Reporting of minor crimes on Facebook ‘distorts’ perception of safety, research finds

Reporting of minor crimes against property on Facebook community social media pages can make residents feel their neighborhood is less safe, even when statistics show the current rate of crime is low.

University of Queensland researcher Renee Zahnow says very safe places are being unjustly stigmatized.

“The chatter on these pages can create an impression of criminal or deviant behaviors that really are reports of minor incidents,” Dr Zahnow said.

“Social norms and the definitions of crime or disorder are starting to be constructed online,” she said.

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo as he poses with a smartphone
Facebook community groups are a popular source of local information in Australia.(Reuters: Die Ruvic)

Latest crime figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show an overall decrease of 3 per cent in victims of robbery across the nation.

But the incidence of property offences, including thefts of motor vehicles, increased nationally by 3 per cent.

reporting to police

Gold Coast Police Superintendent Geoff Sheldon does not discourage people from posting reports of crime on social media pages but would prefer people to tell police about incidents at the same time as posting.

“We thrive on our relationship with the public and their ability to contact us and give us the information we need to help keep them safe,” he said.

Police superintendent Geoff Sheldon looks at the camera dressed in his police uniform
Geoff Sheldon says police need people to report crimes at the same time they post on social media community pages.(ABC Gold Coast: Heidi Sheehan)

“We used to wait for you to ring us, then two of us would get in the car and drive around to take a report and write it in a notebook,” he said.

“Now we’ve got online reporting, you can use police link and have matters reported just over the phone.”

virtual vigilantism

Social media community groups need to be policed ​​to stop a rise in virtual vigilantism, according to prominent Australian criminal lawyer Bill Potts.

Bill Potts in his office.  behind him is a wall of legal books.
Bill Potts says social media groups are operating like the “Wild West”.(ABC News: Steve Keen)

Mr Potts says some pages resemble the Wild West without a sheriff because of the number of unsubstantiated allegations of criminal activity.

“What we are seeing is something very, very dangerous. I’m concerned that there will be violence,” Mr Potts said.

“It encourages people to violence under the guise of identifying criminals. The simple truth is that we cannot clearly identify or know the basis of people saying these things; they may be doing so maliciously.”

defamation risk

People who post unsubstantiated allegations on social media pages are at risk of large fines under defamation laws, according to Griffith University law school lecturer Joanne Stagg.

“A lot of people are opening themselves up to a very real risk of liability and that can range into you or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Ms Stagg said.

“If the person that they’re posting pictures of is not actually committing a crime or hasn’t committed crimes, that would be a very strong case in defamation.”

Dylan Voller wearing a baseball cap.
The High Court’s ruling in the defamation case involving Dylan Voller had significant ramifications for Australia’s media.(ABC News: Steven Schubert)

In the case of Dylan Voller in September 2021, the High Court ruled that media organizations could be held liable if defamatory comments were made by the public on their Facebook posts.

The Australian National University’s Brett Walker, a communications law expert, said at the time the decision had even broader consequences.

“Any organization which administers a social media account could also be liable for defamation on the same basis — for example, businesses, sporting clubs and community groups,” he said.

Ms Stagg says that ruling means teenagers effectively become publishers at the age of 13 on social media.

“I think education in high school is a great idea,” she said.

“Those people start a new social media site or maybe think they might be the next big thing on TikTok, but they could unfortunately be exposing themselves to quite a lot of liability”.

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