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From the virtual frontlines: law enforcement's experience with social media in policing activities

Published onJun 08, 2023
From the virtual frontlines: law enforcement's experience with social media in policing activities


Social media; policing; Facebook; criminal intelligence; criminal investigation


Several studies have shown that police use social media (e.g., Dekker et al., 2020; Hu & Lovrich, 2019a) and, although research has tended to focus on its use in image management and police visibility (e.g., Kudla & Parnaby, 2018; Schneider, 2016; Tanner et al., 2018), this work has led to new knowledge about the uses of social media and its effects on policing. However, it continues to be important to understand how social media has been integrated into policing activities and how it is perceived by law enforcement agencies. The present study used qualitative data to look at police perspectives on social media, leading to a better understanding of how social media are seen and used by police service employees and the effects of integrating social media into police practices. The analysis has concrete implications for more efficient use of social media by police agencies.

Social media use by police agencies

Previous studies have found that police organizations use social media in three ways. First, social media facilitates information gathering, making it possible to monitor suspects, witnesses, and victims and to locate missing persons (Fallik et al., 2020), as well as gathering information, requesting public assistance, and examining material posted by suspects (Brunell et al., 2019; Estellés-Arolas, 2020). Police also use social media to request information from the public, usually information about a specific crime or crime in a particular area or based on knowledge about individuals and their links to crimes (Estellés-Arolas, 2020). Requests for assistance can therefore be divided into two main categories: those that involve short-term initiatives centered on a specific time and geographic area (e.g., notifying residents that there have been robberies in their area and suggesting precautions), and long-term initiatives that focus on more general crimes and different geographic areas (e.g., reducing crime in general; see Estellés-Arolas, 2020).

Police have also been able to gather evidence about the planning, commission, or aftermath of crimes as well as useful information about criminal networks through online posts by suspects showing individuals with weapons or drugs or discussing plans for criminal activity (Lane et al., 2018). Some individuals also post information about their allegiance to a criminal group, their intention to commit a crime, or their ideological beliefs (Frank et al., 2011; Trottier, 2012). Social media can provide information that helps in prosecuting individuals who have documented their crime online (Sandberg and Ugelvik 2017; Yar 2012)(Sandberg and Ugelvik 2017; Yar 2012) and can both disprove or validate evidence, such as alibis (Brunty and Helenek 2014; Fallik et al. 2020; Frank, Cheng, and Pun 2011)(Brunty and Helenek 2014; Fallik et al. 2020; Frank, Cheng, and Pun 2011)(Brunty and Helenek 2014; Fallik et al. 2020; Frank, Cheng, and Pun 2011), as well as guiding further police interventions. Similarly, an open-source investigation makes it possible to gather information on persons of interest. Investigators monitor their activities and may also infiltrate their networks (Ferguson 2017; Marx 2013)(Ferguson 2017; Marx 2013). If the subject of an investigation is a group rather than an individual, authorities can conduct undercover operations that allow them to acquire insider knowledge (Jewkes 2015). Collecting online data also allows authorities to expand their reach and thus amplify the scope of their surveillance (J. Walsh 2020).

Second, police use of open-source intelligence (OSINT) or, more specifically, intelligence derived from social media (SOCMINT) is increasingly common. This type of information gathering, most often used to collect information about those involved with organized crime (Frank et al., 2011), makes it possible for the police involved to remain anonymous and the investigation to remain secret (Trottier, 2012). Social media contains a trove of personal information, such as places frequented, hobbies, and interests, making it possible to create a profile of targeted individuals (Frank et al., 2011) and analyze their relationships through friendships on Facebook as well as online conversations and associations (Lane et al., 2018). In the context of intelligence-led-policing, social media surveillance presents an opportunity to collect information that can serve different purposes (Ellis 2021; J. P. Walsh and O’Connor 2019)(Ellis 2021; J. P. Walsh and O’Connor 2019). For instance, authorities often engage in “environmental scanning” to detect anomalies that could lead to problems. Law enforcement agencies rely heavily on this surveillance method to monitor online activities to increase their situational awareness. Being aware of their surroundings makes them better equipped to detect threats (Egawhary 2019; Ellis 2021; Fallik et al. 2020)(Egawhary 2019; Ellis 2021; Fallik et al. 2020)(Egawhary 2019; Ellis 2021; Fallik et al. 2020). Social media can provide new knowledge, in real-time, about a group's actions and members as well as information that can help in preventing crimes or civil disruptions (Omand et al., 2012).

