By Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press
TORONTO – While the people of Moncton, N.B. heap praise upon the RCMP for their deft handling of a deadly manhunt in their city, pundits further afield are equally keen to celebrate their skill at navigating the treacherous social media landscape.
Online communication platforms present a double-edged sword for law enforcement officials, former police and social media pundits said. Tools like Twitter and Facebook can be both a meaningful public service tool and a genuine safety hazard to officers on the ground, they said.
The New Brunswick police at the centre of the Moncton crisis, they said, just offered a masterclass in how to leverage social media’s benefits while minimizing its numerous risks.
“If you look at how the Moncton detachment of the RCMP managed social media almost from the first moment of the crisis, the word that comes to my mind is textbook. They managed it almost ideally,” technology analyst Carmi Levy said in a telephone interview from London, Ont.
“In fairness to forces everywhere, there’s no such thing as absolute perfection in the age of social media because the sands are shifting so quickly that there’s no way that you’re always going to cover every single base,” he said. “But in Moncton, all of the fundamentals were covered off.”
Levy said today’s police officers must incorporate the internet’s myriad of communication tools into their investigations at the outset rather than treating them as an after thought.
Police forces would be well-advised to decide on a primary social media platform to use, establish clear rules as to how to tap into that platform and set down guidelines on exactly what information they’re willing to share with the public.
Lauri Stevens, a U.S.-based social media strategist who has worked with law enforcement agencies throughout Canada, agrees.
She says police forces are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer distinguish between real world and online activity, and not just because the internet has offered the criminal element the perfect place in which to recruit new members and cultivate dangerous ideas.
Social media postings from innocent members of the public can have immediate and potentially dire consequences for officers out in the field, she said.
In order to prevent the public from foiling their operations, Stevens said cops have had to develop virtual equivalents of securing the crime scene.
“Just like the way (police) like to control a situation in the real world when it happens, it’s a certain thing that it’s unfolding in the virtual world as well, and they need to be mindful to check that.”
The Moncton RCMP, she said, did just about everything right during the crisis that unfolded Wednesday and ended with the arrest of a suspect on Friday.
They established a healthy online presence years before this week’s slaying of three police officers, joining Twitter in 2009 and amassing thousands of followers over the next five years.
When the crisis in Moncton began to unfold, Stevens said the Mounties swiftly started sharing key developments and safety tips at regular intervals with their main online audience.
They were equally quick to dispel misinformation that trickled out in the ensuing media frenzy, a point Stevens said proves they were monitoring web chatter as it took place.
When rumours began circulating that the suspected gunman had been spotted in a different New Brunswick community, the Moncton Twitter account promptly quashed them with word that the reports were unfounded.
Just as crucially, she said, they issued frequent reminders to the public not to share details of police activities and emphasized the safety risks of doing so.
Chris Mathers, a 20-year veteran of the RCMP who now works as a security consultant, feels this last point cannot be overstressed.
He concedes that social media can be a valuable investigative tool when police want to enlist the public’s help, but believes it can be equally dangerous when they need to stay a step ahead of an increasingly tech-savvy criminal population.
“If you tell the world what you’ve seen the police do, then either other people are going to come down and watch and get hurt, or the bad guys themselves are going to know what the police are up to and more law enforcement officers are going to get hurt,” Mathers said.
“. . . If the guy hears that the police are on the roof of the building, he may run out the back door and kidnap some citizen and hurt them. People don’t really sometimes think about the ultimate impact of their actions.”
Stevens said this awareness usually increases during high-profile incidents, but fades into the background while police are carrying out their every-day duties.
She says the tragedy in Moncton should serve as a reminder that casual tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures and Vine videos can all have immediate and sometimes fatal repercussions.
Levy put it another way.
“Just because you have something to share on social media doesn’t mean you should.”