Officer Mary Ferguson, a 34-year-old officer with the Menlo Park, California, police department, has earned the nickname “The Facebook Cop” after it was revealed by the Wall Street Journal that Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) foots the entire $194,000 annual tab for her salary and benefits. Ferguson will reportedly work as a juvenile (i.e. truant) officer, making sure kids are in school by checking their Facebook pages and then, if there’s evidence they’re absent, visiting their homes.
Besides the appearance of Facebook essentially buying its own law enforcement, the situation seems to pour gasoline on the idea that the social media behemoth has become increasingly tone-deaf as young users flock to rival social media platforms.
With 3,500 employees dispersed throughout Menlo Park, Facebook is by far the largest employer in the town. Both the company and police told the Journal their arrangement is no-strings attached and that Facebook employees suspected of breaking the law would be treated like any other suspects, yet the situation has ethicists and citizenry nervous about what happens next. The stakes are heightened even further when considering that other social media companies are gaining influence elsewhere in Silicon Valley and might hope to “buy” police officers of their own.
“That raises some potential conflicts that, if I was the chief, I am not sure I’d want to wrestle with,” Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal-justice professor at the University of South Carolina, told the Journal. “What do you tell your officers about how to treat people who work at Facebook?”
Aside from the obvious social implications of a privatized police force, the plan also falls within Facebook’s blind spot when it comes to appealing to users outside Silicon Valley. The once-dominant social network still has an estimated 1.2 billion users, but has only kept its stranglehold on the younger demographics by purchasing the social networks they’ve fled Facebook in favor of.
A report published in January of this year by iStrategy Labs determined that, in the three years since January 2011, the number of Facebook users between ages 13 and 17 had fallen by 25.3 percent. Users in high school over the same period fell by 58.9 percent and college students by an astounding 59.1 percent.
At the same time, previous studies have found that Facebook is more popular than ever with middle-aged users, backing the notion that teens are fleeing because they’re being watched by adults. Facebook has adjusted by acquiring the very social media platforms that the teens have left for – purchasing Instagram, WhatsApp and most recently the Oculus Rift gaming system.
If a youth in Menlo Park decides to skip school and broadcast the news on Facebook only to be visited by a police officer with a secret account, it’s hard to picture him being excited to share another sensitive piece of information about himself on the site again. Whether this will happen is not in doubt: Ferguson told the Journal she recently visited a boy’s home after using a secret account to view his Facebook, reportedly telling the young man’s father, “I’ll keep my eye on him” via the social network.
Facebook’s latest move comes amid continuing scrutiny over its 2012 psychology study, which gauged how user’s emotions changed based on the optimism or pessimism of their friends’ status updates. Nearly 700,000 users were unwittingly involved in the study and, while it’s nearly impossible for someone to find out if they were involved, pundits suggested it won’t be the last time Facebook asserts its power.
“There are too many business-driven reasons for Facebook to keep tweaking its platform and learning more about how users respond to different triggers,” wrote Forbes contributor Dan Diamond at the time, although his statement could just as easily apply to the company’s ability to fund a police salary without fear of a backlash.
Facebook did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story from the International Business Times.