media, providing a space for victims to raise awareness and gain support within subcultures. Despite the potential benefits of this practice, the phenomenon has also been labelled as an expression of a regressive society. Adopting the traditional concept of the bystander effect and applying it to online crime reporting reveals a cultural acceleration into a spectator society that has become socially invested in producing visual crime imagery. Overall, current debates reveal how public crime reporting on social media has become a critically examined behaviour within cultural criminology, that reveals wider discussions into the motivations and themes surrounding the phenomenon.
The chapter also offers an analysis into how law enforcement agencies have begun to develop smart phone applications that are redefining how the public should respond to crime situations from a police perspective. The examples discussed reveal that law enforcement agencies are recognising the benefits of using public crime reports to improve the intelligence gathering of witness statements and overall investigations. The methods and applications being developed by law enforcement agencies reflect a cultural transition into a contemporary era of crime reporting, which shows promise for future crime response. The exploration into the phenomenon of crime reporting on social media offers a set of innovative frameworks that contribute towards a contemporary understanding of how individuals respond to crime situations and how crimes are reported within a dynamic technological society.
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