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…