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July 4, 2014

Officials see social media impact on crime

MILLEDGEVILLE — When looking at the role social media plays in specific types of crimes, local law enforcement officials share similar views.

A growing number of physical altercations and assaults are initiated by activity occurring on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, according to officials.

While investigating cases involving threats, harassment, assaults and battery, Maj. Reginald Hill, criminal investigations commander with the Milledgeville Police Department, said a majority of the time, the investigation traces steps that originate to words that have been tossed around online between the individuals involved in the incident.  

"Most of the time, fights and altercations are started by an argument or something that was said online. Eventually it makes its way out of cyber world and escalates into a crime," he said.

A common trend that law enforcement sees is the glorification of violent fights on social media sites. Sites like Facebook and Vine are used to post and share video of altercations.

"Social media offers the kids a platform to share these videos to a wider audience, giving them an incentive to do it," said Capt. Brad King of the Baldwin County Sheriff's Office.

It creates a feeling of acceptance, he added, and grows in popularity as more and more people continue to follow by example.

"It becomes viewed as the normal thing to do. If you see enough people engaged in certain behaviors the behavior becomes acceptable," King said.

The sole purpose of recording and posting the video is for entertainment, he adds.

"I think glorifying these fights and crimes such as the knockout game is a major part of the problem. It garners notoriety rather than scrutiny," King said.

The knockout game that King is referring to involves assaulting people without warning. Victims are chosen at random, and the game seems to be growing in popularity among teenagers, officials say.

Maj. John Davis, MPD patrol commander, said the police department tries to educate local teens on proper ways to handle disagreements without the use of threats or violence through its G.R.E.A.T. program. The G.R.E.A.T program is a gang and violence prevention program headed by Lt. Reenae Gray that is taught to students at Oak Hill Middle School.

"When they're in middle school, they're at that age where friction between them can easily lead to a physical incident. We try to teach them proper solutions to their problems that don't require them to hash it out online or face to face," he said.

Social media's impact on crime is not all negative. Law enforcement makes use of social media resources when investigating crimes.

"Social media has its good points and its bad points, but what we do know is that it's a great tool in solving crimes," said Hill.  

Because so many people now have such large online presences, Hill said his investigators are able to gain new tips and insights into crimes committed in the city.

"Sometimes criminals can't resist bragging online — especially when they think they've gotten away with the crime committed," Hill said.  

Proper use of social media sites is the key to preventing crimes associated with technology.  

"Like most things, as technology evolves, it should be a duty to make sure those with access to this power should be mature enough to handle it properly," King said.

Hill points out that criminal use of social media websites is a big problem within the prison system.

"The offenders still have use of computers within the facility, but instead of using them for what they are intended for some have the chance to continue committing the offense that got them in prison in the first place,” Hill said.

He reminds parents to be mindful of what their kids are doing online and that potential child predators often make use of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

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