Policing Disinformation in a New World of Armchair Detectives
For the past month the UK news has been dominated by a missing people’s case. A woman walking her dog one morning whilst on a work call didn’t come home. Her mobile phone, still connected to the work call, and her terrier were found by a bench next to a river. CCTV and sightings from other dog walkers showed there was only a 10 minute window where she could have gone missing. There were no signs of abduction and police focused their investigation with the theory that the young woman had probably fallen into the river. A theory that sadly now purports to be true after her body was found 28 days after going missing.
During the long search period the internet went wild. Thanks to social media everyone could become an amateur detective and share their theories with the world. Many people posted their thoughts and ideas, and some people turned up at the crime site to do their own sleuthing, sharing videos with thousands of users. So much so, that at a police conference on the 15th February, Lancashire police officers spent time debunking the false information, or what they called ‘persistent myths’, about the case. Criticising the online citizen investigators, they explained dealing with the disinformation was distracting investigating officers from dealing with the young woman’s disappearance. “In 29 year’s police service I've never seen anything like it. Some of it's been quite shocking and really hurtful to the family," said the Detective Superintendent of the case.
Yet in an age when police services rely on the public to provide information, appearing to tell the public off because sometimes the information they are providing is not wanted, can potentially damage public trust in institution, and show a lack of touch with a changing online world. “Of course the TikTokers and armchair detectives were clearly a hindrance to them, but that is simply a new reality that has to be managed -- you can't wish it away” stated Professor Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University.
“Of course the TikTokers and armchair detectives were clearly a hindrance to them, but that is simply a new reality that has to be managed -- you can't wish it away” Professor Wilson, Birmingham City University
Disinformation online is rapidly becoming a major challenging to policing. The occurrence of online disinformation in the guise of helping public institutions is becoming more regular. Ten years ago, the Boston Bombings, set off a flurry of collective intelligence on social media platform, Reddit, when users attempted to identify the bombers themselves. What resulted was a series of naming and shaming of innocent people by the Reddit community and, despite the thousands of people involved, Reddit failed to identify the correct suspects. Similar situations happened with the Bangkok bombing in 2015, and with many incidents since then. Last year, Leicester police claimed that disinformation online is now one of the "biggest challenges" in policing. It appears a fine line now separates public interest support and with emergent online mob behaviour and that the issue of disinformation needs to be tackled urgently.
Approaches to curbing false information
Despite widespread concern about online disinformation posing a serious threat to both police organisations and the people they serve, there has been little clarity globally about what actions or policies may best prevent it. Research by Poynter (a guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world - Poynter) shows a range of national approaches to directly fight false information. Some counties take a more legalised approach than others. For example, in Greece, as a result of Covid-19 an approved amendment to the Penal code aims to prosecute Greek citizens who spread false information during the COVID-19 pandemic. Poland, Malaysia, Zambia among other countries have also leveraged laws to prohibit the publication of false news. This approach worries some journalists and human rights advocates (including the UN) who debate whether legislation is necessary to protect citizens from misleading information, because it may infringe on the right to freedom of expression.
The European Union takes a ‘polluter pays’ approach. A start was made last year (2022) by the EU’s approval for new legislation in the form of a European Digital Services Act which aims to force big tech companies such as Google and Meta to police their own platforms more strictly to better protect people from harmful content including disinformation. The idea is that tech companies should be more accountable for the content created by their users, and which are amplified by their algorithms.
In 2020, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development launched a global study ‘Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation while respecting Freedom of Expression’. The study outlined sector-specific actionable recommendations and a 23-point framework to test disinformation responses, taking into account intersections with the universal human right of freedom of expression. The study “recognises that a multi-faceted approach is needed - including addressing socio-economic drivers of disinformation, through rebuilding the social contract and public trust in democratic institutions, promotion of social cohesion, particularly in highly polarised societies, and addressing business models that thrive on paid disinformation content such as advertising that crosses the line, through to fraudulent content masquerading as legitimate news or factually-grounded opinion.”
Tackling disinformation as a social issue via an education first approach is fast becoming the starting point for many countries. Sweden has a plan to fight disinformation by promoting facts, and Finland are actively teaching school children how to identify and question fake news by studying media and information literacy. Similar approaches are being used by the Netherlands and Canada to encourage critical thinking as a core skill.
As recent police investigations have demonstrated dealing with disinformation is not only a pressing issue but a politically sensitive one. Approaches need to protect people and democracy who are the victims of disinformation campaigns without violating freedom of expression, or stopping people sharing useful information that can deliver public good. Police services themselves need to think proactively about managing citizen contributions whilst preventing the posting and spreading of false information. Legislation has a part to play, but just as importantly the police can help with:
Education: Improving people’s critical thinking and enabling them to think before they post so they are aware of the consequences of their actions and can avoid spreading false and potentially damaging information.
Empowerment: Make citizens aware of tools (like TITAN’s intelligent coach) to support peoples endeavours in investigating online content in their search for truth and accuracy, so they are aware of media literacy, human rights and other factors.