Forss (Fobba is his nickname) was investigating crimes involving youths when he realized that many began on an online social network called IRC-Galleria, a very popular social network in Finland, used by 60% of 13 – 17 year olds. In September of 2008 he opened a profile on the site and began his “online patrol”. His page was clearly marked as that of a police officer.
During the first nine months, the profile had around 3,000-5,000 visitors a week. At the busiest week there were over 35,000 visitors. Additionally, 27,901 comments or questions from 8,073 different users appeared at the profile during these nine months. At the profile diary “data bank”, there were 3,039 questions and comments from 1,354 different users within the same time frame. Only registered users were counted. Almost all questions were answered, but sometimes it has been too busy to respond to every inquiry. The pictures and diary can be seen also without page registration. The official police department website has a web page as support for the IRC-Galleria police profile. This page received 46,331 hits in eight and half months.
Like other social media police pioneers, Forss experienced resistance at first and found that he had to prove the worth of his work before supervisors understood its value. “Of course some of my colleagues were doubting that this is really a job that police should do. In the first fifteen months I received 38,000 messages and started several investigations trough IRC-Galleria so nobody can say that it didn’t work. After a couple of months my boss let me focus 100% to my work in social media.” Shortly thereafter, because of a school shooting which had been leaked online, the Ministry of the Interior decided to fund more officers to monitor the Internet and Forss’ group has since grown to three, with still others doing undercover work online. His team works full-time in social media and his colleagues are no longer doubting the value of what his team does. But, like all who work online, he has to stay nimble. His work has turned more and more to Facebook as the popularity of IRC-Galleria is shrinking.
While most Internet sex crimes go unreported, Forss said more are coming to the attention of police because of online tools and adds “It has become clear that visible and approachable police profiles lower the level to contact the police in very unpleasant issues”. Of several success stories, he points to one which he feels would never have been reported if it weren’t for his online work. It involved the rape of a teenage runaway in Helsinki that occurred in 2006 but wasn’t reported until two years later. She contacted Forss through the IRC-Galleria. His investigation lead to the discovery of 17 photos of her on the suspect’s computer. The accused and convicted man was a 51 year old fellow police officer.
Forss doesn’t doubt he’s having an impact with his social media investigations. He stated, “I know I have helped a lot of people in the past four years and that’s why I can say that I have had a bigger impact in my work in social media in four years than in those nine years that I worked as a uniformed police officer. So I wouldn’t underestimate the power of policing in social media!” In fact, he said with cyberbullying issues, it’s sometimes enough to give the bullier, youth or adult, a virtual warning, “usually that stops the bullying because normal people want to avoid police investigation”, he added.
Sergeant Forss has some advice for agencies that want to start a social media program. His advice is that the best officer for the job isn’t necessarily the most technically-savvy. “Everybody can learn the IT-skills but you don’t learn the social and policing skills from books.”
Forss and his team are spreading their expertise well beyond their own department. Their work has inspired other agencies, even outside of Finland, to begin their own social media programs. He’s also developing a wiki-based social media handbook to include policy and procedural guidelines and he’s hopeful that one day soon more police officers will use social media in the course of their investigations rather than it being just a specialty of a few officers.