'A Mean Girls situation': Online neighbourhood watch groups can be dangerous, expert says

Criminologist Frank Cormier warns that if neighbourhood watch groups on social media aren't done properly, they can sow resentment, anger and exclusivity instead of keeping people safe.

Community safety groups on social media are a 'double-edged sword,' says Winnipeg criminologist

A Winnipeg criminology professor says neighbourhood watch groups on social media can hurt a community as much as they help if they're not done properly.

It's an old idea made new: neighbourhood watch groups taking to Facebook and other social media platforms to keep a watchful eye on goings-on in their areas.

Such groups have footholds across Winnipeg's digital map, sprouting up lately in areas including Windsor Park, River Heights and Wolseley, allowing neighbours to share posts advising others of crime, security issues or suspicious interlopers on their streets.

But a University of Manitoba criminologist warns that if they're not done properly, the groups can harm, not help, the neighbourhoods they represent.

Frank Cormier spoke to host Trevor Dineen on CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed on Friday.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How helpful are Facebook neighbourhood watch groups when it comes to reducing crime?

They can be, in theory, quite helpful. Criminologists, we look at something we call social disorganization in neighbourhoods, and that's something that often results in a situation where neighbours don't know each other very well.
The University of Manitoba's Frank Cormier says Facebook neighbourhood watch groups need to be properly moderated and inclusive to work. (Supplied)

So in neighbourhoods, for example, that have high in-and-out migration — a lot of turnover of the people who live there — people might not know their neighbours, they might not speak to their neighbours, and so they remain unaware of things that are happening.

They don't recognize when there is, perhaps, a strange or suspicious individual in the neighbourhood, and therefore they're less likely to notice when things are, you know, going wrong in the neighbourhood, whereas if they were in communication with each other, they would be more aware and they perhaps could take steps to try to address the problem.

What are the differences between those real-life programs and these Facebook groups?

The Neighbourhood Watch program has been around for, you know, 50 years now, I think, in the United States and Canada and other parts of the world, so it's a very similar idea in that it's a network whereby neighbours stay in touch with each other, keep each other apprised of issues in the community, sort of look out for each other.

So using Facebook or other social media, it's just really an extension of something that's been around for a while.

One of the potential dangers, though, with new technology — there's always that double-edged sword — is that there have been examples where these Facebook groups have actually started to divide neighbourhoods more than they have brought them together.

How so?

One problem is that very often, there's not sort of a full inclusivity where people take great steps to ensure that everyone in whatever the designated neighbourhood is … is invited and everyone is really encouraged to take part.

There are cases where you might have a small sub-group in the community, people that already know each other — you know, they're like-minded people — and they start a group and it becomes exclusive to them, rather than inclusive.

And there have been cases where we end up with, if I can use a popular culture reference, sort of a Mean Girls situation, where there's almost a clique that sort of runs the group and the Facebook group becomes more of a "burn book," so to speak, for gossip and attacking other people than it becomes a uniting community resource.

Some posts in these groups include photos or descriptions of people accused of crimes. What are the dangers of sharing these kinds of posts?

There's a number of dangers inherent there. Sharing information can be a good thing. But the problem, and I think we've all observed this, [is] online behaviour can often differ quite severely from our normal in-person social behaviour, and … people might feel emboldened to make accusations or attacks on people electronically that they wouldn't otherwise.

There have been cases, mostly in the United States to this point, where people were taking photographs of people or making videos of them and posting those to the site and describing them as being suspicious or imputing some, you know, nasty motives to them when these people were perfectly innocent of anything.

And that's when we start getting into dangers of invasion of privacy and possible liability issues. There's civil liability, where they could be found to be libelous … where you defame someone's character incorrectly, or even gets into criminal matters such as harassment or making threats.

What advice would you give to people who are moderating these Facebook groups to make sure they don't get out of hand?

That is the key, is that there has to be an active moderator who will screen posts and comments people make, and there should be a clear list of rules.

A list of rules to start with, to say we will not, you know, accept posts that are threatening or harassing, etc., etc., and then somebody really does have to screen and moderate those and remove any comments that are moving into more negative territory.

Also, as I mentioned before, inclusivity is the really important part. There has to be a real effort made to get the entire neighbourhood involved in it and included in it, again, to make sure that you're bringing people together rather than fostering anger and resentment and thereby driving people further apart.

Can these Facebook groups work harmoniously with traditional police neighbourhood watch programs?

That's an excellent suggestion that I would make, is that neighbourhoods or groups that are thinking of starting this sort of thing should first consult with the local police. Here in Winnipeg, there still are a number of neighbourhoods that still have fully functioning neighbourhood watch programs.

The police do keep in fairly close contact with those groups and will offer support and advice and can designate a liaison person, so if there are concerns, rather than sort of venting those and perhaps moving into vigilantism, there's one contact person who can speak with the police and the police can advise and assist as necessary.

With files from Isaac Wurmann