I decided to wait for a little while before writing a post to discuss the use of social media during the recent riots that took place across England. Over a period of two weeks we have seen a move away from the initial knee jerk calls for social media to be turned off during disorder to a much more sensible position, of the industry working with the authorities to start to understand the social media world better from both sides.
Over this period, I have seen the Police attacked for their lack of knowledge of and use of social media. Those of you who have read my previous blogs will know that I have been a fierce advocate of police use of social media for many years. I have used social media effectively during disturbances before, and posted about it in April 2010. There has been a group of early adopter forces and individual officers who have been trying to enhance the understanding and use of social media amongst UK policing over the past three years.
Those calling for social media to be turned off seem to me to have completely missed the point. I was on the streets of Wolverhampton during the riots that took place here. I saw first hand the use of mobile handsets, where offenders were clearly consulting their screens and then issuing instructions to others. I have no doubt at all that social media played a part in the organisation of riots in parts of the country. This does not however mean that we should be calling for it to be turned off. It does mean that we need to understand how it works, and get better at using it.
The organisation of protests and disorder has evolved significantly in recent years. It was not very long ago that to organise a protest, you needed a group of like minded people in a room together, agreeing on a theme for the protest, making placards and flyers, and spreading the message via posters and word of mouth. These days, protests can be arranged without any of the protesters even having to be in the same country as each other. Locations can be announced at the very last second. Police forces have not kept up with this change, and we have sometimes given the impression that we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred at every turn, thwarted by technology.
When protests were being organised in student union bars, our answer was not to try and close down every bar and pub where the meetings might happen. Instead we chose to overtly approach these meetings and speak to the organisers to help us plan. Where co-operation was not forthcoming, we used covert tactics to gain a better understanding. In my view we should be taking exactly the same approach to social media. Rather than risk alienating millions of social media users by trying to turn it off (which I’m not sure is even possible) surely the way to address social media is to better understand it, and look at ways to use it to our benefit.
During the disorder in Wolverhampton, I used Twitter throughout, to update communities in Wolverhampton with developments, and crucially to prevent the spread of misinformation and rumour. One thing that we have seen over and over again during emergency situations is that where there is no information coming from the authorities, the gap will be plugged by speculation. InWolverhamptonwe have worked hard to build a network of local social media users, so that there was a network in place to get our messages out. (For those who want more information on this, this blog sets out the story of how we used social media during the riots.)
I cannot overstate the positive feedback I have had following my use of social media during the riots. I have had hundreds of messages of support and thanks from people who followed me to get an accurate picture of what went on. The very clear message is that people were reassured by following my feed, and believed it rather than all of the rumours that were flying about on the day.Wolverhampton local authority have told me that they were following my feed and then broadcasting updates from it. Almost every tweet I put out updating the situation was retweeted by 100+ people (Twitter seems to stop counting at 100!) National TV channels were running banner headlines which were straight lifts from my tweets. I gained 5000 extra followers in the 24 hours after the riots started which gives you some idea of the amount of people who wanted to be kept up to date.
I don’t think that there is now any question about whether or not police should use social media. Forces cannot just bury their head in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist. UK policing must become better, and integrate modern communications into their day to day operations.
As somebody who has been using social media since the early days, the most important things that I have learnt are;
1) Use Social Media – this might sound blindingly obvious, but we must adopt much wider use of social media in UK policing, if we are to become adept at using it. It appears to me that some areas have started to think about social media the day before they start using it at an event. This doesn’t work, firstly because as a result they don’t know what they are doing, and secondly, they have no follower base, and so they are talking to themselves. If you use social media on a day to day basis, people start to trust your voice, and they are much more likely to turn to you for information in a crisis.
2) Be brave – you will make mistakes when you use social media, and once they are out there you can’t retract them easily. I think police forces need to be relaxed about this, the benefits of using social media to talk to people far outweigh the potential pitfalls. When I have made mistakes, people have commented that it just makes the police appear human, nobody expects us to be perfect all the time, but they do like to be able to talk to us.
3) Reach out to current users – one of the benefits of social media is that there are already lots of networks out there just waiting to talk to us. I have spent some time since I arrived in Wolverhampton speaking to the influential social media groups here. On the day of the riots, WV11, which is a fantastic hyperlocal site were carrying all of my messages, allowing people to access my information from a local site they like and trust.
4) Be an individual – There are some great examples of corporate use of social media in policing. West Midlands Police and Greater Manchester Police have both got huge follower numbers, and are excellent tools for broadcasting messages. Both forces during the riots monitored their twitter feeds and answered questions they were asked, taking a step away from the one way traffic that has been the hallmark of Police twitter use. My view is that this is very important, but that alongside the corporate presence, forces ought to encourage individual officers to engage through social media. This allows local people to follow a local cop, asking them questions and talking to them about issues on their doorstep. In effect this adds another dimension to the concept of a local officer.
I am encouraged by the early signs. There is now a platform for the industry to work with the police to help us understand each others needs better. There is interest from the Home Office about how police use social media, we may be seeing a new dawn in police use of social media. Fingers crossed!
Mark Payne is a Superintendent with the West Midlands Police. He is based at Wolverhampton, responsible for managing response to crime and operations in the city. Superintendent Payne will deliver a keynote address at the upcoming SMILE Conference in Dallas.