Finally, social media have been shown to improve the efficiency of police investigations, making it possible to collect data that is otherwise unobtainable (Fallik et al., 2020) and are particularly important during crises to communicate and obtain information in real-time (Denef et al., 2012; Reuter et al., 2020; see also Schneider & Trottier, 2012 on crowd-sourced investigations after a large-scale event, such as riots). For example, the 2011 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver was largely documented through social media (Schneider et al., 2013). Academic studies of this event have highlighted the role of social media in the rapid identification of rioters and information-gathering by police as well as discussing the limitations of this method. Twitter was successfully used by Vancouver police to identify rioters in real time, while Facebook and Twitter allowed citizens to post and share images of the riots (Rizza et al., 2012 ; Schneider et al., 2012 ; Schneider et al., 2013). Social media also allowed police to practice "crowd-sourced policing," i.e., collecting information from individuals via social media, and made it possible for citizens to practice "citizen journalism» by publishing and distributing images of the riots. Social media also had an effect on the rioters, with some of them turning themselves in to the police after seeing their photos or videos on social media. The evidence provided by the images and videos posted on social networks contributed to rioters' recognizing their involvement and guilt. According to a Vancouver police report, out of 298 accused, 260 pleaded guilty to criminal offences (Vancouver Police, 2014). Also, the 2020 study by Reuter et al. (2020) of emergency services in European countries found that officers often find useful specific information, often visual, on social media and can use such media to gather information during a crisis (Reuter et al., 2020; Wybo et al., 2015). Some groups communicate only online, making social media and open sources the best way to gather information about them (Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, 2010).

Obstacles limiting the integration of social media and its uses

Although social media can be useful in police work (Fortin et al., 2021), police agencies often have difficulty adapting to these new technologies. For example, in some situations, effective use of social media is hampered by the "imperfect" form of the citizens' messages, such as the use of non-standard language and linguistic variability (Wybo et al., 2015). Messages may contain spelling mistakes, abbreviations, expressions, uncommon terms, and specific terms that require knowledge of the context. Interviews with 20 police officers in a state in the American South revealed that officers found it difficult to keep up with rapid changes in social media and technology (Fallik et al., 2020). Lack of specialized resources and effective training may help explain why law enforcement is not making the most effective use of social media in the investigation of cybercrimes (Hadlington et al., 2018).

Scholars have also identified several ethical and legal limitations associated with SOCMINT. First, the origin of the collected data may be questioned (Trottier 2015b). Law enforcement agencies rely on information from social media profiles of individuals they are investigating. However, these profiles can be hard to find since not only can there be multiple profiles under the same name but some delinquents use aliases to ensure anonymity (Frank, Cheng, and Pun 2011; Marsico 2009)(Frank, Cheng, and Pun 2011; Marsico 2009). Second, legal concerns have been raised about the jurisdiction of social media surveillance (Horsman et al., 2017; Murphy & Fontecilla, 2013). (Trottier 2012), among others, has suggested that this policing method, with its increased traceability and visibility, allows police to intrude in people’s private lives (Trottier, 2015a, 2017). Last, the absence of a legislative framework regulating police use of social media leaves law enforcement agencies without sufficient information on their rights and responsibilities. They have to use regulations created for off-line activities and apply them in the context of online investigations (Denef et al. 2012). As well, since there are no standardized methods for online data collection, authorities often adopt different approaches and different tools, which can lead to discrepancies (McKeown et al. 2014). The amount of information available on social media platforms is also a significant challenge, as police departments do not have sufficient manpower to analyze the immense amounts of data they provide (Reuter et al., 2020).

Aim of the study

Researchers have examined the integration of social media into police practices and changes in police practice driven by the arrival of social media. However, existing studies have focused largely on police visibility and the resulting need for image management (Kudla & Parnaby, 2018; Schneider, 2016; Tanner et al., 2018). Few studies have focused on police practices on social media in Canada, the police perspective on this media, and those that do deal with it have seldom used a large sample (For example, Frank et Cheng (2011) analyzed only 10 in-depth interviews in their study). The present study was based on a large sample that included participants in law enforcement agencies in different fields and at different levels of policing (see the section on methodology). A better understanding of the use of social media and the effect of integrating it into police practices could help police agencies adapt their practices to make them as useful as possible. The goal of the present research was to describe the different contexts in which social media is used by the police and the associated advantages and disadvantages of this use based on the experiences of people in the field. A better understanding of the use of social media and the effect of integrating it into police practices can help police agencies adapt their practices to make them as useful as possible.


Data and Sample

Data used in this study was compiled from responses from police service employees to a questionnaire that contained multiple choice questions about the use of social media as well as open-ended questions about perceptions of social media use. To recruit participants, the research project was presented to a roundtable of representatives of various police organizations. Six Quebec police forces agreed to allow us to contact their employees. All of the organizations involved in the survey provide different levels of police services, so respondents represent more than one aspect of police work. In Quebec, the levels of service (from 1 to 6) of police are determined by the size of the population to be served, which also determines the responsibilities of the police”. For example, level 1 police services serve populations under 100,000 citizens and are expected to provide only essential services, while a level 4 police service serves between 500,000 et 999,999 citizens and is expected to provide more technical services, such as high-risk interventions.

