New Study: Impact Of Social Media On Cynicism About Police

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Watching cell phone footage of a use-of-force incident on social media is more likely to generate negative feelings toward the police than watching the same encounter on a conventional TV broadcast, according to a new study from researchers at Kentucky State U.

Plus, social media viewers tend to be more likely to believe that officers have acted criminally in their use of force.

If the findings from this limited study reflect broader public reactions, the research is disturbing for law enforcement because the younger population—and increasingly older adults as well—relies more on social media to shape its worldview than on mainstream news outlets.

Thus, the already-formidable challenge for police in winning community trust potentially becomes even more difficult and the risk of an adversely tainted jury pool in police-related litigation more concerning.

A TEST OF CYNICISM

The research, believed to be the first to explore this aspect of social media, was conducted by Lana Browning, a master’s degree recipient and adjunct faculty member, Dr. Johnathon Sharp, assistant professor, and Dr. Mara Merlino, associate professor, all in the Psychology Dept. at KSU. Their findings won recognition as “best research paper” at the latest conference of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology.

The volunteer participants in their study were 93 college students, most (92%) younger than 25, most (71%) female, and most (63%) African-American.

They first were given an 18-question “cynicism survey” to measure their baseline of “mistrust and lack of confidence” in four occupational groups: physicians, professors, attorneys, and police. Even at the outset, the results of this “paper-and-pencil” questionnaire showed that the participants on the whole “felt more negatively toward police than toward the other groups.”

2 TAKES ON UOF

Then the participants were randomly assigned to watch one of two versions of a real-life videoed encounter in Kansas in which two municipal officers are down on the grass beside a thoroughfare, struggling with a male subject.

Version #1 consists of raw footage taken with a cell phone by a “Citizen Video Journalist” and posted on YouTube. The action is shot from a distance and details of the struggle are hard to make out, but it’s clear that the subject is thrusting his leg and trying to break free. An officer can be heard telling him to “relax” and “get your foot down.”

The cameraman yells at the subject, “Come on, guy! Quit moving, man! They’re gonna fuckin’ kill you, bro. Quit moving!” After 36 seconds, the film ends with the struggle still underway. No explanation is given about the circumstances or the ultimate outcome.

This version “went viral” and drew vigorous attacks on the police on social media. Click here to view it.

Version #2, originally shown hours later, is a 2 min. 28 sec. clip from a TV newscast about the incident, produced by professional journalists at a local NBC affiliate. Cell phone footage from the conflict is incorporated, but the reporter provides context.

The subject, she explains, was initially pulled over for a traffic violation and proved to have an outstanding warrant. When officers tried to handcuff him, he broke loose and was then taken to the ground. Dash cam footage is included showing this occur.

A major from the officers’ department is interviewed, explaining why officers behaved as they did and emphasizing that they were “very professional” and “did what they had to do to get the individual into custody.”

The reporter concludes by stating that the suspect was charged with battery of the officers. Click here to view it.

After experiencing one or the other of these versions, the study subjects then took the “cynicism test” again and were also asked if they thought the officers involved committed misdemeanor assault (intentionally, wantonly, or recklessly causing physical injury).

RESULTS

After thoroughly analyzing the data, the researchers confirmed that there was a significant difference in cynicism regarding police between the group that viewed the unfiltered social media posting and those who saw the professional broadcast.

In the baseline testing, “the level of cynicism was fairly equal” between the two viewing groups. But after seeing the respective videos, the average level of cynicism and mistrust among the group that saw the social media footage significantly “increased, while the cynicism score for the broadcast media group decreased slightly” from their pre-viewing levels, the study reports.
In addition, “a greater percentage of the participants in the social media group felt that the officers committed misdemeanor assault than did participants in the mainstream video group,” the researchers write. “Of the 93 participants, 33 (35.5%) reported that they believed the officers violated [the criminal] statute, 26 of whom were in the social media group and 8 of whom were in the broadcast media group.”

Moreover, “there was a difference in the severity of sanctions” considered appropriate by the two groups. “The social media group opted for [significantly] more severe sanctions that did the mainstream media group.”

CAUTIONARY CONCERNS

The researchers warn that the “results should be generalized with caution.” They’d like to see larger and most diverse population samples tested in future research.

Nonetheless, they argue that the study raises an important issue. Given society’s technological trend and the “media exposure explosion,” there must be concern not only with what is being viewed by the public and how police are portrayed but how information is delivered to citizen consumers.
“Social media is becoming an integral part of how information is presented to the public,” the researchers note. “Raw citizen videos of police actions have added a new dimension to the scrutiny of police behavior.

“By creating a greater understanding of how cynicism develops…we can focus on a direction that is conducive to reducing the negative reinforcers that may contribute to the overall effectiveness in the criminal justice system.”

The research paper, “Citizen Journalism and Public Cynicism Toward Police in the United States, is currently under peer review for publication in an academic journal. Meanwhile, for more information contact Lana Browning at lana.browning@kysu.edu or Johnathon Sharp at: johnathon.sharp@kysu.edu

Our thanks to Dr. Dawn O’Neill, a behavioral scientist with the Force Science Institute, for helping to facilitate this report.

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