Dodge County, Wisconsin. Perhaps not the most famous place in the world, but the county’s sheriff’s office has become the latest law enforcement authority in the United States to begin naming and shaming the individuals it arrests. Beginning from August, the names and mugshots of people detained on suspicion of “operating while intoxicated” will be posted on Facebook, with the sheriff’s office declaring, “It is always our hope that we can gain voluntary compliance with the law, but if this choice is made, it will become a public choice.”
Such policies may still occasionally strike casual observers as novel or strange, but they’re becoming increasingly common, and not only for drink driving offences. Back in 2014, police in Flint, Michigan announced they would post mugshots on social media of people arraigned in connection with prostitution offences, while police departments in Fresno and elsewhere in America committed to doing much the same thing. Over in the UK, numerous police forces – including those in London, Manchester, Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Sussex and Surrey – have also begun or been using Twitter for shaming people charged with drunk driving, while this is also fairly common practice in Canada and Australia.
And it’s not only in English-speaking nations that the practice of shaming alleged criminals is taking off, with the most notorious example being China, where the nebulous social credit system has seen even debtors exposed on public billboards and beggars ranked according to the arrests they’ve accumulated. Clearly, the harnessing of social media’s massive reach and network effects is becoming more rather than less common, particularly as police forces struggle with cuts to funding (as seen in the U.S. and the U.K.) and strive to find innovative ways of reducing crime.
And what’s most “innovative” about the use of Twitter and Facebook is that, somewhat counterintuitively, it’s a modern way of reproducing what is actually a centuries- or millennia-old practice: that of stigmatizing misdemeanors and crimes. It’s the 21st-Century equivalent of placing people in stocks or tarring and feathering them, an inexpensive way of cultivating and spreading negative social associations with the things the law would prefer we didn’t do.
However, while from one angle the police could be applauded for adapting to new technology, it needs to be remembered that the growing use of social media carries considerable privacy risks. In the vast majority of cases, people are being named and shamed upon arrest, meaning that they haven’t yet been proven guilty of any alleged crime in a court of law. And things could stay this way for a large number of them, seeing as how the conviction rate in the U.S. and the U.K. is 68% and 87%, respectively.
And while police forces generally take mugshots down after a period of time, there has in fact arisen a small cottage industry of websites that archive pictures of suspected criminals in order to profit from them. Many of them, such as mugshots.com, charge past suspects a fairly hefty fee for the removal of photos, and while 18 states have restricted or banned the practice of charging for removal, such restrictions have proven largely ineffective.
There is, then, a very palpable sense that the past could come back to haunt those who’ve had their faces and names posted on Twitter or Facebook by authorities. Prospective employers or partners could search for them online and find their old mugshots, something which would undoubtedly make it difficult for anyone affected to continue with their lives after a wrongful arrest or completed sentence.
On top of this, there is currently no reliable evidence that naming and shaming actually works. In the U.S. and the U.K, drunk-driving statistics have been on a long-term downwards trend, but over the few years in which police have been using social media there has been either no significant decline in incidents, or a slight increase. As such, there’s a possibility that the increase in social media stigmatization will do little more than make life difficult for the (occasionally innocent) people it targets, as well as provide mugshot websites with extra business.
And more broadly, as an increasing number of police forces indulge in the practice of stigmatizing criminals online, it will most likely help normalize the practice more generally among the wider public, who usually aren’t as responsible as police officers when it comes to naming and shaming. Not only that, but in the rare cases where authorities identify arrested protesters, it could have an ominous cooling effect on legitimate political expression. And at a time when China is rolling out a monumental social credit system that’s already having significant repressive effects, this isn’t a road we should ever wilfully take.