New Report by CMDS Fellows Lina Dencik and Arne Hintz

November 23, 2015

Managing ‘Threats’: Uses of Social Media for Policing Domestic Extremism and Disorder in the UK is a newly published project report by Lina Dencik, Arne Hintz, Zoe Carey and Hina Pandya from the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, which examines the uses of social media for policing domestic extremism and disorder in the UK, focusing on how social media data informs decision-making with regards to the policing of domestic extremism and disorder in the context of the United Kingdom.

The research examines two key areas of social media practices for policing: 1) the ways in which social media communication and data becomes identified as potential domestic ‘threats’ and 2) the ways in which the police engages with social media to manage and minimize those ‘threats’. The project’s aim is to understand the nature of algorithmically-produced intelligence, what aspects of social media data are used to identify domestic extremism and disorder, and how the police actively communicate on social media platforms. In order to explore this, the authors of the report combined qualitative and quantitative research methods, carrying out semi-structured interviews with British police involved in the policing of domestic extremism and disorder together with big data analysis emulating practices of protest policing and analyzing police engagement on social media.

The research found that the use of social media for policing domestic extremism and disorder is a relatively recent development that still constitutes an emerging practice within British police. However, there is increasing emphasis on the use of so-called Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) that stems predominantly from social media data available to view without bypassing privacy settings. The collection and analysis of this data is perceived to be a more proportionate and fair form of intelligence gathering than other tactics and provides a substantial resource for ‘situation awareness’, particularly in the lead-up to major events, such as protests and demonstrations. Although this data is considered ‘public’, police interpretation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) includes a number of restrictions for the collection and retention of this data for policing purposes. This relates particularly to repeated viewings of profiles and the length of time data can be kept by police.

Although uses of social media may facilitate possibilities for pre-empting forms of criminality, the research for this project also highlights a number of challenges in the use of big social media data for the purposes of policing domestic extremism and disorder. Assumptions regarding the ‘public’ nature of social media communication do not consider important questions about the user’s intent and the nature of consent in data collection and analysis. Furthermore, the lack of knowledge regarding the algorithms that produce predictive analytics for policing purposes raises concerns regarding the accountability of police tactics employed on the basis of such algorithms.