Facebook: Within the realm of policing or not?

Law enforcement agencies around the world are facing an increasing number of complaints of online bullying and, regretfully, there is little that we can do.

In Saskatoon, one incident has made headlines with a video of an assault that was posted to the online social networking site, Facebook. While this particular case has evidence of a criminal assault, it has sparked questions relating to the authority Police have in regards to Facebook.

Facebook claims to work with law enforcement to promote safety both on and offline. But this generally pertains to:

Responding to emergencies, including those that involve the immediate risk of harm, suicide prevention and the recovery of missing children. We may also supply law enforcement with information to help prevent or respond to fraud and other illegal activity, as well as violations of the Facebook Terms.

Generally speaking, when police receive a Facebook-related complaint, we will request that the complainant bring in all relevant materials for investigation. Such evidence may consist of Facebook screenshots, other cyber or text messages, as well as provide information on who the suspect is. Police will gather a history of the situation and review the material to see if anything criminal exists. Criminal elements may consist of uttering threats, extortion, or criminal harassment. Should there be a criminal element, an investigation will be initiated which includes the social media documentation and victims statements.

But what if there is no criminal element?

2009 survey on Cyberbullying, Sexting and Parental Controls says that 81% of youth agree that bullying online is easier to get away with than bullying in person.

Unfortunately to many people’s disappointment, as well as our own, police are limited in what we can do to prevent and mitigate content and comments that are seen as harassing, abusive, defamatory, bullying, etc. The reason being is that we do not have access or permissions from Facebook to remove such content. In that event, we have to rely on the users to report the content and Facebook to investigate those reports.

From Facebook’s Safety Centre on reporting abusive or offensive content:

If you receive a harassing message from one of your Facebook friends, you can click the “Report” link next to the sender’s name on the message, and remove the person as a friend. Reporting the message as harassing will automatically add the person to your block list. You can also use the “Report/Block” option that appears under the gear icon on the top right of every person’s timeline.

Reports are confidential. People you report won’t know that they’ve been reported. After you submit a report, we’ll investigate the issue and determine whether or not the content should be removed based on the Facebook Terms. We research each report to decide the appropriate course of action.

What’s important to note is that simply reporting someone and the content they’ve posted won’t remove the content from Facebook, it will only remove your ability to see it. If reported, I have not had any success in finding a time frame in which Facebook has promised to investigate the issue and determine whether it should be removed or not. It could be a day, a month, or a year, that that content remains publicly accessible. But what they do do, is allow you to track your report. You can do that by following these steps.

Further down the Safety Centre page, Facebook touches on what they have called “Social Reporting”.

Social Reporting is a feature of the reporting tool that helps you resolve issues with posts, timelines or other content on the site. If you are reporting content you don’t like, but that doesn’t violate the Facebook Terms, we make it easy for you to communicate with the person who posted it. For example, if you are reporting a photo of yourself, you can easily send the person who posted it a message letting them know you don’t like it. In most cases, they will take the photo down if you ask.

In cases of bullying or harassment, where you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to the person directly, you can use social reporting to get help from a parent, teacher or trusted friend. You can share that piece of content and a message about the situation with someone you trust. You also have the option to block the person who posted the content and report it to Facebook so we can take action, if appropriate.

This is beneficial in terms of informing a parent or teacher about what is going on online. In some cases, the person you’ve trusted to tell may be able to help. Reporting inappropriate content doesn’t just apply to the victim either, but to anyone who views this behaviour. In some cases, the person may remove the photo, video or post if you ask, but there is no legal obligation for them to do so. Notifying law enforcement personnel is another option. However, while we can request they remove it, it does not mean  they are required by law to do so. It is only the courts that can rule content be removed.

Many employers and other institutions (including post-secondary institutions), enforce codes of conduct which can be applied to online behaviour by the employees and students. Reporting such behaviour to the offender’s employer or educational institution may also result in some pressure and/or consequences which may cause the behaviour to end and the content removed.

At the end of the day, the ability to remove content lies with the user who has created it (either by their own accord or court-ruled), or with Facebook who has the overriding authority to remove it.

But until then, here’s what we recommend doing to stay safe:

  • Only accept friend requests from people you know and trust
  • Don’t post anything that you aren’t okay with everybody seeing, including parents, teachers or employers
  • Don’t share your password with anyone
  • Report all abusive content to Facebook, whether it be a page, profile or post. It is anonymous so they won’t be notified that it was you that reported it
  • Let a parent or teacher know if something is going on. Ie) bullying
  • If there is criminal intent, contact your local authorities
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