Over the past couple of years we have seen a complete revolution in the way social media is used. Once seen as a medium that reflects social attitudes, it is today increasingly defining them. Social media sites have evolved from being a form of communication to a channel for active group psychology. Nowhere has this phenomenon been more pronounced than in The Arab Spring which began in December 2010 in Tunisia and sparked revolutions in a host of countries across the Middle East which are still on-going today.
Social media has proved a driving force behind these revolutions and has had a key role to play in stirring entire nations to action. It is far from certain that the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain would have occurred without the presence of Facebook and Twitter. Equally, it is likely that if the undemocratic governments in place in those countries had appreciated the power of these sites, they would have tried to censor and control them as the communist regime in China has done.
The riots that broke out in the UK during Summer 2011 also clearly demonstrated the power of social media as a force for mass action even if this time it was to organize looting, arson and criminal damage rather than to fight for social and political freedom. Social media played a key role in helping to incite the violence and to coordinate the activities of the rioters. BlackBerry Messenger became the rioters’ most powerful weapon, helping them to target, move and attack ‘en masse’, leaving the Police trailing behind for three nights in a row.
Looking for the right response
What all of these events have illustrated is the power of social media to co-ordinate and drive large groups of people into action and the difficulties that governments, police and intelligence services often have in combating these social media driven movements.
So, in the battle to maintain law and order is the only answer government control of social media channels? No. Public security professionals around the world need to stop seeing social media as the problem and start tapping into it as part of the solution. In the fight against antisocial criminals, organised crime and terrorists alike, social media can be law enforcement’s most powerful weapon.
Initially their efforts were focused on tracking criminals and terrorist suspects directly; on monitoring known sites used by criminals to communicate with and educate one another (the so-called Black Web). This type of tactic has an important role to play in police investigations. However, police also need to be tracking social media activity more widely to pick up on trends and shifts in sentiment, for example.
As we learned after the terrible events of the July 2011 massacre in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik was an avid social media user. He used the Web to propagate his abhorrent beliefs and gave very clear indications as to his intended actions. Breivik was known to authorities as a potential threat and was active in extremist circles. So why wasn’t he being monitored? The painful truth is that he is only one of thousands, perhaps millions, of individuals across the globe who pose a potential threat to the world’s law-abiding citizens and police often don’t have sufficient resources to monitor them all
A clearer picture
This is where technology has a key role to play. Analytics technology can help with these processes. Text analytics technologies can now pore over huge amounts of social media information to uncover patterns and analyse content. Social media analytics can continuously monitor online data to identify important topics and content categories and build links to understand certain networks of individuals. Finally sentiment analytics can assess and monitor the sentiment of text to flag changing attitudes that may signal a shift from words to action. Allowing the technology to do the monitoring frees resources to intervene when an increased threat is identified.
Ultimately, in times of financial austerity, public service agencies can’t just increase their resources to ensure social media is being appropriately monitored for threats. They need to use those resources more smartly and free them up to act on intelligence – not be bogged down by sifting through information. Most importantly they need to use technology wisely to extract actionable intelligence from mass social media data.