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Society, Politics & Law

Telling Tales: what is happening on police Facebook sites?

Updated Tuesday, 16th July 2019

Despite the vast increase in social media use by police forces since the late noughties, there hasn’t been a great deal of published research into these online interactions. Online communication can be an effective way to capture community sentiments regarding police work. With the right investment, it is an exciting opportunity to allow communities and police to work effectively together.

There are some obvious positives for the police arising from communicating with communities via social media, including that it allows them to directly post a story which bypasses the ‘frame’ it might be given by traditional news media. However, this raises the interesting question of whether by bypassing the potential frame of old media, the story might get reframed or ‘re-positioned’ by new media on social networking sites?

'...the way stories get told on police Facebook sites can be likened to an ambitious community film project...'

In our research we explored organisational police Facebook sites and have noticed that the communication on these sites is dynamic, energetic and (to us at least) really fascinating! In our observations the way stories get told on police Facebook sites can be likened to an ambitious community film project, where a story is scripted by multiple authors, at multiple points in time, and is produced and directed by a staff of extremely motivated ‘crew’ in the form of the local community members.

Firstly, the stories told on these sites show that the police make choices about what to “tell” but they are not the only scriptwriters. When the police post a story or part of a story, they normally post a short and fairly neutral snippet that informs the community about what has happened. These posts often resemble a press release. Let’s take, for example, a story about a missing person that starts with a police post stating, fairly neutrally, that someone has gone missing and where and when they were last seen. Very quickly that story can start to be ‘co-created’ by the community members whose comments on the story add to the narrative, often inserting background information, recasting characters involved (e.g. the missing person, their parents) in various different lights, and expanding the cast to include wider family and friends. As well as this expansion of cast, the community can also contribute additional elements or fragments of the story.  

This fragmented approach to co-creation means that the stories on Facebook sites do not unfold in a linear fashion. Because some people are adding backstory, others are “thickening” the script about more central events, and yet others are hypothesising potential endings, the story unfolds online in a way that jumps about in time from past, to future, to present day, multiple times in the telling.

Zoe Walkington - Telling tales (BBC ideas/HERC blog) Creative commons image Icon Image from HERC | Graham Pike under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license Facebook page for the Forensic Cognition Research Centre

Another interesting aspect is the level of engagement of community members. In some cases the “effort” expended is fairly minimal, a supportive “well done” or a ‘like’ about a story. However in a lot of cases community members are taking the time to add a lot of information in the comments, telling of similar stories that happened to them – perhaps to create a position of authority to hold a particular view on the police story, or to develop counter-narratives to the discourses developed by the police.

As well as all this activity involved in the creation, and altering of, a particular story, there are also significant editorial comments posted by members of the public. Whilst community members can’t remove a story the police have posted, they can, and frequently do, challenge editorial decisions. They can resist particular discourses by challenging why particular stories have been told, and also why other stories have not been told.

' does provide an informal way of capturing community feeling and sentiment regarding police activity.'

So why does any of this matter? We believe it is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly we are living in a world where feedback matters, and whilst the ‘chat’ under a police story in no way comprises formal feedback, it does provide an informal way of capturing community feeling and sentiment regarding police activity. It also does this in a way that is naturally occurring, and away from organisational or research agendas. Secondly, the effort that people are prepared to invest in this informal feedback is significant, and while much negativity can be found on these sites, there is also the potential to harness and capture the voices of those who engage digitally, even if they may not choose to engage face to face. Working with this online engagement may turn out to be a productive use of time for police forces in trying to involve citizens in policing, both informally and more formally.   

Austerity has been a major reason why police forces have not been able to invest more fully in resources to help them turn their Facebook sites into spaces where there is more truly dyadic interaction. While there are a few trailblazers, many police forces are in a position where new media are still being used like old media (e.g. press release formats, and no “interaction” beyond the initial police posting). However, the potential for more investment in this resource may mean that in the future Facebook sites may become an important site which allows both citizens and police to operate more effectively.

Watch the video below to listen to Zoe talking more about this topic.



Links to research papers:

Link 1

  • Are you talking to me? How identity is constructed on police-owned Facebook sites. Narrative Inquiry, 28(2) pp. 280–300
  • Walkington, Zoe; Pike, Graham; Strathie, Ailsa; Havard, Catriona; Ness, Hayley and Harrison, Virginia (2018)  

Link 2

  • Entitlement to Tell on Police Facebook Sites. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 22(5) pp. 355–357
  • Walkington, Zoe; Pike, Graham; Strathie, Ailsa; Havard, Catriona; Harrison, Virginia and Ness, Hayley (2019) 

This article is republished from the blog - Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC), to read the original article, click here.







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