Monday, June 11, 2012

What the Police Are Doing on Twitter...

To what extent can police forces use Twitter to increase civic engagement?  How transformational can social media be in redefining the relationship between the police and the public?

These are the questions asked by Jeremy Crump from Cisco in an article ripe with fascinating cases and statistics.  Looking at how U.K. police used Twitter over a time span in 2010-2011, including the riots of August 2011, his data suggests that police forces using Twitter most successfully use it simply as an extra channel for broadcasting messages, not as a means for enabling dialogue with the public.  He concludes that Twitter’s strength is publicizing issues and conversations that will actually take place elsewhere.

So how exactly are the police using Twitter?  Their activities can be broken down into four categories of message-types:
  1. Patrol - reports of frontline policing activity, whether patrolling or carrying out follow-up action resulting in an arrest, the resolution of a situation, or the conclusion of a case.
  2. Information - police requests for information from the public (e.g., about incidents, missing or wanted persons) and flows of information to the public, in crime prevention and public safety advice and general reassurance messages.
  3. Partners - the development and management of partnership relationships, either with other emergency services, local authorities, educational establishments and voluntary bodies, or with the public. This category includes all exchanges with members of the public.
  4. Other - messages that did not relate directly to any of the above policing functions. They were either about supporting issues (internal police business, whether official or informal) or about the mechanics of social networking, or were about matters relating only tangentially to the business of policing (e.g., television programs, local celebrities, or national events which did not engage the local police).

In order to increase civic engagement, the first step is for police departments to attract a large number of followers.  In one 24-hour experiment on October 14–15, 2010, the Greater Manchester Police published a short message about every incident notified to their control room over that time span using Twitter.  They tweeted about 3,025 incidents in all.  By the end of the exercise, the number of followers of GMP’s Twitter account had increased from 3,000 to 17,000.

Clearly, this large increase in Twitter followers over a 24-hour span signals that there is, indeed, some citizen demand for such engagement.

But there is an important distinction that must be made between the types of police accounts on Twitter.  As of August 2011, "force"accounts (managed by police forces centrally) had accumulated 259,972 followers, while "local" accounts (managed by individual officers or teams working at the neighborhood or local level) had accumulated only 165,841.

Thus, centralized official police Twitter accounts tend to attract more followers than individual or local accounts.

Additionally, the data showed that there is a moderate positive correlation between the number of followers and the number of tweets.  More content = more followers.

Furthermore, the number of Twitter "mentions" using the @user or #user tags was very low in almost all cases.  This is evidence that while certain strategies have proven effective at gaining more followers, those strategies have yet to be effective at broadcasting beyond the initial group of followers.  In other words, nobody is forwarding or sharing posts.  Police interaction with the public on Twitter is still very much characterized as one-way broadcasting, and not much actual discussion or dialogue is taking place.

Crump says, "the conclusion to be drawn is not that this effort is wasted, but rather there is a potential that can be realized through clarity of aims and methods".  That's an optimistic spin.  I'm more convinced of his point that Twitter lends itself to use as a broadcasting tool (e.g., for sharing press releases, publicizing meetings, or sending out notes about incidents), but doesn't pass muster when it comes to serious deliberation and activism.

Networks, he says, "are suitable for increasing some kinds of engagement, but not for fundamental change, for which more committed styles and methods of leadership are needed.

All Internet evangelists, please take note.



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