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West Midlands (UK) Police: Twitter on the Frontline

April 5, 2010
By

On 3rd April 2010, the English Defence League staged a protest in Dudley. Unite Against Facism were also in Dudley on this date, taking part in a multi-cultural event. These two groups are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their views, and on previous occasions when they had met there had been disorder and violence.

Both of these groups use social media as their preferred form of communication. In the past, supporters from both sides had used twitter to spread misinformation about the other, increasing tension and stoking up hostility. I was in charge of communications on the day and took the decision to work from the scene of the protests, armed with an iPhone to compliment the rest of my equipment. (Not much help in a traditional ruck, but essential for mobile communications.)

Using the iPhone I was able to use Tweetdeck to monitor a range of messages from all sides of the argument. I was in touch with the command cell, and able to dispel rumours instantly. Before the start of the protest, there was a message posted on Facebook that EDL members had smashed the windows of a mosque overnight. I checked, found it was not true, and tweeted a message to say so. Then a tweet was circulated that an EDL steward had been stabbed by UAF supporters, again after checking I was able to refute the allegation. This carried on throughout the day. When the EDL broke through police lines, I was able to update people straight away, and all significant events during the day were subject to messages.

This is groundbreaking stuff for policing in the UK. We have used social media as a broadcast platform during protests in the past, but we have not had immediate updates from officers on the ground, enabling two way conversations. Of course I was subject to the usual abuse from a minority, (I still don’t understand why people bother to swear at police officers, I was immune after about 20 minutes in the job.) I also had a number of queries about why the police were paying somebody to monitor Twitter, as though I did nothing else but tweet all day. The overwhelming majority were however really positive, and I have had fantastic feedback.

Couple of health warnings, with immediate messaging it is much more difficult to corroborate facts. I put out a message disputing a chant had taken place, when in fact it had (sorry @NMEC) confusing a legitimate journalist with an agitator. Also, once you commit to this, you have to have the capacity to maintain it, and the battery on my iPhone came perilously close to running out twice (thanks @skynews for the recharge)

It is really important not to use social media in isolation, but as part of a wider strategy to get messages out. Whilst I was tweeting I was also updating traditional media, providing interviews throughout the day and getting messages out to the communities of Dudley through our comms network. (I also did a fair bit of actual policing, nice to be out of my office.) Social media will only ever be one form of communication, but the unique two way nature of it makes it increasingly important to policing.

Throughout the day it was also clear to me that lots of traditional journalists were following my twitter feed, and there is a real overlap between the two mediums now. I was able to answer questions from journalists in realtime, and they were able to check on the accuracy of their reports. On the day new and old media complemented each other.

Overall for a first try, despite the hiccups, I was really pleased with both the use of Twitter, and the reaction I got to it. I would be interested to hear your views…

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  • http://twitter.com/wearethebrits We Are The Brits

    The democratic process allows for freedom of political expression via peaceful demonstration – West Midlands Police are to be congratulated on their approach to the demo in Dudley on Saturday.

    Excellent planning, co-ordination, logistics and reliable communications via the innovative use of social media allowed people to enage and participate in a ground-breaking event.

    Those who were arrested deserved it, they were in the minority and unrepresentative of either side.

    On Saturday the Police did more than uphold law and order on our streets – they defended democracy – thank you CI Payne and officers of West Midlands Police.

  • http://www.lifeonthenet7.com/articles Charles Kaluwasha

    Thanks to media that we can get information as fast as lightening. now we can read what is happening around the world. We thank police for maintaining law and order in this incident.

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  • http://twitter theodore l huddleston jr

    want to thank you all for doing a good job for the people in the world lol

  • http://www.whatsinkenilworth.com Mike Downes

    This case study from Supt Mark Payne now reads as an exemplar museum piece having just experienced the riots and disorder last week in August 2011 in the UK. Mark Payne has demonstrated through trial and error (I’m sure he’ll be the first to admit) how social media can be used for good and neutralise speculation in live events.

    Here we are 14 months on and West Midlands officers were at the forefront of twitter use in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton in the UK. What is going to be fascinating is the cat and mouse of tracking postings prior, in progress and after events take place. One for the future.