Hate groups have been using social media to find like-minded people for many years. Sites like Facebook put them all in the same place, making it much easier to share views and indoctrinate others. The man who murdered a woman at the Unite the Right rally posted approvingly of Nazism on a now-deleted Facebook page. The man found guilty of killing black churchgoers in South Carolina had spent countless hours on a racist website before that tragic incident.
While social media has created new opportunities for law enforcement officials to solve crimes, like many advancements in communication technology, it also has a bad side.
Hundreds of law enforcement officials across the country post and engage in right-wing political ideologies that center around outright racism and Islamophobia as members of Facebook hate groups, according to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. They share racist memes, jokes, and conspiracy theories. Although rare, such activity has contributed to offline violence, like the Christchurch shooting, which was then rebroadcasted on social media for maximum effect.
Before the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that Facebook allowed people to download users’ data, forcing the platform to change its policy, Reveal said its reporters quietly downloaded membership data from two categories of closed Facebook groups:
1. Extremist groups like “White Lives Matter,” “Ban the NAACP,” and “Death to Islam Undercover.”
2. Private groups that only allowed police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and/or corrections officers to join.
The journalists then wrote software that cross-referenced the two separate lists to see if any of the cops on their list also belonged to the cyber-hate groups. They expected a few hits; what they got was more than 14,000.
Next, the reporters attempted to join several hate groups. Using their real names and answering questions honestly, kept them from being accepted by most groups. However, 12 let them join. At that point, the reporters were able to confirm the identity of nearly 400 current or former law enforcement officers who were members. In some cases, they found connections to officers also involved in real-life instances of alleged racism or other misconduct.
Reveal then contacted more than 50 police departments whose officers were members, providing details of each officer’s activity. The results ran the gamut from a genuine concern that led to launching an investigation, moving the officers to desk duty, or doing nothing at all.
Police officers have enormous power – to arrest, search, and use deadly force, all to protect citizens. However, how can citizens, especially minorities, have faith in our police force when officers with access to firearms are participating openly in racism and bigotry, as well as potentially dangerous online activities? With questionable integrity, how are citizens supposed to trust the police? If you were a black parent, would you be afraid to let your teen walk home alone for fear of facing the cop who posted “Every Thug Deserves a Slug,” after an officer was found guilty in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald?
Such behavior should not happen from those who are sworn to protect and serve the very people that they slander. Although Facebook should do more than intervene only after considerable public relations ramifications or when tragedy happens, this is a widespread cultural issue that extends beyond the internet.
Furthermore, such bigotry by a police officer can affect justice. Take, for example, the 1994 OJ Simpson trial. One of the reasons Simpson was acquitted was because of Mark Fuhrman, the lead detective on the case who initially discovered the bloody glove at the crime scene. When Fuhrman was called to testify, defense attorneys argued that he was motivated by racial bias and was trying to frame Simpson. After the defense pulled out a set of tapes which included 13 hours of Fuhrman repeatedly using racial slurs, he was charged with perjury.
It is time to address the real problem and more permanent solutions, ones that go beyond launching an internal investigation or just taking officers off the streets. We need concrete steps toward making it both unacceptable and punishable for any law enforcement officer to engage in racism and bigotry. How many more “Fuhrman” problems do we want? Most of all, citizens must speak up in their own communities, keep a dialogue going, and communicate with local law enforcement officials. It may be the most essential tool available to bring about change.