To preserve the confidentiality of the participants, the police agencies involved will not be named. The questionnaire was distributed to contacts at the various police agencies either by email or by letter. The contact then asked patrol officers, investigators, and analysts in his/her organization if they were willing to complete the questionnaire, either on paper or online. Questionnaires completed in paper format were returned to the contact in a sealed envelope and email answers were sent directly to the researchers. The response rate was 68.31% which can be considered as good in studies of the field of policing (see Nix et al., 2019). To arrive at this percentage, we estimated the number of individuals in each unit who could have been given the questionnaire and compared that to the answers we received. All received questionnaire were added to the database, automatically for those received by email or manually for those received on paper. Data used for this study were collected from December 8, 2015, to July 30, 2016, and authors received ethical approval from [edited University] on October 27, 2020 [edited number].


The 177 participants in the sample included 67 men (37.9%), 60 women (33.9%), and 50 people (28.2%) who did not answer the question regarding gender. The average age of the participants was 38 years and ranged from 22 to 57 years; 51 participants did not answer this question. The average length of work experience in the police service was 14 years, with the overall experience ranging from 6 months to 32 years. Participants identifying themselves as police offices constituted 82.1% of the total (101 participants), while 17.8% (22 participants) identified themselves as civilians. This distribution is representative of police services in Quebec in 2016, as approximately 78% of police service employees were police officers while 22% were civilians (MSP, 2016). The sample included employees in various positions: 45 patrol officers, 41 investigators, 4 patrol officers-investigators, 57 analysts, 21 managers, 7 intelligence officers, and 2 information officers.

Data gathering

The questionnaire had three separate sections: (1) socio-demographic characteristics, position within the police organization, and duties, (2) use of social media in the course of daily work, and (3) perceptions of social media. Four open-ended questions allowed participants to discuss their understanding of the use of social media in the context of police work.

  1. Describe1 in your own words how you use social media in your job. (i.e., frequency of use, objectives of this use, main contributions, difficulties encountered, etc.)

  2. What are your thoughts on the organization of work and the current integration of social media as a crime-fighting tool in your organization?

  3. In your opinion, what are the benefits of using social media to collect information?

  4. Describe what you see as the impact of social media on your police organization and your work in your current position (advantages, disadvantages, problems encountered, etc.).

The first qualitative question was not answered by 55 participants. This figure drops to 17 participants for the second question and then rises to 22 and 57 participants for the third and fourth questions respectively. The fact that these questions were asked at the end of the survey may have influenced the response rate (see the Limitations section for more details).


Since answers to the open-ended questions provided a large amount of unstructured data, qualitative data analysis (QDA) software was used in our analysis. QDA Miner 6 is a horizontal analysis (intercase) software for comparing variables and establishing differences between groups (Roy & Garon, 2013). It also makes it possible to undertake thematic analysis, which was particularly relevant to this project as it allows for the "systematic identification, grouping and, subsidiarily, discursive examination of the themes addressed in a body [of data]" (Paillé & Mucchielli, 2012, p.232). Continuous thematization was prioritized as it allows for modification in themes during coding (Paillé & Mucchielli, 2012). The most common themes were then analyzed to create more general themes. Different aspects of social media use were summarized in a table, and the most representative quotes chosen.


The results of the present study show the multiple uses of social media by police officers as well as the strengths and limitations of their use. Analysis of the data made it possible to identify areas discussed by participants regarding their use of social media. The following section is divided into two parts. First, we discuss the diverse purposes for using social media in investigations and crime prevention. Second, we outline specific crimes and social media platforms that participants described as of varying relevance.

The use of social media by the police

In this study, we asked participants how they use social media platforms on a day-to-day basis, as well as their opinions about difficulties in using these platforms. In the section that follows, we present the reported strengths and limitations as related to two main areas of policing activities – information gathering (individual profile, investigation and intelligence, event information, general) and prevention (threat detection, informing/reassuring those in the community, non-specific prevention).

Social media and information gathering

Many participants discussed using social media to investigate various types of crime and involving a wide range of criminal activities. Table 1 shows that 58% of participants (n=103) mentioned that social media was useful for collecting data on individual profiles. Participants found social media to be particularly useful for building a portrait of an individual and mentioned paying particular attention to photos, distinguishing features, contacts, interests, allegiances, lifestyle habits, places frequented, and incriminating statements, information that can then be used to conduct analysis of a criminal network.

