Social Media – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

December 13, 2018 - Words by Jolanda Modic

December 13, 2018
Words by Jolanda Modic

Once upon a time, there lived people that wrote about their holidays on postcards, gave each other birthday hugs and kisses in person, and expressed their opinions in full words. Actually, that was not so long ago. That is how the world functioned before 2004.

Today, in just one minute, we send each other tens of millions of messages via direct messaging apps like Messenger, Viber, and WhatsApp. We talk about our day, we gossip about our friends, we send each other shopping lists, and we give each other virtual birthday hugs. We also send each other credit card numbers, passwords, and sexually explicit images. Today, in just one minute, we post hundreds of thousands of comments on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. We share our opinions and our habits with the whole world, non-stop and in realtime. We let the whole world know about our thoughts, our likes and dislikes, our whereabouts, our social circles. Today, in just one minute, we upload tens of thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of videos to platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. Our everyday lives are there for the whole world to see, follow, admire, and criticise. We created a conglomerate of more or less sensitive information that just keeps growing. Social media became a huge part of our lives. How huge, you wonder?

According to Eurostat, in Slovenia, 70 % of adults (aged 16-74) and 80 % of kids (aged 15 and below) use internet every day. At home, at work, in school, on holidays, while travelling. Anywhere and for whichever reason, every day. Out of these active internet users, 45 % of adults and 77 % of kids use social media every day. To create profiles, to post messages, to comment, to share, to keep themselves busy. Every single day. If we do the math, this means that 1 out of 3 adults and 2 out of 3 kids in Slovenia are active social media users. Considering how different social media platforms managed to double or even triple their number of users in the past five years, you can be sure that these numbers will only grow.

Apart from the active users and their data, social networking has another critical component – technology. The success of social media depends on the internet, platforms, applications, computers, and smartphones. The evolution and the penetration of all these technologies in the past few years has been immense, fascinating, and at times daunting. Today, more people have a mobile phone than a toilet. Technology is getting faster, more powerful, and smarter. Almost everything can now be done online and on many occasions the technology knows how to do it before we do and does it way better itself. Quite soon, artificial intelligence will be everywhere, like electricity.

By how it connects people, how it creates this huge space of more or less sensitive data, and with its power and omnipresence, social media changed every aspect of our lives. Including and foremost public security.

In the summer of 2015, several organisations across the EU, including XLAB, got together to start exploring this phenomenon. We knew that social media would forever change the way people behave, that it would forever change the way criminals act, and that this would consequently require Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) to drastically change the way they do their work. We received support from the European Commission to, under the umbrella of the Medi@4Sec project, examine and understand the role of social media in public security, to prepare a roadmap for better policymaking, and to draft recommendations for better policing in this new era.

The project focused on three aspects – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We explored how social media is used for the Good. How, due to the large audience that is constantly just one click away, LEAs and public security planners can use social media platforms for instant communication, interaction, engagement, and education. How the massive source of real-time information nowadays available on social media platforms helps improve intelligence gathering, predictive policing, event monitoring. How social media empowers individuals to take matters into their own hands, for example, with neighborhood watching groups, searching for missing persons and stolen cars, sharing first-hand experience and valuable advice. We explored how social media can help prevent and solve crime, how it can help increase public security, and how it can consequently help improve the quality of our lives. We looked into the ways social media is used for the Bad. We examined how social media increased digitized criminality such as identity theft and fraud. How social media enabled new ways of stalking, impacted riots and mass gatherings, and simplified recruitment. We touched upon the Ugly side of social media and discussed how to better fight trolling, speech, lies online. How to prevent sextortion, counter child abuse, and tackle dark web.

Within the scope of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, we wanted to understand where we are today, where we should be heading, and how to get there. To this end, we started our work with a comprehensive literature overview and a few interviews with practitioners in the field of public security. This helped us understand both, the theory and the current practices, and was the base for our interactive map of good, bad, and ugly examples. We then organized several workshops across the EU where we gathered researchers, developers, practitioners, and policy makers to discuss strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that the social media presents in the context of public security. In each of the workshops, we focused on a specific theme around which we shared views and experiences, discussed an ideal future and proposed changes required for its realization.

In these final months of the project, we are gathering all the knowledge obtained and all ideas discussed in our workshops to prepare recommendations for practitioners and policymakers. We are sharing good practices and lessons learnt in several small and local events across the EU, where we are encouraging discussions about enhancing public security in the presence and with the help of social media to (hopefully) influence and support changes for the better.

One of such local events took place in Ljubljana on October 16th, where the Medi@4Sec team at XLAB gathered 30 practitioners to share their views and experiences and to discuss challenges and opportunities that social networking brings to Slovenia in the context of public security. After a brief overview of the Medi@4Sec project and a quick look into some of the practices from abroad, the guest speakers presented ways in which social media has been adopted, used, as well as abused, in Slovenia. Focusing on the Good, Alojz Sladič (General Police Directorate, Uniformed Police Directorate, General Police Division, General Safety and Security Planning Section) presented how social media has altered communication activities and daily operations of The Slovenian Police and how in several cases social media has been the crucial factor in saving lives. In contrast, addressing the Bad, Gorazd Božič (SI-CERT) outlined that there are certain threats and dangers when using social media and showed various local examples of scams appearing on Facebook. In the scope of the Ugly, Lija L. Miljavec (University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences, Centre for Social Informatics and Spletno oko) explained several ways in which social media is utilized for child sexual abuse and showed campaigns that have been prepared for raising awareness about this issue in Slovenia. You can find a full report from the event on the Medi@4Sec blog (short summary, long read).

Social media has tremendous implications for public security. With its omnipresence and its nature of open and direct communication, free and crowdsourced information, social media has become a powerful and imperative tool for citizens as well as law enforcement. Whether social media is used for awareness raising, intelligence gathering, or emergency response, its wide benefits cannot be disputed. However, as discussed during the local event in Slovenia (and also many times before in the project workshops across the EU), in order to ensure efficient and effective use of social media for preventing and fighting modern crimes, several action points await, the critical ones being improving the education system and adjusting the prosecution framework to the technological evolution. Unfortunately, these will take time and effort, whereas you can become part of the change for the better tomorrow today, by starting the discussion about the responsible use of social media at home, at work, among friends. Become part of our Medi@4Sec community, follow us on @MEDIA4SEC and join our LinkedIn group.

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