With community Facebook groups that have thousands of members, locals can spread and disseminate information about the Historic Triangle faster than ever.
But not all of that information is accurate and it’s starting to create issues for some police departments.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” said Stephanie Williams, spokeswoman for the James City County Police Department. “It creates a situation where we feel like we have to monitor other Facebook community pages.”
Williams said one of the most recent issues was a crash near the neighborhood Season’s Trace earlier this year where people were posting photos of the vehicle involved. Soon, she said others started commenting the crash had been fatal when in reality the car had been found empty and there were no injuries.
“It leaves us in a difficult situation because if someone were to look at that and see it was a family member’s car, that could create panic,” she said.
Williams is in charge of social media for the department but she said that doesn’t mean she is monitoring it 24/7, and neither do officers from the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, said Capt. Troy Lyons.
Lyons said they will monitor the pages periodically and try to prevent individuals from spreading false information. He said he sees locals post information they claim came from police — but that’s not true.
For example, Lyons said he has seen posts where people say if you find a business card on your car, it’s a gang initiation or if a person throws an egg at your car they are part of a gang trying to kill you.
“It’s just not true,” he said. “I don’t think it creates a danger for people to post that kind of stuff, but because people blindly share posts they could be spreading false information.”
At Williamsburg Police, John Heilman, spokesman for the department, said he finds social media engagement does more good than harm. Heilman is one of the three members of the department’s Community Engagement Unit, which works to be actively involved in the Williamsburg community.
He said while there can be some downfalls to social media use, Williamsburg Police more often than not received helpful tips from locals or is able to use social media to speed up investigations. Generally, he said while officers do look at popular local Facebook groups, they primarily use their own pages to their advantage.
“It’s a good forum for citizens to reach out to use with comments and concerns and we are able to confirm or correct some of the information they’re sending,” he said. “Without social media we don’t have a voice to correct that false information.”
All three of the departments now have active social media pages, with James City County only recently starting its own Facebook and Twitter pages. Previously, Williams said the county had a policy where all departments had to fall under one social media account but in the past few months this has changed to allow JCCPD to operate and engage with the public on their own.
Those pages can be helpful, Lyons said, especially when departments are asking the public for help in identifying wanted individuals.
“It also humanizes the badge to show officers interacting at neighborhood barbecues or working with shelter dogs,” Heilman said.
As social media continues to take a greater role in everyday life, and police work, it is a matter of learning how to balance the good and the bad that comes with it.
“I think the social media platform is very useful but there’s also a lot of bad information on it,” Lyons said. “And we live in a society where people want their information right now, immediately, and they don’t take the time to see if it is true or not.”