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Police use of social media is under a microscope amid protests

A breakdown of trust is affecting how people respond to social media posts by police.

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The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked protests across the nation against police brutality and racism.

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As protests against racism intensified across the country, the Tampa Police Department asked the public for help on Twitter and Facebook. The police's social media post included a 16-second video that zoomed in on a black man approaching the broken windows of a sporting goods store and setting it ablaze.

"Can you identify this man? The subject seen in this video set fire to Champs Sports, on 2381 Fowler Ave., during civil unrest on May 31, 2020," police said on Facebook and Twitter two days later. "There were thousands of dollars in damage."

Hundreds of social media users responded. Some raised concerns that the police were singling out a black man or that sharing the video could "mark" anyone who looked like him. Others asked if police would arrest and identify officers who used tear gas on protesters. 

Tensions between police and protesters have escalated in US cities as protests continue over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed after a white Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd's death reignited concerns about police brutality against minorities, particularly black men and women. 

Protests that have swept through hundreds of cities in the US have brought an unprecedented level of anger and scrutiny to the police. The tensions have rippled down to how law enforcement uses social media as a tool to identify suspected criminals, provide real-time information and craft their public image. Civil rights advocates have long flagged the police's use of tools to monitor social media posts across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, raising concerns about privacy and the targeting of activists of color. The current erosion of public trust has put police use of social media under greater scrutiny.

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty & National Security Program, says the pushback police have seen on social media mirrors the breakdown of trust, particularly with minority communities. "It just seems that more people have woken up to the problems of policing in America," Patel said. "You're seeing that reflected on a much broader scale."

Police have had to walk a fine line on social media. Over the weekend, police in Portland, Oregon, took to Twitter to warn protesters that if they continued to shake the fence outside of the Multnomah County Justice Center, throw objects at officers or shine lasers in their faces, law enforcement would arrest them or use force. At the same time, police tweeted they "support people's 1st Amendment rights."

In Dallas, police asked the public on Twitter to share videos of "illegal activities from the protests" on an app called iWatch Dallas used to submit anonymous tips. Korean pop fans spammed the app with content from their favorite artists and it temporarily crashed on May 31. It's unclear what caused the app to crash.

Identifying protesters 

Even before the Floyd protests, civil rights advocates have scrutinized the use of social media by police, including for privacy concerns.

"Social media is working in tandem with other technologies. So there's police surveillance of protests whether it's aerial, video or just police officers taking pictures," Patel said. "There's a lot of photographic evidence of protesters, which can then be run through facial recognition technology."

In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of California found that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provided user data access to a social media monitoring tool called Geofeedia aimed at helping law enforcement monitor protesters and activists. The ACLU raised concerns that the tool could be used to monitor hashtags by activists and target neighborhoods with people of color. All three social networks shut off access to the data.

Geofeedia, though, isn't the only tool available to law enforcement. This week, US Sen. Edward Markey, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, raised concerns that a controversial facial recognition app called Clearview AI could be used to identify and arrest protesters. The company has scraped billions of public photos from social networks and other websites to create a searchable database. 

"As demonstrators across the country exercise their First Amendment rights by protesting racial injustice, it is important that law enforcement does not use technological tools to stifle free speech or endanger the public," Markey said in a letter to Clearview AI CEO and co-founder Hoan Ton-That.

Tech companies are already dialing back their facial recognition technology efforts. On Monday, IBM said it would stop building and selling facial recognition software because of concerns that the tool can be used for mass surveillance and racial profiling. Amazon on Wednesday said it would pause police use of its facial recognition technology for a year.

Several police departments said they rely on both social media posts shared by the public and proactively look for posts that mention any potential threats of violence or looting. In some cases, police have shut down buildings because of threats of violence posted on social media. You don't necessarily need facial recognition, though, to identify someone in a crowd even if they're wearing a mask amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, police charged social media influencer Jake Paul with criminal trespassing and unlawful assembly. Paul was caught on video at the Scottsdale Fashion Square mall when police say it was looted. Videos of Paul surfaced on Instagram and other platforms, the Scottsdale police said. In a tweet posted on May 31, Paul denied "looting or vandalism."

Sgt. Ben Hoster, a spokesman for the Scottsdale Police Department, said in an email that social media played a "very important" role in its investigation. "It is one of the main reasons that we knew that he had committed the crimes he is being charged with," Hoster said.

While using social media to identify criminals is reasonable, Patel said the problem is that very few police departments have policies that limit social media monitoring to investigating crimes. It's still unclear what social media monitoring tools police are using and how much information they're collecting on protesters. 

Jonathan Simon, a criminal justice law professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, said videos and images of suspected criminals that police post can also pose problems. "They may create a false perception about what kinds of people are involved in what kinds of protest activities," he said.

Crafting a narrative 

Police say they're using social media to inform the public during the protests. They've posted curfew and traffic information, as well as corrected misinformation and alerted the public to protests that have turned violent. 

Police have also used social media to manage their public image, sharing videos and photos in which they speak out against racism and show support of peaceful protests. 

In the current environment, however, those posts have sometimes backfired. In response, protesters have raised concerns about the use of tear gas, batons and rubber bullets by police in some cities.

In Los Angeles, the police department shared images of officers kneeling, walking in protests or talking to demonstrators. "The power of dialogue. Progress is made not just by hearing, but by listening — and we are listening. At our core: the police are the public, and the public are the police," the Los Angeles Police Department tweeted on June 5. 

Twitter users replied with images of police officers holding up weapons as a homeless man in a wheelchair is bent over with blood on his face. The LAPD is investigating allegations the man was shot in the face by police with a rubber bullet after officers fired into a crowd of protesters, BuzzFeed News reported.

Last week, the Dallas Police Department shared a video on social media showing officers participating in a march for justice and police reform. Some Twitter users called the tweet "propaganda," while others posted links to an article about a Dallas man who lost his eye during a protest. 

Senior Corporal Melinda Gutierrez, a spokeswoman for the Dallas Police Department, said there's a mix of both positive and negative comments on their social media posts. She'll respond to users if they're asking for specific information.

"We're not trying to argue with anyone back and forth on Twitter. That's just not something we would do," Gutierrez said.

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