When one of the most venerable and long-standing penal reform groups in the UK, the Howard League, joined a Facebook campaign in 2009 and its chief executive is frequently active on Twitter expressing the views of its organisation then you sense that something is changing. However you define and engage with it, social media is beginning to have a distinctive place and impact on the already crowded arena of criminal justice policy-making. Pressure groups no longer rely on a discrete word in the ears of the Lord in the parliamentary lobby or private club to get their message across. Instead, the most open and widely used social networking site was chosen as the preferred target for that 2009 campaign ‘charities must not run prisons’.
I mentioned this one evening to an academic colleague, Julian Buchanan, formerly working in the UK and now at the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand when Skyping with him. We are both active users of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and discussion lists amongst an increasing plethora of other social media. For decades we have both been concerned with how, as researchers and academics in the field of criminal justice policy, we can shift punitive populist practice to make it more evidence-informed. Julian is focused more on drugs policy and myself on reducing re-offending and reintegration/re-entry. Maybe social media offers new possibilities? Two hours later we had not come to any firm conclusions but this was an area in which there were research questions worth exploring further and we began to formulate an hypothesis about the role of social media and criminal justice policy formation.
We could both cite recent experiences where a policy issue had been highlighted on Twitter and had resulted in an active and wide-ranging debate. We also noted the debate involved a range of people distinguished by their twitter name only but otherwise their professional status and standing were irrelevant to the debate. Their comments seemed to be received, assessed, dissected and challenged in equal measure according to the merits of what was said rather than their acquired status elsewhere. We reflected that Twitter seemed to offer a more open, equitable and transparent environment for exchanging ideas and its immediacy and accessibility seem to translate into people’s wider practices and what they might do to follow this through. Wherever in the world people sat when contributing also seemed irrelevant. The challenging question was being posed – was social media having a distinct and meaningful influence on crime policy change and implementation in the real world?
I had become engaged in what I would now term ‘first generation’ social media some 10 years ago when I launched an information exchange website, the Community Justice Portal (www.cjp.org.uk ). This was launched by the then New Labour Minister for prisons and probation in the UK, Hilary Benn, MP, in 2002. We wanted to create a virtual space where practitioners, policy makers, researchers, academics, service users and other stakeholders across the criminal justice arena could both receive information, share knowledge, debate solutions and as a result have an impact upon crime policy development. Dashing our overblown hopes and expectations the portal was slow to develop. We discovered that although academics had computers on their desks and routinely used email and other developing forms of electronic communication, the field of criminal justice lagged far behind. If you worked in the police, probation service, in the prison service, in the voluntary and independent sector, let alone if you were a service user, it was very difficult during the working day to access the Internet and thus the portal. Also significant, even when people could access the Internet via use of personal computers, participation in discussions and debate was somewhat parsimonious and insubstantial. Elsewhere discussion lists such as listserv and jiscmail were developing some ‘communities of practice’ but receipt of the daily digests via emails on your computer gave only a limited chance to ‘members only’ to engage in debate. Chatrooms too were in their infancy offering synchronous engagement but more social than intellectual in content. The Internet was still learning how to use its potential reach and power to engage people in debate. One particularly difficult and salutary experience was the Portal’s attempt to engage with conference organisers to run post-conference e-learning debates on the portal. Despite the fact that this offered the opportunity for people to continue discussion and debate begun, often fleetingly, at conferences and for others to join in that debate to take forward the knowledge and learning gained, organisers were reluctant to engage in this enterprise. Early attempts at e-conferences and e-consultation suffered a similar fate. Like the precursors to E-Bay and Facebook the Community Justice Portal had arrived too early in the evolution of the technology as well as the mindset of individuals to change the discourse of policy debate. Compare now, for instance, the massive impact that the new campaigning organisation, No Offence! has had launching more recently and utilising the growing phenomenon of the social media.
So, as the second generation followed on quickly, new technologies, notably the developing capability of the phone and tablets, began to link the various avenues of social media to create a more dynamic and instant interface. The interactive and growing diversity of the technological architecture was still in its infancy but when we look now for instance at a set of twitter feeds we see links to events, newspaper articles, reports, journal articles, blogs, you-tube feeds and podcasts and the latest, somewhat controversial development of live tweeting from conferences, plus the spontaneous debate which follows the posting of such messages. Clearly, debate begun in one forum can be continued, enhanced and developed across a whole range of different social media suiting the seemingly just-in-time learning style of modern practitioners, policy makers, managers, researchers, service users, commentators and academics. Knowledge is being managed, dissected and debated in a whole new set of e-environments which we postulate may revolutionise how criminal justice policy is formulated, managed and implemented.
Academics are often challenged as to how far their research is effectively disseminated and what impact it has in the real world of criminal justice policy and practice. Impact factors are often measured in traditional terms by reference to expensive high status journal articles accessible to only a minority. Whether this mode of communication really impacts on real world practice is increasingly being questioned and open access publishing is another challenge to the elitism that accompanies dominant perspectives on academic policy impact. Even reports, professional journals and conference presentations are not readily accessible to the grassroots worker or indeed the service user, both of whom, can feel effectively marginalised and excluded.
We have already noted in our own observations, a growing number of academics are beginning to tweet their findings to challenge and inform crime policy through the eclectic and multifaceted world of social media. We believe that social media has the potential to democratise debate and to create communities of practice, configured on a global scale, where policy change may be examined in a more immediate, wide-ranging and egalitarian discourse grounded in the reality of everyday practice. Social media is much more immediate than the researcher or policymaker could ever envisage when writing up their work or developing their policy blueprints in the confines of their own offices or when seeking recognition via a high impact journal or expensive and exclusive conference.
As researchers and reflective practitioners we do not know whether social media does actually have significant influence upon crime policy and thinking or whether we are just positioned in a world where the immediacy and fun of social media kids us into equating this as influence. It is worth examining so we have formulated the following hypothesis:
Social media offers criminal justice stakeholders an open, equitable and transparent way to extend avenues of communication globally potentially increasing accessibility and impact. It has enabled novel and distinctive pathways for criminal justice policy exchange, evolution and implementation through the construction of an extensive e-architecture enabling new forms of dissemination, communication, policy networks, policy developments and debate. This has the potential to democratise and widen access to influence crime policy.
If the hypothesis has any purchase on a new reality and dimension of criminal justice policy making and is not just a frivolous diversion from the narrower more traditional forms of policy formulation, then it potentially offers those interested in criminal justice change, an exciting and novel way to influence the future. At the same time it will also challenge those who steadfastly refuse to engage in social media to consider whether their research, policy suggestions and/or practices are failing to reach the right audiences and thus failing to impact upon future policy development. However, this is more of a set of questions at this stage and we need to know how others view this potential revolution in communication technologies.
Accordingly, to examine these issues more systematically with others who have criminal justice connections/interests across the globe we have prepared a short questionnaire that we would invite you to participate in (and do circulate to others). It is a short survey that will take no more than 15 minutes and will provide a picture of social media usage, its perceived benefits, pitfalls and issues and potential for influencing crime policy formation. We would invite you not only to participate but encourage you to send a link either to the blog or to the survey or any of the links below to any colleagues/students or commentators who are engaged in the field of criminal justice. We would be happy for those to participate who are not frequent users of social media as well as those for whom it has become something of a daily addiction as it is for ourselves. We intend to leave the survey open until the end of November to give it time to permeate as wide a group of people as possible wherever in the world (literally) criminal justice policy and debate is being discussed. The findings will be disseminated widely through social media once they are available early next year.
Survey link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/smcjp
Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/426622047405667/
You tube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5D35pSqyfY
Twitter feed #smcjp