Does the police need a specialist social media squad?

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(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)

The police service in Northern Ireland is confronting a new and growing beast – social media misuse and abuse.

According to figures released by police under the Freedom of Information Act, 2887 incidents involving either Facebook or Twitter were reported to the police in 2012.

This represents a big jump from 2011 when 1541 social media incidents were logged. The figures for 2010 are paltry compared to 2012, when only 73 incidents involving social media were reported to the PSNI.



There were only 4 incidents logged in 2009, but that comes with the qualification that searchable records only began on October 14 2009. The data for 2009 represents only the last two and a half months of the year.

It’s worrying to see that the water level set in 2012 looks to be replicated if not surpassed in 2013. Since the start of the new year to date, 229 social media-related incidents have been reported to the police service in Northern Ireland.

There’s no information which provides a breakdown of the exact kind of misuse or abuse recorded but it is likely that offences reported included sectarianism, offensive and abusive messages, menacing and threatening communication, sexual activity including grooming, complaints of stalking, reports of fraud.

The rise of social media misuse in Northern Ireland mirrors the trend seen in England, Scotland and Wales where at least 4,908 offences were reported to 29 forces. In 2008 the same forces recorded only 556 reports of alleged crimes; an eight-fold increase in only 4 years.

Number of incidents in Northern Ireland where Facebook or Twitter are mentioned in PSNI incident investigation logs:

2009: 4

2010: 73

2011: 1541

2012: 2887

2013: 229 (January 1 2013 to date)

However what’s most worrying is the strain on resources that this new phenomenon poses to the PSNI.

The PSNI are currently feeling it from all sides with the rise of dissident republicanism and the continuation of loyalist unrest associated with the Union flag restriction. There is too the usual day to day preoccupations of any police service as well as the specific challenges presented by the coming marching season. On top of this there’s the World Police and Fire Games and the G8 summit on the horizon.

All of the above represent serious security concerns and place big downside pressure on the police service.

On top of this now stands the social media issue. This new communications medium presents a serious policing challenge and lays down many questions.

When should the police intervene? Does the police need more resources? Does the police need a specialist social media squad? What is and isn’t acceptable to say online? Should Facebook and Twitter be doing more to censor sectarianism and hate speech? Should parents and schools be doing more to educate young people on how to behave? Is it incumbent upon Stormont politicians and community leaders to take a lead on the issue and lay out social norms?

All of these questions and more need answers.

(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)


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About Author

Brian is a blogger, political cartoonist and digital media strategist commenting on politics, the economy and developments that affect the legal profession. Brian also has a passion for youth unemployment and regularly provides career guidance and writes on the deficiencies of second and third level education. Brian writes for the Huffington Post (, has his own blog ( and blogs for the Guardian (


  1. Good key points certainly raised Brian.

    There are a lot of issues to address on social media such as cyber bullying, anonymous troll sites indulging in character and business assassination, incitement to hatred, racism, public disorder matters, etc etc and it is really a new world out there for the police who have made an attempt to be social media friendly in setting up Facebook accounts and using twitter feeds. In any democracy there needs to be checks and balances and we just need to get this right.

    I think this is an issue that may benefit from a consultation through the new Policing and Community Safety Partnerships to get regional and local feedback – might help to inform the discussion. But why not just go for a full blooded consultation to tease out what is actually going on? A job for the Dept of Justice? Every strategy needs a baseline to start with. People using social media do need to understand their social and legal responsibilities more.

    The upward trend figures do not auger well and the bottom line is we do need to protect the vulnerable in our society – especially the children.

  2. Cllr Cadogan Enright, Down on

    Totally agree with Jim Masson, I am suprised that a specialist squad does not exist already – this may explain the extraordinary slowness to deal with issues over the last 3 months with incitement to hatred, racism, sectarianism, public disorder matters, etc.

    On a separate matter, does any specialist unit exist to tackle international fraud like the notorious networks of hucksters in countries like Nigeria?

    If not, why not? – clearly specialist skills are needed to deal with these issues and have to be trained up both technically and in how to develop their findings into a smooth process leading to a measured scale of reaction – from contacting internet service providers up to agreed processes for local or multinational prosecutions.

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