Information gathering and analysis

Social media information-gathering, and network analysis were seen as going hand in hand.

"I go to [through a police account] the public profiles of certain individuals of interest, look at their friends list, the comments they have posted and what they have "liked". This allows me to flesh out their profile and target other individuals of interest based on their relationships." (#2, analyst, question 1)

"Minimum 4 times a week, I check various accounts, I sometimes extract content from accounts: extracting videos, checking metadata, geolocation and analyzing a network based on account (Facebook). I work on open accounts and when an account is closed, I go to the open profile linked to a private account." (#112, analyst, question 1)


The above excerpts highlight three aspects of the use of social media use in policing. First, social media is used to identify potential persons of interest (POI). Social media data is part of a network: law enforcement agencies can thus increase their information by looking at how individuals are connected. Second, social media make it possible to follow POI continuously and may be more cost-effective than traditional intelligence or investigative methods. However, as the excerpt above suggests, searching for POIs on social media may lead to additional work: if an account is closed, other steps may need to be taken, increasing the costs involved.

Participants (55%, n=97) also reported that while using social media to gather information, they might also discover evidence related to potential or actual crimes. The following examples provide more insight into this overlap.

"when working with street gangs and crime, social networks can provide us with a lot of information and descriptions of potential crime" (#63, patrol officer, question 1)

"I use social media to identify individuals connected to street gangs and to enhance the evidence we have on them regarding a crime." (#88, patrol officer investigator, question 1)

"Suspect identification, suspect location, knowing the network of contacts of a street gang member or organized crime [member]." (#104, patrol officer, question 1)

Participants indicated that they were using social media to gather intelligence about organized crime members. This intelligence-gathering operation aligns with the intelligence-led policing approach used by law enforcement agencies, which is aimed at gathering as much information about the suspect as possible, even if the information located is not directly related to the current investigation. These two text extracts that follow illustrate this.

"I look at the FACEBOOK profiles of individuals of interest in organized crime three to four times a week to find out their lifestyle habits and establish their network of contacts. (#8, analyst, question 1)

"I almost systematically check the people I investigate on Facebook; if they have an account, it allows me to quickly get a recent photo, a profile (spouse, children, dating, style of dress, tattoos, etc.) and also makes it easier to locate a person to arrest (school, work)." (#122, investigator, question 1)

As mentioned previously, information obtained from social media can be useful in identifying or locating a suspect and finding evidence pertaining to an alleged or committed crime, but it can also be used later in the judicial process: "Social media is useful for the 'Profile and Lifestyle' of suspects in court." (#149, investigator, question 1). This response suggests that for some participants, the use of social media is part of the system of policing activities, even when the case may already have reached the stage of being tried in court.

Many participants provided details about the usefulness of social media for law enforcement. They mentioned that social media provides a wealth of information and is an additional tool (n=43; 24.3%). Like police databases, the amount and kind of information available through social media encourages its further use by police.

"Social media allow us to create a database that is not otherwise accessible and makes it easier to access this data. They allow us to validate the information already held by the police and adjust our work techniques." (#20, patrol officer, question 3)

"Very useful. Young people use these media a lot and don't secure their accounts. So, it's very easy to get access. Young people are too chatty and show a lot of pictures. It's an important source of information. (#66, patrol officer, question 2)

"Social media allows access to information that would normally be secret, but willingly disclosed." (#105, patrol officer, question 4)

For participants, the accessibility of information on social media is a significant factor in its use but also has downsides. Issues concerning the accessibility of data were mentioned frequently (n=62; 35%). First, participants noted that social media users are increasingly privatizing their accounts, making it more difficult to collect information, as described by participant #22.

"The main advantage is the huge source of intelligence that they represent. The main disadvantage or problem is the privacy of the information and the users." (#22, analyst, question 4)

A participant highlighted that certain users are “putting their life online” (#54) and another noted that “people are comfortable posting personal information like their DOB [date of birth], where they were, friends…” (#112). Participant #73 mentioned that “Facebook accounts are more and more private, unlike in the beginning”. Other limitations pertaining to the collection of information were fake profiles, the use of nicknames, and the absence of a personal account. The limitation regarding the quality of information is summarized by a participant:

"For my part, I know that the information we find on Facebook is not reliable, but there is a wealth of useful information there for our investigations." (#122, investigator, question 4)

“However, it is important to remain skeptical about the veracity of the information we find. Thus, it is important to always corroborate what we find there. (#155, manager, question 4)”

“The information found needs to be validated, as it is often unreliable." (#136, investigator, question 4), "The information is unreliable. You have to be careful." (#141, manager, question 4).

