How the police force can turn social media to their advantage

Lindiwe Mkhize, Account Executive – Public Security Business Unit, SAS Institute

Recent events have shown that there is a concerning trend in South Africa where protest actions tend to turn violent. The results have been devastating – we have seen damage to property that amount to millions of Rands and, even worse, lives have been lost.

The question is whether we are using all the tools available to us to effectively manage and plan for these situations. For example, social media is often used by protesters to simply comment on the situation or to proactively use the various platforms to coordinate their activities. These activities are placing added pressure on law enforcement to optimise the way they use social media and monitor the large volumes of unstructured data across social media networks.

This, in turn, has highlighted the need for law enforcement to deploy solutions capable of extracting insight and value from that data. The police, in particular, can benefit by using social media and other forms of digital communications to help fight crime in general, rather than simply seeing them as tools used by criminals to organise and facilitate it.

In doing so, however, they have needed to be mindful of the diverse range of views that the public hold about the use of social media for public security purposes, from the fear of Big Brother that still grips many people, to a growing expectation from a more Internet-savvy generation that the police should be using social media and the intelligence it can provide to proactively tackle crime. Amongst Generation ‘Y’, there is an even an increasing willingness to report crime via social media rather than by telephone or face-to-face.

Finding a way forward

Today growing numbers of law enforcement personnel are being deployed to monitor social media. Unfortunately, systems are often basic and it requires too much police time and too many resources for the job to be done effectively. Consequently agencies often fail to capitalise on the intelligence the approach could provide.

So, what is the solution? Technology often has a critical role to play here and high-quality analytics can be particularly key. Text analytics technologies can now sift through vast volumes of information generated in social media to reveal patterns and ‘zoom in’ on content to analyse. Social media analytics can provide ongoing analysis of online data to highlight important topics and content categories and build links to understand certain networks of individuals. The key in all this, of course, is to identify potentially relevant information from the mass of background noise, thereby ensuring that investigators are not swamped by wholly irrelevant information and can instead focus on what is most likely to be important.

In addition, sentiment analytics can assess and monitor the sentiment of text to flag changing attitudes that may signal a shift from words to action. Allowing the technology to do the monitoring frees resources to intervene when an increased threat is identified. This type of capability will enable the professionals to identify the ‘noise’ within social media and focus on the data that could provide valuable intelligence. In particular, the use of sentiment analytics combined with advanced risk modelling techniques enables those individuals that pose the greatest potential threat to be identified, and action taken.

Doing all of this in a timely manner is also critical. Rapid processing, and analysis of large volumes of information and dissemination of intelligence ensures that intelligence is made available fast enough for effective action to be taken, helping to combat security threats.

Finding the needle in the haystack

Ultimately, with resources increasingly tight in these difficult economic times, the police don’t have the luxury of simply increasing their resources to ensure social media is being comprehensively tracked to pinpoint threats. Instead they need to make smarter use of existing resources and free police officers up to make best use of skills in frontline roles on the street rather than getting bogged down sifting through vast amounts of information. Most importantly of all they need to use technology wisely to extract actionable intelligence from mass social media data.

Analytics technology is the key to helping the police bring the current profusion of data under control and enabling them to action intelligence and use it to help prevent crimes ranging from social disorder and gang-related offences to terrorist activity, thereby helping to better protect the public.

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How the police force can turn social media to their advantage