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24 June 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 10:19am

Fact-check: is “half“ of police work really related to social media?

Is the head of the College of Policing correct to say that "at least half" of police time is taken up by crimes on social media?

By media mole

Some rather suprising news this morning on the BBC, which has run a story headlined “Social media ‘at least half’ of front-line policing“. It’s based on a quote from chief constable Alex Marshall, the head of the College of Policing:

Mr Marshall told BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action: “As people have moved their shopping online and their communications online, they’ve also moved their insults, their abuse and their threats online, so I see that it won’t be long before pretty much every investigation that the police conduct will have an online element to it.

“It’s a real problem for people working on the front line of policing, and they deal with this every day.

“So in a typical day where perhaps they deal with a dozen calls, they might expect that at least half of them, whether around antisocial behaviour or abuse or threats of assault may well relate to social media, Facebook, Twitter or other forms.”

At first glance this might seem to be referring to stuff we think of as the bread and butter of those who make the online environment nasty for the rest of us – abuse, threats, identity theft, spam, etc. – but the body of the article makes it clear that the stat in the headline is based on a less-than-rigorous research method known as “pulling it out of one’s ass”.

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The first point to make clear is that “front line policing” is not all policing. It gets a lot of column inches because politicians often think there’s good political capital to be made by increasing the number of “bobbies on the beat“, with a perception that members of the public feel safer if they see their local police officers out and about, offering some vague deterrence to crime – yet criminologists almost unanimously agree that research (such as this study from the College of Policing itself) has shown having officers walking in circles around a neighbourhood is possibly the least effective crime prevention strategy available. It also takes officers away from other parts of the force which deal with more complex crimes (for example, white collar crime or human trafficking).

Indeed, the idea that there is a division between “front line” and “back line” policing is largely a subjective one, open to reinterpretation depending upon the political needs of the day. Cutting the staff who arrange for the correct forms to be available at the station so that officers can speedily book a suspect into custody usually means that the officer has to take up the extra admin work – and, frankly, it is unlikely that there is any police role which does not have some kind of administrative requirement, showing just how false a dichotomy “front” and “back” line is.

That said, those officers who do spend their time going out to visit homes and businesses after a 999 call – and it’s clear from Marshall’s quote that he’s talking about those officers, so we’re already into a sub-fraction of all front line police – constitute a fraction of the total police force. Here’s a graph from UK Crime Stats, covering England and Wales between May 2013 and April 2014:

There is no separate “cybercrime” category. (Also important to note: while the numbers are correct the sizes of the segments in this graph are not an accurate representation of the proportion of total crime each crime category constituted over the time period.)

Instead, the BBC piece makes it clear that “while anecdotal evidence from officers indicates that dealing with complaints arising from social media now absorbed a significant amount of their time, it is not yet borne out in the figures”. The BBC also spoke to “a number of front-line officers”, who confirmed that a “significant amount [sic] of calls” were “related” to social media. Individual crimes might have an internet or social media element, but that requires digging into each individual crime report.

Instead, what Marshall has said appears to be his own gut feeling. Of the categories above, “anti-social behaviour” – which is most likely to contain crime reports relating to online abuse or threats – is roughly 38 per cent of total crimes. Many of the other categories don’t have an obvious online element, from possession of weapons to vehicle crime, to bike theft to arson. Marshall’s “at least half” guess is most likely exaggerated.

However, there’s another dimension to consider in this story. The BBC points out that the College of Policing is currently working out a framework for how the police should assess and respond to crime that originates online, possibly from social media, and that the Home Office is considering introducing a “flag” that officers can use to mark out crimes with a largely online element. It contrasts with the quote from an unnamed officer, who says:

A lot of the time.. it’s that whole attitude of, ‘I don’t know what to do, I’ll call the police, they’ll sort it out for me.’ It should be a case of let’s be sensible, let’s not be friends with that person on Facebook, perhaps contact Facebook first or don’t use Facebook. It’s common-sense stuff.”

It’s not so much that social media has created a new class of crime, but that old forms of crime have now changed to reflect that the way that people talk to each other now takes place online. Domestic abuse is domestic abuse, even if these days it might involve a husband reading his wife’s Facebook messages without her knowledge, or an ex-boyfriend barraging a frightened woman with emails and tweets instead of visiting her house and shouting through the letter box.

This also reflects criticism of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook for not doing enough to help their users either escape abuse and threats, or report it. If we’re going to rely on anecdotes, then there are a distressing number from those who have found that the web giants don’t take hate speech, or physical threats, or any other distressing instance, seriously – and who often also find that going to the police also does nothing to help, even if it generates paperwork. This mole wonders whether the unnamed officer would be so flippant about tweets if they were printed out and physically mailed to a victim, at the rate of dozens a day.