A doubleedged sword Community watch Facebook pages seek awareness without misinformation

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‘A double-edged sword’: Misinformation creates challenges for policeMisinformation can be spread just as quickly as the facts through these growing pages.“It’s a double-edged sword,” Edwards said. “There have been many times where social media has played a significant role in helping us investigate crime and solve crime … but it can also create situations and create investigations where nothing has occurred.”RCMP, RPS and SPS have all investigated alleged incidents, sparked out of a social media post, that proved to be false alarms. While such investigations are a drain on police resources, what concerns Edwards more is the community panic misinformation can cause. Sometimes all it takes is someone stumbling across a post from years ago, she said.“There are times when social media contributes to fear or panic in a community where an incident has actually not occurred, or occurred and been dealt with long before,” she said, adding this can contribute to a sense of paranoia in a community.Cpl. Melinda Lalach, a member of the Regina police Community Engagement Unit, believes a widespread fear of human trafficking in the Queen City is a result of misinformation, circulated through several posts alleging attempted abductions.“Regina doesn’t have a human trafficking problem. We have some incidents where we have people doing suspicious things, but that doesn’t equate to a human trafficking problem. So even things like that, when they get posted on social media, definitely can get blown out of proportion,” she said.Paranoia is often an unintended consequence of crime posts being shared frequently on his page, Taylor said.“It’s almost comical with the amount of paranoia that comes out of it sometimes,” he said. “The world’s not ending and not every house is getting robbed.”Police are also concerned about people taking to social media instead of reporting a crime to the appropriate agency. Without a police report in hand, Lalach said, it is difficult for officers to investigate a crime.A social media post is the not the same as filing a police report, Lalach said. Police cannot monitor social media at all times and need the specific information a police report provides to properly carry out an investigation, she said.“Social media should never be the first step for reporting something,” she said.Second-hand reporting — when someone reports an incident to police based off a social media post instead of something they witnessed — has also become an issue for police.Edwards said finding out about a crime through social media slows officers down because they are left trying to track down the people involved long after an incident occurred. Sorting through an array of social media posts and reactions, and trying to determine fact from fiction, is a difficult and time-consuming task.“We need to be able to collect information that is accurate so we can determine if a crime has occurred, and we need a police report made to be able to do that quickly and effectively,” she said.Wading through information is a part of any criminal investigation. Adding social media to the mix “complicates that and magnifies that,” Edwards said.Saskatchewan RCMP spokesman Rob King said social media posts can even go so far as to interfere in police investigations, depending on what information is shared.“There’s information sometimes in files where the only people that know about it are the people that did the crime, the victim of the crime and the police investigating it. When information like that starts to get out, it can make things much more difficult because sometimes that information is used to verify the validity of a tipster,” he said.“If that information is suddenly public knowledge, well, you’ve made the investigation a lot harder.”In that type of situation, King said, RCMP could potentially approach the Facebook page or person who posted the information and ask that the post be taken down.In Prince Albert, Brown said she is in frequent contact with her local RCMP detachment to make sure her page is not hindering police. The detachment’s liaison officer also lets Brown know if there is anything going on people should know about. Through that direct connection, Brown said page members have become more comfortable reporting crime to police. Brady Taylor is the founder and administrator of the Stonebridge Neighborhood Watch Austin Davis / Regina Leader-Post ‘We want them to be watching’: Alert communities help police and residentsCountless success stories of pets quickly returned to their anxious owners or stolen bikes located because of the community’s efforts reinforce for Taylor the value of the page. Getting people communicating through Facebook has brought a lot of good to his Saskatoon neighbourhood, he said.In one instance, a vehicle in Tkach’s Regina neighbourhood was broken into and a young girl’s dance shoes and dance recital tickets were stolen. When the community found out about the incident through his page, they rallied together and quickly purchased the girl new dance slippers.“Those are the success stories that really make it worthwhile, that you really see the benefit of crowdsourcing information,” he said.When Szakac’s own vehicle was broken into, information gathered on the Regina Community Watch page helped police solve the case, he said in a Facebook message.It is for these minor crimes that community watch pages prove the most useful, Brown said. Especially in the rural area surrounding Prince Albert where she lives, she knows police can’t be everywhere at once. Having the community alert and aware of suspicious activity can be helpful for police.“We need to be the eyes and ears for the police,” she said. “We’ve had great support from our local detachment and they need us and we need them, so I guess I hope that our group is helping fill that void.”Mitchell said her Moose Jaw community is safer when residents are on the alert and have a quick way of communicating with one another.“I think the neighbourhood watch programs are key to helping the police keep our communities safe,” she said.Regina Police Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Popowich said police were recently looking for a man suspected of a number of vehicle thefts. Someone in Regina had pictures of the suspect and posted them on a community watch page, which helped police identify the man.Saskatoon Police Service spokeswoman Alyson Edwards said police have also found it helpful if community members are more aware of what is going on around them.“We want them to be watching for suspicious activity, somebody that doesn’t belong necessarily in their neighbourhood, maybe vehicles that don’t belong there or are there at odd hours,” she said.“Social media can be incredibly helpful in allowing us to get information out to the public … At times that information can be critical in keeping a community safe and healthy.”But the rapid circulation of information is only beneficial if it’s accurate. Cpl. Melinda Lalach, member of the Regina Police Service’s Community Engagement Unit, sits at the front desk of the unit’s space within the mamaweyatitan centre. