29/10/2013 10:30 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Turning the Tables on the Criminals - How Agencies Can Start Winning the Social Media Game

Social media today is now defining rather than just reflecting social attitudes. Sites once seen as a simple means of communication are now a channel for active group psychology powerful enough to overthrow governments. And you don't have to look far for the evidence.

Social media has arguably been one of the driving forces behind the Arab Spring which began in December 2010 in Tunisia; spread to a host of countries and is still on-going today. Not only has it helped stir entire nations into action, usage levels have escalated dramatically across the Middle East and North Africa ever since. Statistically, according to Ali Ali, founder and creative director of Egypt's Elephant Cairo agency, Facebook users in the country rose from 450,000 to 3 million in the six months following the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and now stand at 5 million.

The recent protests in Brazil at the time of the 2013 Confederations Cup, have also demonstrated the power of social media as an influencer of mass action, with activists using Twitter, Facebook and even pictures posted on Instagram to galvanise support.

It is not just major events such as social unrest social media can be used for but also more day to day criminal activity. Sites are widely used to leverage fraud, coordinate criminal gang activity; or as a way for terrorist groups to recruit new members. The growing criminality associated with social media has acted as a wake-up call to the authorities about the need to not just engage in social media, but also to leverage it as a source of intelligence. The benefits of proactively leveraging the data - which interaction over social media generates - to combat crime from a low-level to major criminal activity and terrorism are now high on Law enforcements agenda. Today, growing numbers of personnel within investigative agencies worldwide are being deployed to monitor social media. Unfortunately, within most agencies, systems are basic and processes time-consuming and resource intensive. Meaning social media is not being exploited for intelligence to the levels the modern information age requires.

Looking Ahead

So, what is the solution? Technology has to be key in helping sort through vast volumes of information generated in social media to sift out all the general chatter and focus in on the key pieces of relevant information associated with criminality.

Advanced analytics technology can help here in sifting out relevant information from the deluge of noise. It can, for example identify relevant content and then determine who is saying what to whom, and pinpoint and monitoring patterns of influence.

It is not however standard analytics that is of use here, but rather more specialised Text analytics. These solutions use natural language processing to understand meaning in language, can cope with multiple languages and crucially understand text language so quickly evolving in social media speak.

These advanced capabilities are needed to derive a consistent view of meaning, content, reference points and crucially intent. This helps agencies fight crime by enabling them to gain a consistent view of what is being said about particular entities and to make meaningful comparisons between different postings and messages.

Social media analytics can analyse data to identify important topics and enable professionals to focus in on the content areas they are interested in. Crucially, it can automatically extract 'entities' - people, places and locations - and build linkages to understand the relationships as well as the context. Social network analysis can be used to understand the human networks behind the social media, how people are connected, the closeness of those connections and the ring-leaders involved. This enables agencies to identify and focus on key individuals to target and so utilise resources most effectively.

In addition, sentiment analytics can assess and monitor the sentiment of text to flag changing attitudes that may signal a shift from words to action. By allowing the technology to do the monitoring, frees resources to intervene when an increased threat is identified. This type of capability will enable the professionals to cut out the 'noise' within social media and focus on the data that could provide valuable intelligence.

Making Sense of the Data

Agencies today don't have the luxury of just increasing their resources to ensure social media is being appropriately monitored for criminality. They need to use existing resources more smartly by keeping staff focused on adding value to investigations rather than being bogged down, sifting through information. Most importantly they need to use technology wisely to extract actionable intelligence from the online world and use it to help prevent crime and better protect the public.