These responses show that participants were aware that much of the information on social media is either incorrect or intentionally misleading and recognized the importance of validation and corroboration of information.

In addition, a small percentage of participants mentioned that social media was useful for following a specific event (3%, n=6) or staying up to date on general news (2%, n=4). Although not specified, some participants found social media useful to "identify participants in a specific event" (#2, analyst, question 1) or to "keep up with crime trends" (#46, analyst, question 1).

Using social media for prevention

Participants may not have understood crime prevention in exactly the same way, as they were working in different fields, However, their responses reveal that some believe that social media can be useful in prevention: 34 participants addressed the way social media can be used in the preventive aspects of police work.

"In prevention it [social media] has become a must to reach the population." (#15, manager, question 2)

"[Makes it possible to] follow the news to be aware of potential disruptions or conflicts between groups." (#93, analyst, question 1)

"Vigilance and collection of information (comments and photos) posted and available to the public for use against them in court or to assist in a criminal investigation into street gangs. Identify upcoming events on our territory in order to warn the police [and investigate] as needed to be present and avoid any slippage." (#72, intelligence officer, question 1)

"Social networks are also frequently consulted to learn about social disruption events (e.g., protests) and try to predict how that disruption will play out." (#107, analyst, question 1)

Participants mentioned several kinds of prevention. First, police services monitor social media to learn about events that could become disruptive or to identify changes in a criminal organization. Second, participants mentioned that public awareness about various topics can be increased via social media, allowing police services to be proactive. However, the responses from participants #31 and #151 highlight the complexity of using social media for prevention in policing:

"[in my police dept.] A social media monitoring service is available if I ever see the need for it. However, I think we are underinformed about what they can do." (#31, analyst, question 2)

"It's a great tool, but there isn't much time to detect crimes on social networks, there aren't enough people trained in detection, and the Police Service doesn't provide the necessary tools to do it and especially the human resources to do it. The investigators have neither the time nor the inclination to do detection on social networks, they receive complaints after the fact and they are not proactive." (#151, patrol officer investigator, question 2)

Both the traditionally reactive aspect of police work and the lack of material, human, and informational resources seem to be a hindrance to the integration of social media into police efforts at preventing crime.

Participants also mentioned that public affairs divisions might benefit from access to public via social media. The prevention role of reassuring the population and the general prevention of crime were mentioned by 28 participants (14% and 15.8% respectively). The visibility of information and the speed with which it can be disseminated are important in encouraging police forces to use social media.

"Informing citizens of the activities of the [name of police department], searching for suspects, informing citizens about a specific type of crime to decrease the number of victims, issuing press releases, etc." (#153, analyst, question 1).

"I believe that the organization, through the Public Affairs section, is trying to promote the Police Department through social media as best it can, nothing more." (#162, investigator, question 2)

Participants provided interesting insights into the use of social media by police services, noting that social media are used to promote the value of police services and to inform and educate the public, in part to improve the image of police. Social media are also used to learn how the public feels about the police.

"Gives a good idea of the perception of citizens regarding the feeling of safety and police work." (#15, manager, question 3)

"The organization has put forward the implementation of various new pages to promote the service (e.g., Twitter) to inform the public about various subjects (fraud, prevention, etc.)" (#122, investigator, question 4)

While this use of social media was mentioned, our results suggest that it is not the most important use of social media for policing activities. As an investigator mentioned in the above except, the police service is doing “its best and nothing more”. This response may also indicate that the participant is not convinced that the service is using social media effectively in this context.

Participants in the study also drew attention to the potential negative impact of social media, particularly its rapid and public dissemination of content concerning law enforcement. The accountability topic elicited responses concerning the public presence of the police as an organization and as police officers (n=9). Participants #77 and #153 acknowledge the usefulness of social media, but also see it as a potential way to harm the image of the police.

“Maybe a nice tool, but a double-edged one that can hurt us." (#77, patrol officer, question 4)”

"The disadvantages are the rapid circulation of information that can sometimes hinder an investigation and lead to misinterpretation of police actions. (#153, analyst, question 4)”

Specifically, the reach and speed of content dissemination that characterizes social media can have a detrimental effect on police image: "Disadvantage: the fear of being a victim of a social media blunder." (#17, patrol officer, question 4). Social media postings may capture police misconduct but can also lead to misinterpretation of an event. Police availability through mobile technologies and social media exponentially increases the number of slanderous comments received by police services.

The concerns raised by participants about media attention identify one of the negative effects of social media on policing, but do not directly influence the use of such platforms by police services as the same participants mention using social media in many police activities.

Different crimes and different networks

Although the usefulness of social media for specific types of crime or the participant’s preferred platforms were not addressed directly in the questionnaire, participants discussed these areas and gave reasons for their choices, providing valuable insights.

