Friday, 1 June 2018

How much does social media contribute to creating a fear of crime?

Good morning thanks to everybody for your posts concerning the escalation of crime if any members have a spare half hour to walk around the streets during the day especially after school time keep a look out and report anyone suspicious..” read a post on a community hub in a middle class East London suburb. A suburb, where the threat of crime has been hyped up, largely due to social media, out of all proportion to what is actually happening on the streets.

Levels of crime have certainly grown nationally over recent times, no doubt helped by central government cuts in police budgets. Figures from police forces across England and Wales show crime increasing by 14% in the year to last September. Meanwhile, police numbers have reduced by 22,424 below their peak in 2009, when there were 144,353 officers.

Another contributory element to the growth in crime is no doubt the continuing polarisation between a small group of haves and a burgeoning level of have nots in our society.

However, the question here is how real is the growth in crime and how much is the fear of crime being fanned by social media? One personal experience which got me wondering came after canvassing a local road asking about issues that concerned people. At a few houses - which were party to the facebook hosted community hub - there was real concern about crime. “There has been all sorts around here,” said one householder. A little more questioning brought forth the information that some kids on bikes had vandalised cars a month or so previously. This incident though had been splashed across the community hub, with myriad comments following. There was a lack of any context. Similar views were echoed at other houses in this street, that were also on the hub. However, when I asked about crime in a few houses not connected to the hub, the response was that crime was no worse than before and they hadn’t heard much about it.

So the social media activity was having the effect of whipping people up into a frenzy of fear. This has some alarming effects, leaving some people literally cowering behind the door, wondering when the criminals were coming for them.

The fear of crime, whether real or imagined, in a number of places across the UK and lack of belief in the capacity of the police to deal with it has led to the growth of vigilante style initiatives. Community groups may launch their own patrols. It can only be a matter of time surely before the headline arises “Vigilante group severely injures suspect.”

Crime has always been a popular media issue, the more gory the crime the more popular it is with news desks. Big crime stories have come to dominate press and TV news agendas ever more over recent years, sometimes almost developing into mini-soaps in the nature of the coverage. Terrorism could be classified as a sub-category in the crime genre.

Traditionally, local newspapers have been filled with crime stories. They are easy to do and the police are generally only too willing to get the free publicity to help them in their work. The overall effect has often been to over emphasis the amount of crime in a given area, fostering fear, which in turn may keep people off the streets and make crime more likely.

Social media can ofcourse have positive benefits in combatting crime. People get in touch via such channels. Indeed, arguably growing numbers of individuals are living their lives through social media these days. People can be alerted to crime in the area, making them more vigilant about suspicious behaviour. Useful networks can be created via the likes of street Whats App groups to make it easier for people to let each other know what is going on.

The problem comes, though, in defining where the line is drawn between whipping up hysterical fear and simply providing better information and communication in order that people know what is going on in their communities.

Social media has a positive role in perpetuating the spread of useful information but when it comes to hyping fear and suspicion it just becomes another adjunct of the fake news world.

In terms of greater connectivity social media has a positive role to play in combatting all sorts of anti-social behaviour, including crime. However, social media is also increasingly seeing people isolate themselves off in silos of like minded individuals each feeding into and exasperating each others prejudices and insecurities. Social media can also facilitate the plain and simple perpetration of falsehoods.

The line between fake news and useful community communication is a thin one, made more problematic in the modern world by the use of social media.  The area of crime provides and interesting example of where the border is becoming blurred, however, it is something that needs to be addressed if the world is not to become one of virtual threats coming to govern, dare I say it, our actions in the real world.

*published in the British Journalism Review - Not finally - spreading fear -  June 2018

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