Northants Police urged to stop racist trolls using its Facebook site

The force says resources don't allow it to monitor its social media out of hours

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By Sarah Ward

Northamptonshire Police has been criticised for allowing racist and offensive comments to be regularly posted on its Facebook site.

Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council (NREC) says the force must stop hateful comments being published to its social media page, which it says is ‘becoming a platform for racists.’

This week NREC board member Paul Crofts made another complaint to the force’s prevention manager Laura Jones, after a missing appeal for a black teenager posted to the police’s Facebook page on Monday was trolled by racists who made comments about gangs and drugs.

A number of people took offence to the comments posted under the appeal for the missing boy. The force has said the post was taken down in response to him being found and the offensive comments have been referred for investigation.

Paul Crofts has made several complaints over the past twelve months to the police about the issue and has been given assurances about things changing, but says other than published statements about racist comments not being tolerated, nothing has changed.

The force, which has a budget this financial year of £146m, only monitors online comments between 8am and 5pm and says ‘resources do not allow’ general monitoring of social media overnight.

Paul Crofts said:

“The police have admitted that overnight the comments are not moderated and so when the staff go home the racists have free rein.

“Everytime when there is a black or ethnic minority person featured on the site they receive abuse. It is all racialised. How is this acceptable?

“It makes me angry that a police Facebook page is being used in this way.

“It is like an open house for bigotry. Why is the police force allowing it?”

In his email to the prevention manager, Paul Crofts said:

“How can Northants Police claim to support Black Lives Matter (or abide by the Public Sector Equality Duty) whilst allowing this? As you know, this is certainly not the first time that racists have used Northants Police Facebook group to harass other people and to promote racism. 

“I have had cause to complain about this on several previous occasions and assurances given have not been followed through. 

“This happens every time a post is made about Black people or others who are seen to be not "British", irrespective of the actual content of the story. Merely the presence of BAME people in stories results in this treatment. 

“It is now time to end this situation where racists can spout their poison on a Police platform and reconsider my proposal, made some time ago, to stop all commenting on all Facebook posts completely - as clearly the media team at Northants Police are not able to ensure the safety of Black people and other ethnic minorities on the Northants Police Facebook site or indeed simply just ensure a racist-free platform.” 

Northants Police’s Facebook site has 149,000 followers, making it one of the most popular social sites in the county. The force uses the platform to post appeals for witnesses, publicise successful investigations and put out public information messages. 

As it has been set up as an organisational page (rather than a group page) the police force does not have the ability to disable comments on certain posts and would have to instead impose a complete comment ban. 

The force’s social media policy - which was updated in March last year - says the communications team uses a social media management tool to monitor its social media and says the force control room also has access to the account when the media team are not on duty. A profanity filter is used to stop swearing on the site.

Replying to a series of questions put by NN Journal, a Northants Police communications officer said posts which are likely to attract offensive comments are checked periodically out of hours ‘whenever possible’.

“Policing in the UK is by consent, and it is important the Force continues to engage with the communities it serves. Our Facebook page is part of a wider social media approach that supports this aim, and the ability for people to comment on our posts is important in maintaining a two-way conversation with the public.

“Our use of social media supports operational policing, generates intelligence in response to appeals, allows us to share information, and is an additional tool in the detection and prevention of crime.

“While there is an out of hours provision to manage urgent news and communications requirements, resources do not allow for this to include general monitoring of social media overnight.

“Work is also underway to ensure the Force continues to take a robust approach in investigating offensive comments on the page.”

They also issued a statement from the officer lead for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, Superintendent Elliot Foskett, which said:

“Social media plays a vital part in our overall approach to increasing our engagement with our communities. More and more young people in particular choose to communicate via social media and it is important that we offer as many ways as possible for people to reach us.

“However if people choose to use our social media page as a place to make racist, sexist, homophobic or any other offensive remarks or comments, we will not shy away from taking swift and firm action. “It isn’t enough to simply not be racist, I believe that policing should be anti-racist.

“We will continue to monitor our own channels and we will refer any obscene or offensive material for investigation. Hiding behind assumed names or accounts will not prevent us from pursuing people. We should and will use the full weight of the law to ensure that those who seek to spread hate are held accountable.”

The media team said offensive material is captured and referred to the police control room. They could not provide any detail about action that had been taken to date and said a Freedom of Information request could give more information.

Racist trolling is widespread across social media platforms and there have long been calls for more regulation of the powerful platforms. The Football Association has called for action from the UK government after several black players have spoken out about the racist abuse they receive on social media.

Facebook has a policy about hate speech and says it uses a combination of user reports and technology to find hateful comments, which it then removes. It claims 95 per cent of what is removed is done so after proactive work by itself.