Relevance of social media to different types of crimes

Participants reported that the most important use was in finding missing persons or runaways, with 21 responses (12.4%), as shown in Table 1. Participants provided insight into the extent to which social media could be useful with specific types of crimes.

"The use of social networks is very useful during a juvenile disappearance, for the photo, the posts, the directions. It has allowed several police officers to find missing youth." (#63, patrol officer, question 1)

"Very useful and important for police officers on patrol and in investigations. The collection of information allows us to solve many crimes and locate suspicious or missing people. (#115, investigator, question 3)

"It can help in certain investigations, especially for sexual crimes, to identify runaways, pimps." (#151, patrol officer investigator, question 3)

Information posted on social media provides leads and makes it possible to disseminate information quickly, as well as increasing the visibility of alerts and wanted notices.

"[I use social media] for visibility in alerting and searching for missing and wanted persons." (#61, analyst, question 3)

Geolocation, photos, and friendship links in the profile of missing persons were the elements most frequently mentioned by participants. In addition to the personal information shared by users, social media are particularly useful for disseminating information because they have an unparalleled power of amplification and also allow the easy and rapid sharing of current information as well as dissemination of updates (Neo et al., 2016; Trottier, 2012). These factors may explain the use of social media by Quebec police officers in the context of missing persons and runaways.

Recognizing that crimes can occur entirely or partially online, participants indicated that they use social media to investigate cybercrimes (5 responses) and online threats (4 responses). Participants also noted the complexity of crimes that include online components and noted that social media are used in investigations of fraud, bullying, hate crimes, or online harassment.

"Increased complexity of some virtual offenses (e.g., threats via Facebook, intimidation, fraud)." (#10, patrol officer, question 4)

"Social media makes our job more complex. There are more complaints of threats, intimidation, cybercrime because of social media." (#14, patrol officer, question 4)

"Crimes committed on social networks are complex to solve. This phenomenon has also brought about a new form of crime and the commission of crimes that would never have happened if they had not existed." (#114, investigator, question 4)

The type of social media used

Police service employee responses suggest that the main social media used at the time of the study were Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (see Table 1). Facebook was mentioned 42 times, while YouTube and Twitter received 3 and 2 mentions respectively. Several factors may explain the preponderance of mentions of Facebook. First, Facebook was widely used at the time and had been used for a longer time than other social media, meaning that it could provide information on numerous individuals. Some of the information posted is incriminating and therefore useful to Quebec police agencies in the course of their investigations.

"SGM [street gang members] post a lot on Facebook, I can see their affiliations" (#83, analyst, question 4)

"Most criminals have a Facebook account and post relevant information" (#113, manager, question 3)

"I use Facebook every week to check if there are illegal shisha sales in the various cafés or bars in [City] that do not have a sales permit. Because often on their sites, users post photos of festive evenings where we see people smoking shisha. This is for our investigations into the sale and possession of illegal shisha, for future fines and searches." (#151, investigator, question 1)

The variety of information made public by Facebook users (i.e., photos, videos, messages, friendships, etc.) may have led police force employees to use this platform. Second, responses indicated a lack of knowledge about social media in general but particularly about platforms other than Facebook.

"Other than Facebook, I can't think of anything else to use and why." (#33, investigator, question 4)

"We do what we can with the knowledge we are able to go out and find on our own. I use Facebook in my personal life, so I'm able to use it at work, but I don't know about the other sites and don't use them in my work." (#169, investigator, question 4)

As Facebook was the social media platform most used by adults in Quebec at the time, it is not surprising that it is the platform most frequently mentioned by participants. However, its dominance suggests that police were not being provided with information about other useful sites or taught how to access them. In fact, Facebook’s use may have been influenced by their use of this platform in their personal life. Our examples show that employees' personal opinions about social media also influence its use in their work. While a significant number of participants recognize the usefulness of using social media in policing activities, there are some who are not enthusiastic about their use.

"I don't like social networks, I find it a very impersonal and exhibitionist way of communicating that I don't like, so I've never had any interest in using them or wanting to learn. On the other hand, I am able to see the usefulness that these tools bring to our work." (#70, intelligence officer, question 1)

"The main problem is keeping up with the various social media considering that, for example, I have no personal account... So I have to learn a tool that I have no interest in." (#113, manager, question 4)

Participants acknowledged an absence of familiarity with social media platforms beyond Facebook, which impinged on their capacity to leverage social media for work purposes. Furthermore, subjective attitudes and personal inclinations towards social media also play a role in its use in the context of policing.


