The Impact of Social Media on Police Investigations

3D render of a police line tape against defocussed background

Can Social Media Be an Uncontrollable Monster for Police?

THUNDER BAY – NEWs – Social media has permeated all aspects of modern life, including law enforcement and crime reporting. In addition to traditional media releases, police services now often turn to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to communicate with the public.

Additionally the public via social media can post direct information of their perceptions on social media without any filters. That can actually impact a police investigation.

This added dimension can significantly impact police investigations in both positive and negative ways.

The Power of Social Media in Law Enforcement

Social media’s role in law enforcement can’t be overstated. Police services can leverage these platforms for a variety of purposes:

  • Public Alerts and Information Sharing: Social media allows police to rapidly disseminate crucial information, such as descriptions of suspects, missing persons, or public safety alerts.
  • Community Engagement: Social media platforms offer an interactive medium to engage with communities, promote crime prevention strategies, and foster a sense of shared responsibility.
  • Soliciting Public Assistance: Police often use social media to seek tips or information from the public that can help progress investigations.

The Risks and Challenges of Social Media in Investigations

Despite its advantages, social media’s use in policing comes with a set of risks and challenges:

  • Spread of Misinformation: Misinformation or rumors can spread rapidly on social media, potentially compromising an investigation or causing unnecessary public alarm.
  • Risk to Confidentiality and Privacy: If members of the public post sensitive information related to a crime or a suspect, it could infringe upon privacy rights or prejudice a trial.
  • Cyber Vigilantism: Social media can sometimes enable ‘online witch hunts’ where individuals are prematurely declared guilty and harassed, leading to potential harm and legal complications.

Some Examples of Social Media Impacting Police Efforts

The Boston Marathon Bombing (2013)

During the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, the use of social media had significant negative impacts on the investigation. In the immediate aftermath, users on platforms like Reddit began crowdsourcing efforts to identify the bombers from available images.

The result was a kind of digital witch-hunt that led to several innocent people being misidentified as suspects, causing them undue stress and harm. This false information spread rapidly, causing confusion and diverting the attention of the authorities. Eventually, law enforcement had to request the public not to conduct their own investigations and to avoid sharing unverified suspicions.

The Christchurch Mosque Shootings (2019)

In the tragic incident of the Christchurch Mosque shootings in New Zealand, the assailant live-streamed the attack on Facebook. This not only spread horrifying images of the incident but also could have potentially put law enforcement at risk, as their response tactics could have been made publicly available in real-time. Despite efforts to remove the video, it was shared widely across social media platforms.

Furthermore, the video’s existence allowed for the spread of extremist ideologies, as it was used for propaganda by various hate groups, presenting another facet of the challenges that social media poses for law enforcement.

These instances underline the importance of responsible social media use, especially during ongoing investigations or incidents. They also underscore the need for social media companies to work proactively to prevent the misuse of their platforms in ways that could obstruct justice or harm innocent individuals.

Operation Dolphin in Thunder Bay

Project Dolphin was an extensive undercover investigation undertaken in 2010 by the Thunder Bay Police Service in conjunction with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Toronto Police Service and the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service.

Project Dolphin investigated a hierarchical and well organized criminal enterprise which involved the trafficking of drugs including Cocaine, Marijuana and Oxycodone. It is alleged that this organization had supply and distribution contacts with other criminal enterprises including the Hells Angels and other organized crime groups in western Canada and Montreal.

On the morning that the police started raids and making arrests, at Netnewsledger there were a lot of emails and messages on our social media channel on Facebook. People started posting pictures of what was happening.

We quickly realized that something big was happening. We also realized that this was an ongoing and active police operation as there were messages from readers from different locations across the city.

On one level, we wanted to rush to report what was happening. Our motto of “News at the speed of the Internet” pushed us to get the story out. On the other side, we made a decision to wait and gat some solid facts and information from the Thunder Bay Police Service.

Our reasoning at the time was that an active police operation was ongoing, and it could be that our reporting could be actually putting police officers, or the public at risk. If there were multiple police raids happening, and the people who were targeted knew, there could be decisions to ambush police officers.

Did our two hour delay cause undue hardship to our readers? Perhaps for some but our decision was one we at NetNewsLedger could certainly live with.

Navigating the Social Media Landscape: A Balancing Act

Given the potential benefits and drawbacks, police services must use social media judiciously. They need to monitor their digital channels and promptly address misinformation. They must ensure that their posts respect privacy and do not interfere with ongoing investigations.

Furthermore, they should engage with the public in a positive, respectful manner, fostering a sense of community while reminding citizens to act responsibly online, especially when dealing with matters of crime and justice.


In the era of digital communication, social media is a double-edged sword for police services. Used responsibly, it can enhance public engagement, facilitate investigations, and improve the speed and reach of crime reporting. However, its misuse can lead to complications that hinder justice and harm individuals. As with traditional media releases, striking the right balance is crucial to ensure effective policing in the age of social media.

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