There is no doubt social media has been beneficial for some criminal justice institutions.
For the police, social media has given them unprecedented access to the public, and vice versa. Via Facebook and Twitter, police and the public can communicate in real time about incidents and events. This has proven invaluable not only during times of crisis, but also on a day-to-day basis and at the local level.
Social media has also become an important tool in police investigations. For example, the release of CCTV footage of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher’s last moments via Facebook pages and YouTube assisted in apprehending her killer.
Furthermore, the social media “broadcasting” of criminal trials has added an extra level of transparency to criminal proceedings.
But while live tweeting represents a step forward in achieving open justice, there remain concerns with the practice.
At the other end of the spectrum, social media has been accused of posing risks for many users, particularly young people.
Also, the ability for criminals to use social media platforms to track potential victims (and their possessions) was highlighted in the recent Kim Kardashian robbery.
Social media is also changing the nature of post-crime behaviour. So-called performance crimes – where offenders boast about their criminal behaviour to their friends and followers online – are increasingly common.
Finally, “couch detectives”, eager to identify suspects, often weigh in on social media, which can at best be distracting for law enforcement and at worst result in innocent people being wrongly accused.
Trial by social media has become increasingly concerning for those working in the criminal justice system.
Activity on Facebook and Twitter can pose a threat to prosecutions and the right to a fair trial through practices such as sharing photos of the accused before an indictment, creation of hate groups, or jurors sharing their thoughts about a case online.
In the Meagher case, Victoria Police used its Facebook page to educate the public about the consequences of such breaches. In addition, a web gag on social media was imposed by a magistrate who suppressed the information that might compromise the trial.
Social media can also be used as a tool for victim-blaming, as occurred after the Kardashian robbery. Immediately following the incident, some Facebook and Twitter users argued she got “what she deserves” and that “maybe she will cover herself up now”.
Social media can be further be used as a weapon through which the friends and families of victims of crime are exposed to secondary victimisation.