The goal of our research was to provide a more comprehensive picture of the use of social media by police forces at the time of our study. Our results agree with other studies that found that police organizations were using social media in several different contexts (Hu & Lovrich, 2019a; International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2016; Moore, 2020) and highlight both the many other uses of social media in addition to providing information to the public as well as the importance of Facebook in the work of police agencies.

One of the most important uses of social media appears to be in criminal intelligence and investigation activities. For example, the presence on social media of those involved in organized crime or street gangs was noted by 13 participants and has been studied by previous researchers (Morselli & Décary-Hétu, 2010; Patton et al., 2017). Participants in our study used social media to “get to know” those involved in organized crime through shared content such as photos, interests, allegiances, lifestyle habits, and places frequented, making it possible to create a criminal or personal profile. Participants frequently referred to the importance of the networks individuals were involved in, suggesting that some of the most useful pieces of intelligence are found by looking at such online activities. Social media make it possible for police to observe individuals interacting with friends without having to be physically present, while information about places of interest helps complete the portrait of an individual. Police agencies have also become increasingly interested in using social media because of increased use of these sites by the community (O'Connor, 2017) and the depictions of crimes and activities they contain (Ng, 2016).

While previous studies have noted that all types of crime may leave digital traces that can be useful in investigations (Perrin, 2019; Yar, 2012), participants in this study suggest that online investigations generally target crimes such as fraud, hate crimes, bullying, and online threats. Participants also mentioned that social media can provide information that is useful in the investigation of criminal events that take place offline, such as prostitution: previous research identified online recruitment as an important aspect of prostitution and Facebook as the most important website for this purpose (Gezinski & Gonzalez-Pons, 2022). Social media platforms have also been identified as useful in criminal investigations related to runaways / missing persons cases. Social media are often the last link that teenagers maintain with relatives or friends and the information they provide online may help in locating them or persuading them to return. Previous research has shown that OSINT and social media can help both in informing the public and by allowing people to provide useful information (Solymosi et al. 2020; Beshears, 2017). In cases where the missing person may require immediate attention, social media service providers are mandated to cooperate fully in providing information to police services.

Participants also mentioned that social media can be important in reaching out to citizens to inform and educate them about police services and activities but noted that this outreach may be a double-edged sword as social media accounts open the door to posting irrelevant and derogatory comments that would probably not be uttered in a real-life context. Social media can also affect the image of police work and law enforcement agencies (Grimmelikhuijsen & Meijer, 2015) and previous studies have shown that police officers have begun to pay increasing attention to the way their work is presented in social media (Bullock, 2018a; Meyer & Tanner, 2017).

Past studies have looked at how social media may be used in times of crisis, strikes, or protests (e.g, Trottier, 2012). Participants in our study did not mention this use of social media, perhaps because many of our participants are part of patrol or investigation units and therefore would not have been involved in crisis management. As well, these events are rare while the usefulness of social media during investigations is common, which may have led participants to concentrate on it.

Popularity as a key criterion in the use of social media by the police

Our research confirms previous findings that the main social media platform used by police officers was Facebook (Birbeck, 2013; Hu and Lovrich, 2019b). Facebook is the most popular social media in Canada, making it is safe to assume many individuals are leaving traces on this platform. Knowledge about the platform and how to use it as well as expectations that those involved in criminal activities will also have accounts seemed to influence the police in choosing to use it. Social media usually attracts a certain group of people (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010), and police services are active wherever offenders are present. Some participants mentioned that Facebook is the only social media they use as they had not had training in the use of other social media platforms and were not interested in learning about them on their own. As well, it has been found that Twitter accounts often do not provide accurate information about the user (Birbeck, 2013) while Facebook users tend to post real names and information.

Police use of Facebook raises two important issues. First, while participants agree that social media platforms can be useful in their work, Twitter and YouTube were seldom mentioned in their responses, suggesting that the full potential of these platforms was not being exploited. Second, lack of use of these platforms raises questions about how police are being trained in the use of social media, particularly with regard to emergent and alternative platforms. For example, previous studies have shown that Twitter can be a useful tool in investigations (Coomber 2018; Odeyemi & Obiyan, 2018) but participants in our sample did not mention this. Several participants mentioned that they needed training to properly use social media, a lack also found by Frank, Cheng, and Pun (2011) and Bullock (2018b).

Two key issues that emerged were that more information does not always mean better information and that information obtained through social media must be verified. Most participants saw social media as useful for their activities and mentioned the quantity and nature of the information available as reasons to consult these platforms. However, they also noted that it is easy to "waste valuable time" or "get lost in our research". Previous researchers have observed this problem in situations that involve dealing with large amounts of data – the difficulty with "finding (technologically) the needle in the haystack" (Dupont et al., 2020) – noting that an employee can spend several hours on a platform looking for information. Walsh & O'Connor (2019) also found that the quantity of data available can make it hard to find information in all the noise, making it “far from useful” (Marx, 2013, p. 57). The large amount of available information can be difficult to analyze in a timely fashion and may ultimately generate few results if the tools and techniques of collection and analysis are inadequate. The difficulties with use of social media found in these earlier studies and noted by our participants suggest that social media, while a new and useful tool, requires adaptation and training if it is to be used effectively in police work.


