A Debate About Law Enforcement & Social Media Is Redefining Policing In the Internet Age

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The deaths of Philando Castile and Korryn Gaines brought into sharp focus a national conversation about social media’s real-time capabilities and their relationship to operations of law enforcement. In each case, video of a police-involved incident was made available for mass consumption, effectively turning what would otherwise be reported into something documented. That sort of technology has upended already the world of journalism, where average citizens can quite literally become the storytellers by recording and uploading audio and video of events for the world-wide web to see. It’s also changing the landscape of policing, and just like in journalism, the new distinctions are murky, at best.

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In the case of Philando Castile, Facebook’s livestream option was utilized by the slain man’s girlfriend to broadcast the moments immediately following his death at the hands of police, an action which unwittingly ignited a debate about what – if any – filters should be placed on content that is streamed live. Mark Zuckerberg himself commented on the issue, and it seems as though livestreaming will remain as unfiltered as it’s always been. However, Gaines’ story involves the interception of a suspect’s social media account (that of Gaines) while she was engaged in an allegedly aggressive standoff with police, which ultimately ended in her death. Her activity on Instagram and Facebook is at the center of a recent report from NPR in which law enforcement’s ability to censor the online accounts of suspects is viewed from two very different lenses.

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“When should police be able to deactivate your social media account?” That’s reporter Martin Kaste’s opening query in his NPR report, and he offers up perspectives from police and activist organizations in response. Gaines, who uploaded videos during the reported standoff to her Instagram page (in addition to posts on Facebook, such as the one included in the below photo, which was included in this news report), was allegedly being asked to surrender by police outside of her apartment building. Her uploading, the police say, “was distracting her from negotiations, and some of her online followers were telling her not to give up,” which only elevated the tension of the situation. Upon realization that she was simultaneously using social media while negotiating, the Baltimore County, Maryland, police department involved “got Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, to temporarily suspend her account.”

korryn gaines

The police department’s call for suspension of her account is justified, according to police tactics expert Sid Heal, who tells NPR that in many cases, a suspect is seeking an audience. An audience can yield influence on a suspect’s behavior, a variable that was once easily avoided by simply cutting off his or her phone line. But in the Internet Age, myriad ways of communicating with an audience present a unique set of circumstances, logistically speaking. In Gaines’ case, and likely countless others, police have at their disposal “a special web page provided by the social media company where they can make an emergency request to take down somebody’s account.” And, according to Kaste’s report, police feel “this is no different than the old practice of cutting a phone line.”

But that’s a reductive perception of social-media video, at least according to Rashad Robinson. He’s a leading member of online racial justice organization Color of Change, who tells NPR “[a]s the movement around police accountability has grown, it’s been fueled by video evidence, the type of video that gives us a real insight into what’s happening and creates the narrative, builds the narrative, for people to understand.” Robinson uses Castile’s case as example, suggesting that without the live stream, the public response to his death would have likely never grown as vocal as it did. “Facebook and these other platforms have to decide what they’re going to be. Are they the phone company or are they a news agency? They can’t sort of pick and choose depending on sort of the time of day,” he says.

As it stands now, Facebook’s official policy on live streaming is “leaving itself a lot of gray area where it can judge cases as it sees fit,” according to activist Kaste spoke with. And while there is no doubt social media and policing will inevitably continue to intersect, there is another constant to think of. Technology is always growing faster than the policies constructed to reign it in. And so, at least for now, the revolution really can be livestreamed.