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ĀteaJanuary 22, 2021

Who polices the police: Trash Facebook comments edition


Why are there so many offensive comments on the New Zealand Police Facebook page and are they breaking the law? Janaye Henry investigates.

New Zealand Police Facebook pages – there are a number of them, for different regional police districts around the country – are an interesting place to spend an hour or two. They feature memes galore, wholesome pictures of dogs, more emojis than you’d expect and the occasional “HAVE YOU SEEN THIS PERSON” photo. The police have an active and thriving social media presence, so why are their comment sections seemingly unmonitored?

Below a post looking for information on a young man with facial tattoos I was surprised to see over 600 comments. Not one of them contained actual information as to his whereabouts. The comments were meme-like, referencing various pop culture moments, comparing his appearance to Sid the Sloth, or tagging friends and saying “this you?” A lot of the ‘jokes’ speculated on whether the man had committed other crimes, ripped apart every aspect of his appearance, or simply dripped with racism. The comments ranged from, “once we’re warriors?” to “drop kick should be shot.”

I decided to look into the guidelines around police’s use of social media. The New Zealand Police do have clear social media community guidelines which are a little over a page long. The three main guidelines are: be respectful, stay on topic and protect your own and others’ privacy. The “be respectful” guideline states:

“Be respectful. Please use common courtesy and do not make comments that contain offensive, profane, defamatory, threatening language or which are otherwise inappropriate in a public forum. These comments will be removed in accordance with the Harmful Digital Communications Act.”

I even had a little read of the Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA) and can I just say, boring. Can we jazz it up a little? A fun colour, a nicer font? The purpose of the act is to “deter, prevent, and mitigate harm caused to individuals by digital communications” and to “provide victims of harmful digital communications with quick and efficient means of redress”. Basically that’s a fancy way to say this legislation exists to stop online communication that can cause harm, but if harm does occur then it can also be used to deal with that harm.

It was confusing to see the police, an institution that wants people to turn to them for help when needed, neglecting its own policies. So I sent the police an email with over 55 screenshots attached of comments that breached its policies and waited for an answer.

The HDCA does mention that the owner of a social media account should be notified of content that breaches the legislation. Within 48 hours of receiving notice they need to either remove the  content or respond why they don’t think they are in breach. This legislation isn’t proactive – the loophole is you don’t have to actively moderate comments unless you get notified that one is problematic. Lucky for the New Zealand Police, I did notify them.

While I waited I got in touch with Netsafe. Netsafe is a non-profit safety organisation that aims to keep people of all ages safe online by providing free advice, education and support. I had a chat with Martin Cocker, the CEO, to ask him what he thinks the police Facebook pages should be doing. He explained that while the commenter themselves is accountable for what they post online, there is a provision in the HDCA that an online content host also holds responsibility. But what is a “host”, exactly?

“The way an online content host is defined, it’s pretty much anybody who has control over the place where the content is posted.”

This includes Facebook admins, website editors and Instagram account holders. Cocker explained that the police are online content hosts and therefore have a responsibility, just like the rest of us, to do something about harmful communications once notified – in general, that means removing them.

Cocker agreed that ideally the police would role model proactive monitoring of their comment sections. “If you’re an agency that you want people to go to when they are victims of harmful digital communications, then people need to believe you take the issue seriously.” He said Netsafe’s advice to the police has always been to be as proactive as possible, clearing out comments that are harmful and don’t serve a public purpose.

Eventually I did hear back from a police spokesperson. “We spend a lot of time monitoring and moderating comments from these posts,” the statement read in part, “however, we accept it is an ongoing challenge to monitor.” I’ll point out here that some of the comments I showed them were months old. Still, that’s a beautiful use of the phrase “an ongoing challenge” and one I will now use when referring to keeping my room clean, eating enough vegetables or dealing with racists in the wild.

The spokesperson’s response also included this: “once individuals have been located, these posts are required to be removed. We are currently looking into the possibility of alternative formats for these posts to prevent the sorts of issues you have highlighted.” I went back to some of their Facebook pages and refreshed and suddenly dozens of posts were gone. This felt like a small win, but it’s not the same as moderation. Dozens of photos with racist and offensive comments below them remained.

Why does any of this matter? Look, I found the comment about a man’s head looking like a loaf of bread funny too. However the next comment saying he looked like he was on his way to One Love? Not so funny. The vast majority of the people in these photos are Māori or Pasifika and endless streams of Facebook posts associating them with criminality is probably not doing wonders for the ol’ unconscious bias. I noticed that most photos of white people had only a handful of comments below them; the next photo of a Māori man would have 500. Laughing at these people normalises stereotypes and attitudes that have real-world consequences. And, speaking as a comedian, you’re plain bad at comedy if you endorse lazy stereotypes like that – if you see your favourite comedian doing that, they are also bad at comedy. Not everyone understands these subtleties, but you know who should? The New Zealand Police.

Going forward, I’m going to stay on top of this. I will continue to email when I see comments that don’t align with the HDCA or the New Zealand Police’s own social media guidelines. If you have the time and love a lengthy email half as much as I do, I encourage you to do the same.

Keep going!