Social media platforms are increasingly being used to fight crime and pursue investigations. They offer a means for police departments to share information with the public. They also enable the police to engage and involve their communities in new and potentially transformative ways.
The use of social media in global crime-fighting is extensive. Common uses include the identification of criminals, evidence sources and submission of distress reports. Police departments around the world are still exploring expansive uses of social media to support crime investigation and prevention.
Despite its obvious advantages, social media involvement in combating crime also poses pitfalls. Law enforcement officers might inadvertently disclose personal information, sensitive operational materials and policing tactics. Also, information released by the police through social media can be misinterpreted by the public.
Although Nigeria still has a young internet culture, social media is an integral part of fighting crime. The country’s internet revolution kicked off in the late 1990s. But it wasn’t until mid-2006 that Facebook started gaining mass adoption among Nigerians. The 2019 Social Media Poll Report on Nigeria indicates that of the 120 million Nigerians that have access to the Internet, 51% were using Whatsapp, 45% were using Facebook, 2% were using Twitter, while 2% were on Instagram.
Despite the advancement of digital media in Nigeria, there’s scant awareness on how crime is fought via social media. We set out to tackle this challenge by conducting a study on the use of social media for policing and crime prevention. We interviewed 122 police officers at the headquarters of the Lagos State Police Command.
The Nigeria Police Force is the law enforcement agency primarily charged with the responsibility of maintaining law and order, as well as preventing and detecting crime. The Lagos State Police Command is the Lagos State branch of the Nigeria Police Force. It is constitutionally mandated to enforce the law and fight crime in the state.
Despite successive drives to prevent and control crime, crime rates remain high in Lagos. The most violent crimes include armed robbery, kidnapping, homicide, and rape.
The Nigeria Police Force already has some designated social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Even with limited use of social media, it has had some remarkable successes. A great example was the arrest of a serial killer in Port Harcourt.
But more work can be done to fully use the powers of social media.
In our research we found most of the police personnel showed a high understanding of the importance of social media as a useful law enforcement resource. Officers identified Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube as the major platforms being used for policing and crime investigation in Lagos. But most officers (77.2%) said they hadn’t had any training on how to use social media for policing.
We argue that the Nigeria Police Force needs to take some bold steps to ensure that social media platforms become integrated into combating crime. One of the most important first steps would be a professional training on the use of social media platforms for policing and law enforcement.
Participants said they used social media platforms for different police duties. For example, 47% of the respondents identified intelligence gathering as the main purpose for using them. Just over 23% said they were using them for criminal detection, and 20% for crime investigation. Other uses included information dissemination to the public and getting tips from the public.
Officers also said that members of the public displayed a willingness to help fight crime via social media.
But they identified a number challenges in using social media to fight crime. These included:
- The use of social media for circulation of false information.
- The dissemination of sensitive information that could jeopardise police investigation on social media, and
- The use of social media to perpetrate crimes.
The biggest barrier was a lack of formal training on the professional use of digital tools for policing and crime prevention.
How social media can help fight crime
During the course of our research we were able to identify a number of ways in which social media could help improve crime-fighting performance.
For example, social media platforms can aid police agencies in communicating with the public via their official handles, managed by their new media departments. This has proved very effective in Australia and the the United States of Americaw as sway of disseminating critical crime prevention tips to the public.
Social media platforms can also promote community policing, improve public image, and uphold strong ethical conduct in the police force.
The emergence of social media has influenced every facet of society, including law enforcement. But to make use of the possibilities it offers the Nigeria Police Force needs to act decisively.
Firstly, the force needs a framework for training officers on effective ways of using digital tools in their duties.
Secondly, the police authority must formulate a policy on the use of social media in law enforcement and crime investigation. This would enforce professionalism, check misuse and ensure that digital tools are used in accordance with global best practices.
Thirdly, there needs to be a review of policing methods in Nigeria. The Police Act, which guides the Nigeria Police Force, needs to be updated to fully entrench social media best practices.
Finally, to fully avail themselves of digital aid, the Nigeria Police Force needs to create and implement measures for police-citizen engagement via social media. This will help improve the relationship between the police and members of the community.