It is important to note several limitations to our research. First, it is possible that social media was not used in the same way by all participants. For example, for a manager, the usefulness of social media may be evaluated more in relation to the costs or the efficiency of the employee rather than in its relation to work of police and such participants may have been less interested in questions aimed at determining the usefulness of social media in investigations. Collecting information via questionnaire raises the possibility that participants will understand or interpret questions differently, as well as making it impossible to know why a question was left unanswered. It must be noted that a limitation of this prescriptive approach is that it does not make it possible to explore areas that appear to be underdeveloped in policing but are not approachable through categorical responses. In-depth interviews with our participants might have provided interesting insights, suggesting that it is important that other studies be conducted using a different approach. In addition, the open-ended questions that provided data for this study were presented at the end of a questionnaire that had many specific questions, which may have led to fatigue and to responses that were overly short or insufficiently considered (Bigot et al., 2010). Some participants mentioned that they found the length of the questionnaire a problem, suggesting that the collection technique we used was not optimal for obtaining in-depth responses. As well, the open-ended questions were similar, which may have led participants either to not answer or to answer succinctly believing they had already responded earlier. A number of participants failed to answer some of the qualitative questions. While the data collection tool may have limited the level of participant responses, the data obtained provide both a starting point and information about social media use at the time of the study that will be useful in further research on the opinions of Quebec police service employees about the use of social media in their work.


The objective of this research was to understand the use of social media in different activities by police services active in Quebec. Answers to four open-ended questions provided an interesting picture of the dynamics of social media integration into police work and provide some useful findings about policing. On the positive side, participants agree that social media are useful in fighting and preventing crime, promoting police services, and obtaining useful information about criminals. They also agree that social media platforms have a great potential to improve efficiency in policing activities. On the negative side, participants report using Facebook because they are comfortable with this platform or because they are not comfortable using other platforms. The need for training in new technologies has been raised by other researchers (see Chan, 2001) but it seems that even the development of new technologies has not led to increases in training (see Eck & Rossmo, 2019 for a discussion). While there is some resistance, participants see social media as additional and useful tools and are interested in using them in many facets of policing. Initially, empirical research portrayed such platforms as obstacles to gaining the population’s trust as they provide increased visibility for events involving police brutality – for example (Crump 2011; Haggerty and Sandhu 2014; Reiner 2010; Schneider 2016)(Crump 2011; Haggerty and Sandhu 2014; Reiner 2010; Schneider 2016)(Crump 2011; Haggerty and Sandhu 2014; Reiner 2010; Schneider 2016)(Crump 2011; Haggerty and Sandhu 2014; Reiner 2010; Schneider 2016). More recently, the research focus has been on understanding how the emergence of social media effects the orientation of police investigations (Fortin, Delle Donne, and Knop 2021; Goldsmith 2010; Meijer and Thaens 2013; Trottier 2015a, 2017)(Fortin, Delle Donne, and Knop 2021; Goldsmith 2010; Meijer and Thaens 2013; Trottier 2015a, 2017)(Fortin, Delle Donne, and Knop 2021; Goldsmith 2010; Meijer and Thaens 2013; Trottier 2015a, 2017)(Fortin, Delle Donne, and Knop 2021; Goldsmith 2010; Meijer and Thaens 2013; Trottier 2015a, 2017)(Fortin, Delle Donne, and Knop 2021; Goldsmith 2010; Meijer and Thaens 2013; Trottier 2015a, 2017).

The research presented here provides a useful picture of social media use by police at the time of the study, providing future researchers with an idea of useful areas for investigation as well as a baseline against which to measure changes in this rapidly expanding technology and its use in police activities.


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Table 1: Number of cases / mentions per topic


Mentions (n)

Mentions (%)

Total mentions

Subcategory of information gathering

Individual profile

Policing activity: Collect data on social media by consulting, profiles, friends list, etc.





Find evidence, locate individuals, search for accomplices, Photo for identification





General intelligence on subjects of interest





Learn about an event of interest





Follow the news




Subcategory of prevention


Threat detection





Community / Reassure the population





Non-specific prevention




Subcategory of crimes

Type of crime





Type of crime

Organized Crime




Type of crime

Technological crimes




Type of crime





Type of crime





Type of crime

Hate Crime




Type of crime

Domestic violence




Subcategory of social media used






















Web site




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