Queensland police unleash a social media lynch mob 5

The Queensland Police social media strategy came seriously unstuck this weekend as  a wave of prejudicial comments resulting from its FaceBook site threatened the prosecution of an alleged child killer.

The site had earlier announced a breakthrough in the eight year investigation of the disappearance of Daniel Morcombe. The thirteen year old vanished while waiting for a bus along Nambour Connection Road in Woombye, under the Kiel Mountain Road overpass, on December 7, 2003, sparking the biggest missing-person investigation in Queensland Police history. Police announced  that a 41 year old man had been charged with one count each of murder, deprivation of liberty, child stealing, indecent treatment of a child under 16 and interfering with a corpse.

The case, which included many police media appeals for help from the public, generated enormous, almost continuous media interest. The Police Facebook posting about an arrest  immediately sparked hundreds of comments, which mostly praised the police. But some people apparently went much further.  They made angry and speculative claims which might be seen to influence a court case which had not even begun. The Saturday night Police PR shift were forced to post warnings to members of the public.

Some really inappropriate things have been posted on Facebook tonight. We recognise the news we released tonight is a sensitive and at times emotional issue, but we will NOT tolerate abuse, the identification of individuals or speculation on this page. Please think about this before posting again.
Apparently some people weren’t taking any notice. More warnings followed:
Queensland Police Service People are still not listening – please only post ON TOPIC comments that are not abusive or speculative about sentencing etc.
Some of those who responded to the news about Daniel Morcombe were alert to the dangers of rushing to judgement.

This person still hasn’t been convicted yet, and no idea what the evidence is. So instead of people assuming that an arrest means the person is guilty, wait until the person is tried and found guilty of the crime first.

It appeared that the Police PR team had to try to retrospectively remove prejudicial comments.  But not before they were seen by hundreds if not thousands of Queenslanders who could include potential jury members. (The Police site boasts of more than 200,000 likes and is linked to similar sites subsequently created by other state police forces.)

The interim report of the Floods Royal Commission recognised how social media could help government agencies spread their messages. But it also  warned of the need to counter inaccurate postings made by the public. It didn’t anticipate the ferocity, ignorance, volume and speed of comments frequently seen in online discussions. In particular, public opinions ventured on legal matters were often marked  by calls for savage retribution with little understanding for, or concern of legal processes. Passions expressed about pedophiles generated “swarms” of enraged citizens.
Police and Facebook
Police PR developed its Facebook strategy to distribute information on the Queensland floods (See: Reporting Disasters : Police PR and social media ) They then proudly released a case study which found that:
•    It [social media] is immediate and allowed Police Media to proactively push out large volumes of information to large numbers of people ensuring there was no vacuum of official information
•    Large amounts of specific information could be directed straight to communities without them having to rely on mainstream media coverage to access relevant details
The case study advised that ,”If you are not doing social media, do it now.”
Doing it “now”,  can involve great risk.
Queensland Police appeared to fail to realise that in doing so they had made a seamless transition from being a source of information to becoming a major publisher in a real time medium. They did so without the quality controls, teams of experienced editors and comprehensive codes practice developed over many years by mainstream media publishers.
Tonight they unwittingly walked into a legal minefield.
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5 comments

  1. Alan, if you have a look around you will see a massive amount of prejudicial comments regarding the case posted on thousands of different social media profiles. Virtually none of this material has been deleted.

    If you watched the media reporting of the case on Saturday night you would have also heard a large amount of prejudicial comments.

    Why did you write a blog post about one specific channel and not these? Are you applying double standards here?

    • Why? You would rather hope that the Queensland Police, of all people, believed in fair judicial processes.

      Saying that other people behaved badly, does not justify official dereliction of responsibility.
      This is not a double standard. If criminals break the law, it doesn’t justify the police doing so as well. If individuals allow prejudicial comments, that similarly doesn’t give the public funded police Facebook site a free pass.

      We should demand the highest standards of probity from government agencies empowered to pursue legal behaviour, if not justice.
      Everyone deserves a fair trial.

  2. They do not have the power to stop people commenting on their page, only to delete those comments retrospectively if they are inappropriate. Their behaviour seems entirely reasonable.

    Sometimes I come across inappropriate content on TV, the radio and in newspapers. Should the police not appear in any of these mediums as well? Are you arguing that they should only appear on media outlets where they have 100% control of all content 24/7?

  3. Maybe they have embraced the power of new communications technologies without thinking about the legal and ethical consequences.

  4. Pingback: Social Media and the Queensland Police… | Bronwyn Bird

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