Policing Virtual Neighborhoods in Post-Conflict Countries

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Written by Robin Hofmann

“Western” policing strategies are now part and parcel of international peacebuilding and police reform assistance in post-conflict countries. While the potential of social media is recognized, the lack of coherent social media strategies may undermine the efforts.

Engaging citizens as partners in the provision of security is a common policing strategy in the developed world. Such “community policing” strategies, in which cooperating with communities to identify security needs and problems, and to gather intelligence, is a pivotal “Western” policing export. This strategy is not new but it has been no less than revolutionized by the possibilities of social media. This has ramifications for international police missions to conflict-prone countries.

Today, police officers across the globe walk the beat through cyber neighborhoods. Twitter, Facebook & Co. are widely used by the police for trust and image building, for liaising with citizens, for searches and even for counter-terrorism. In Finland, for example, a unit called “Nettipoliisi” specializes in social media community policing. The idea is to take a virtual approach and shift from the traditional street and neighborhood community policing activities of the past to the Internet. Police departments in Berlin and Manchester regularly conduct so-called ‘tweetathons’. For 24 hours, all emergency calls that reach the control room are posted on Twitter. The aim is to increase transparency, inform about the complexity of police work and raise awareness of the misuse of emergency call lines.

Even more promising is the collaborative potential of social media. The police in The Netherlands provides an app linking people directly to community police officers, and the public can upload photos and videos of suspicious events. The Boston Marathon bombers were mainly identified by social media users cooperating with the police, which had specifically encouraged people to support their investigations. Moreover, after the England summer riots in 2011, thousands of rioters were identified and, later, convicted, following analysis of a huge amount of social media data.

This list could go on but the point should be clear: social media has become an integral part of the community-policing approach. For international peacebuilding assistance in conflict-ridden countries, many lessons may be drawn. The police component of such missions has increased significantly over the last decades. Consequently, “Western” policing styles, community-policing and social media use included, are imported to developing and post-conflict countries. Peacebuilding has become police-building, with a strong emphasis on police and security sector reform.

Can social media be used for the policing in these special settings? Up until now, coherent social media strategies for police mission have been lacking. The reason is simple: smartphone and computer density is not as high as in developed countries. User rates of social media platforms are considerably lower.

However, user and accessibility rates are increasing rapidly. Besides, where police performance is weak a phenomenon called “do-it-yourself” policing is on the rise, and a merger of social media and community policing takes place: citizens increasingly use social media for criminal investigation, crime prevention and public security mainly independent of the official police.

Ushahidi, for example, is a website created after the Kenyan presidential elections in 2007 to collect eyewitness reports of erupting violence, and data was used to generate ‘heat maps’ of violence. Ushahidi has since been used in a number of areas and countries, including the mapping of violence in South Africa and Congo, the tracking of pharmacy stock outs in Malawi, Uganda and Zambia, and the monitoring of elections in Mexico and India.

In Kosovo, a sexual reporting app crowd-source data to create hot spot maps of sexual harassment incidents. The maps are made publicly available, giving women a clearer picture of where harassment most often occur. In cities such as New Delhi, Jakarta, Nairobi and Bogota, a similar system crowd-source data to inform users about local safety, including even information on street lightning.

The flip side of all this, especially in volatile, conflict-prone countries, is that social media data easily can be employed to incite violence and to promote conflicts. Moreover, data protection issues are a considerably larger problem in such countries because independent police oversight is weak. And finally, restrictive governments can use social media to prevent information reaching certain groups in society, use it for identifying dissenting groups, or simply shut the means of communication down.

Promising though they may seem, social media are therefore no magic bullet for the policing of communities, especially not in conflict-ridden countries. For international police missions, the balancing of these new and the traditional tools, such as diplomacy and political dialogue, becomes pivotal. At the very least, developing coherent social media strategies for police mission should be a part of the mandates.

About the author: Dr. Robin Hofmann is a research assistant at the University of Bochum, Germany. Dr. Hofmann holds a PhD in law, focusing in security sector reform in post conflict countries.