The Tactical Advantages of Twitter

The verdict in a contention case is expected in a matter of weeks, and no matter what the jury’s decision, the city streets are likely to fill with protesters, and it could get really ugly. As highly trained law of officers, you know what needs to be done. Until reckoning day, you create the integrated policing unit, you meet, you plan, you train. The front line and support officers are well prepared and well provisioned.

  1. Incident Command Structure designed. – CHECK
  2. Critical personnel identified. – CHECK
  3. Support systems in place. – CHECK
  4. Front-line provisions: Shields, Batons, Tasers. – CHECK, CHECK, CHECK
  5. Twitter. – CHECK

Whoa, Wait, Whaaaaa?…………. Twitter?

How could it be possible that something with a name like Twitter could be a serious law enforcement tactic? One very macho Nebraska cop once said “I won’t use Twitter until they come up with more manly terms.” That was more than a year ago. It probably comes as no surprise that to this day, he doesn’t tweet. But despite it’s name and the turquoise feathered mascot, it doesn’t mean Twitter isn’t really useful for law enforcement operations.

Here are three ways Twitter could be used in a situation like the one described above to create tactical advantages, no kidding.

  1. Talk directly to any antagonist, IN THE MOMENT
  2. Follow any POI without them knowing
  3. Map a tweet to see exactly from where it came geographically

Talk directly to any antagonist. I like to also call this one “Seizing the virtual scene”. Any protestor, these days, as s/he is doing what protestors do, is tweeting as they do it. But they don’t necessarily follow each other. So how can they communicate via Twitter and know that other protesters see what they tweet? The answer is in the #hashtag. Law enforcement can use the same opportunity to inject its messages of public safety directly into that same conversation and thereby taking control of the virtual scene.

What’s a hashtag? A hashtag on Twitter is simply a word, or an acronym that is preceded with the hash mark, aka pound sign (#). In Twitter, beginning a word with that symbol makes it clickable. You click on it and you get all the tweets sent with that hashtag IN them. What’s the relevance? If you just tweet as the PD, especially in a contentious situation, the people you really want to see those tweets probably won’t. Maybe some of your followers will see them. But the protestors won’t, because they aren’t following you, they’re following the hashtag(s) for the event.

A hashtag can be created immediately, right on the spot. If the media or the public hasn’t created a hashtag that is relevant to your event, create it yourself. Keep it as short as possible as it uses up some of your 140 characters in every tweet. Then, check to see that it’s not being used to signify something else (with a quick Twitter search), then just USE IT in your tweets. Others (media) will follow and also use the hashtag.

In the above-described scenario, as in any mob situation, a few people are really angry and/or motivated and the rest are just following along. On Twitter, all it takes is one or a few of them to begin to suggest acts of violence or spread rumors that might agitate. Until Twitter, you had no way of communicating directly to them, in the moment. The officers at the scene, even if they could get through to them don’t really know the details themselves. But back at incident command, details are known. So put a communications officer in the fusion center and feed him or her some tweets, and use the hashtag.

By using the hashtag relevant to an event, you are injecting yourself into that situation/event. You are forcing people who could otherwise care less about what you have to say to see what you have to say. The protesters who are following the hashtag will start seeing your tweets. Their first reaction might be surprise that you’re there. Beyond that is the potential to influence the actions of the less radical – those follower-types who can be swayed either way, might make a better decision. If they see tweets of reality and public safety coming from law enforcement, they might think twice about their own actions.

Superintendent Mark Payne of the West Midlands (UK) Police experienced this phenomenon first hand last year during a protest between the two groups “English Defense League” and “United Against Fascism”. Both groups were using Twitter to communicate and had incorporated the hashtags: #edl (English Defense League) and #uaf (United Against Fascism) in their messaging. Prior to the event, they had used Twitter to spread misinformation about the other, resulting in increased tensions. Superintendent Payne (then a Chief Inspector) decided to work directly from the scene of the protests. He wrote this about the event on the ConnectedCOPS blog:

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.
~Superintendent Mark Payne, West Midlands Police

The added benefit is that the media will closely follow the tweets as well, increasingly the likelihood of accurate reporting on the outcome.

Two ways to secretly follow any POI. With Twitter’s list feature, users can create up to 20 lists. Each list can be made public or private. Leading up to any public safety event, or for any long-term surveillance reasons, put persons of interest on a list and keep it marked “private”. Then follow that list (either manually within Twitter or with Twitter management tools such as TweetDeck or HootSuite) without the knowledge of those listed.

A second way to follow someone without their knowledge is to simply put the URL (web address) of their Twitter RSS feed into an RSS reader.

Put tweets on a map. Both Google and Bing have Twitter mapping functionality that, for the users who have geo-location enabled, allow you to see the exact location of their tweets.

For example, Bing Twitter maps are searchable by location, keyword, or Twitter username. In the above scenario, put in the intersecting streets of the protest and see what tweets are happening in the area. Or, if there’s a particularly offensive tweeter, literally watch his or her movements as s/he moves about.

In Google maps, try putting the RSS feed of any Twitter user into the search bar. If they enable geo-location, see their tweets from where they tweeted them.

It’s all Grist for the Mill
No social media tool is the magic answer to law enforcement’s toolbox, and neither should social media be seen as the holygrail within your overall communication scheme. But when approached with proactive planning and realistic expectations, social media can prove to be a very valuable tactical device for law enforcement.

This post was previously published in The California Peace Officer.

Related articles:

Using Twitter Hashtags for Emergency Management, by Scott Mills

Seizing the Virtual Scene, by Lauri Stevens


  • Paisley Rae

    Pssst….
    All of the interfaces I use to access Twitter send me messages when someone follows me.

    • lauri26

      You’re exactly right Paisley, but none of the methods described above actually involve hitting the follow button.