Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Police Twittering Isn't Genuine Dialogue

A few months ago, a friend who works for a national campaigning NGO e-mailed for advice on using online social networking, because she had just been given responsibility for this within her organisation and wanted tips on using networking tools effectively.

As well as giving my opinion on Facebook fan pages, MySpace and YouTube, I offered this on using Twitter: don’t just post links to press releases, because this is incredibly dull, and remember that communication is two-way, so if you don’t interact with those following your Twitter feed, people will stop reading what you put out.

It’s only an opinion but it may be relevant to the decision of the police to start using Twitter as a means of communicating with protesters. This follows the recommendation of the Chief Inspectorate of Constabulary’s ‘Adapting to Protest’ report in response to the disastrous policing of April’s G20 protests, which suggested that “it may be valuable for officers reflect” on whether a “proactive approach has been taken in relation to communicating with ‘organisers’, representatives, potential protesters and the public to manage expectations and inform choices”, including the use of the media, intermediaries and “web-based opportunities”.

There has been plenty of coverage of the decision by the Metropolitan Police’s CO11 Public Order Unit to set up a Twitter feed for Climate Camp (used subsequently for the protests against the DSEi arms fair) and to employ consultants to help manage this, but what is interesting is its policy on usage says that “we are not able to reply individually to the messages we receive via Twitter”. There is no interaction and the police didn’t even bother to follow Climate Camp during the course of activists' encroachment onto Blackheath - leaving this task to its consultants' spy software, presumably. Moreover, CO11’s fourteen tweets (as of today) have been incredibly bland.

But at least it has some followers. The feed set up by Avon & Somerset police for Bristol’s Co-Mutiny protests on climate change, which starts in three days time, has just two people following it today. Rather like the Met’s efforts, the use of Twitter by Avon & Somerset includes a policy that says it “cannot respond to messages via Twitter” and does seem to involve little more than ticking a box in response to the Inspectorate of Constabulary’s proposals, rather than seriously thinking through what social networking tools might actually be used for. It’s little wonder that the open letters from Detective Inspector Richard Budd to protesters point to a growing desperation for someone - anyone - to talk to him.

A fairly casual survey this morning of the police forces that are using Twitter highlights how this lack of understanding is widespread. I have found 13 police Twitter feeds and Derbyshire, West Midlands and West Yorkshire all make it clear that they do not consider its use to be two-way. Cumbria police does interact but Merseyside has responded just once. All the official police Twitter feeds consist mainly of insipid press releases and most follow only national and local press. Only one copper, a divisional Commander in Sussex Police, seems to have any real grasp of what Twitter is for.

Just as the disappearance of heavy-handed policing at August's Climate Camp is a reaction to the Met's G20 own-goal and doesn’t really represent a sudden change in police culture, so the use of web-based communications looks like a tokenistic attempt at public relations, a stab at being seen to have made an effort to communicate. But the problem for the police, as they’ve found in Bristol, is that if people don’t believe you are genuine, then quite rightly they won’t respond.

And it’s going to take a lot more than signing up to a popular online networking tool to persuade anyone to change their minds about how genuine the police really are.

Copwatching the Police on Twitter

Avon and Somerset -
Cumbria -
Derbyshire -
Greater Manchester -
Merseyside -
Metropolitan Police -
Northants -
Northumbria -
North Yorkshire -
Staffordshire -
West Midlands -
West Yorkshire -

1 Comment:

Massimo Bergamini said...

Spot on! I find that most police forces are using Twitter as a kind of virtual bulletin board thereby losing out on the true power and reach of social media: The conversation.

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