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post ‘We’re trying to draw the line’: Moderating pages remains a challengeFor page administrators, finding a balance between sharing relevant information on crime with their community, keeping posts and comments respectful, and working together with police is challenging.“With power comes responsibility. If you’re opting to start up a group like this, you need to be responsible with that,” Tkach said.Tkach said he has seven moderators who look over posts and comments and communicate with one another about any issues. Taylor said he has a second person who helps him vet every post before it is published to his page. Mitchell has a team of six helping her out. Brown is the only moderator on her page but said she is actively seeking another person to help vet posts and moderate comments.Deciding what stays up and what comes down is not always an easy task, but privacy concerns and public safety are top-of-mind for Tkach.He recently removed a post that had a picture of someone going through bottles and cans in an alley; Tkach didn’t think the person looked very suspicious. In instances where page members did not witness an actual crime but believe someone looks suspicious, Tkach encourages those members to post a written description of the person instead of including a photo.“Should they be able to say, ‘Yes, there’s somebody doing this in the back alleys?’ Sure … (Taking) a picture of that person is another story, so that’s kind of where we’re trying to draw the line,” he said. “There should be a little bit of privacy involved. Not everyone you see is up to no good.”Posting pictures of people can venture into perilous legal territory if the posts allege, without evidence, a crime being committed.“They’re pre-convicting people. That can be very dangerous. That can lead to vigilantism, that can lead to people being accused of something they didn’t do,” King said, also noting privacy concerns for the people captured in the photos.Tkach and Taylor both said they have seen comments made on their pages by people making threats or claiming they would beat an alleged thief up if they caught them in the act, and each said they do their best to remove such comments.“The purpose of our page is just to get the information out there. We’re not trying to get actively involved, (to) go out there and stop these people. I don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way,” Taylor said.Szakacs said the responsibility for each post should fall on the person posting and not on those who created the page. While he said he will delete comments on the Regina Community Watch page if they are reported, he said he would “expect everyone to be respectful and mature.” As for vigilante comments, Szakacs said “99 per cent of people who comment those types of actions won’t actually do anything” and that these comments are made “out of anger and fear.”“We are just to inform the neighbourhoods of what’s going on around them. That’s it. How people react is 100 per cent on the commentator and not the administration of the page,” Szakacs said.If community watch pages are not properly monitored, Lalach said, they can unintentionally encourage vigilante behaviour, which only creates more issues for police.“You basically are becoming part of the problem. You’re not part of the solution,” she said.While he does his best to keep digital vigilantes off his page, Tkach said making sure only accurate information is shared is more difficult. Because of the challenges misinformation brings, Tkach would like to see local police and municipal governments become more directly involved with community watch pages, helping to clarify if the information being spread isn’t true.Lalach and King, however, think it is unrealistic to expect police to monitor every post on every community watch page. They say page administrators are responsible for making sure information shared on their page is accurate.“The police’s job is to investigate crimes as it’s reported to us,” King said. “We can’t police the internet completely. It’s not realistic. It’s too big, too vast, happens too fast.”Tkach believes his page and other community watch pages can remain a positive way to connect neighbourhoods — as long as page administrators continue to monitor the content.“I think it’s a healthy space,” he said, “but if left to run rampant, that’s where those problems start coming on.” Alex Tkach is the founder and administrator of two community watch Facebook pages in Regina (Rosemont Mount Royal Community — Regina and Regina Northwest Community Group) in Regina. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post Matt Smith / Saskatoon StarPhoenix Photo illustration using screenshots of posts to various community/neighbourhood watch Facebook pages based in Saskatchewan. Alex Tkach saw a disconnect between how his Regina neighbourhood communicated, both with other residents and with local government and police. He wanted to find a way to get information to residents quickly on a platform they were already using — Facebook.So he started the Rosemont Mount Royal Community-Regina page on the social media site in March 2018 with the goal of giving residents a space to share information on crimes, concerns, city announcements or anything else that might be of interest to those in the neighbourhood.“Communities have changed over the last 30 years. We no longer define ourselves by that 16-by-16-block radius that we live in. We define ourselves by the groups that we participate (in),” Tkach said.Brady Taylor founded the Stonebridge Neighborhood Watch! Facebook page in December 2015 after a series of break-ins on his Saskatoon street. He didn’t know his neighbours very well but wanted to find out if anyone had a video of the incidents. He quickly discovered that having one place for everyone to communicate about similar types of issues would be simpler than going door-to-door.“We have the tool of social media, so you don’t really need to get to know your neighbour,” Taylor said. “You have someplace to turn to.”Similar experiences with neighbourhood crime led to the creation of community watch Facebook pages across the province. Blaze Szakacs started the Regina Community Watch page and April Brown started the Rural Prince Albert Crime Watch page in August 2017. Robin Mitchell started the Moose Jaw Neighbourhood Watch & Patrol in June 2018.Scrolling through these pages, posts range from community announcements to photos of lost pets. But all the pages’ founders agree posts about crime are the most frequent and generate the most responses, with some posts garnering hundreds of shares. People sharing videos or photos from security cameras or asking for help locating stolen property are among the most common.While these pages were created with the intent of raising awareness of crime and building more connected communities, the relationship between these pages and police has its ups and downs. [email protected]

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