Police, Twitter, and riots
Really pleased to be able to publish this post from Cisco’s Jeremy Crump on the use of Twitter by the police, with specific reference to the recent disturbances in London, Birmingham and other cities.
The widespread use of social media has been a significant feature of the riots in England over the last week. Looters used BBM to organise and swarm. In response, outraged citizens used Facebook and Twitter to organise clearing up local streets. The police are making extensive use of social media. They have used it for keeping people updated about what has been happening, and very importantly for dispelling rumours when things haven’t been happening. They’ve used Flickr to crowd source collecting photographic evidence, and for getting citizens to help in identifying offenders. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary noted in their report on public order policing earlier this year that the police were lagging behind demonstrators in their use of social media. The service has had to learn fast.
What we have seen in the last week shows some real innovation, building on the work of @nickkeane of the NPIA and innovators across the police service over the last three years. There will be extensive analysis of what worked and what didn’t over the coming months. An immediate pointer to the extent to which social media are becoming an essential aspect of policing is the growth of the number of people following police force twitter accounts.
Almost all of the 43 local forces in England and Wales have central twitter accounts, which are run by force comms departments and are mostly used for giving out public information notices, seeking information about incidents or reporting successes. Since June, the total number of followers of these sites has increased 121,000 to 347,000. Unsurprisingly, the forces with the biggest growth include those where there was the most unrest – Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Derbyshire all show increases in the number of followers in this period of over 200%. So do Cambridgeshire, West Mercia, South Yorkshire and Hampshire. The biggest growth has been in the Met, which was relatively late in committing itself to the use of twitter. @metpoliceuk now has over 34,000 followers, against 2,900 in June. Of course, not all the 346,000 followers now following police force accounts in England and Wales are unique individuals – there is overlap between these groups. But the scale of the growth is striking. The experience of Greater Manchester Police from their GMP24 exercise last year suggests that these high numbers of followers will persist. A significant group of followers are media organisations and the publication of information through the site is a means for the police to feed their messages into a debate which goes wider than their immediate followers on Twitter.
There has been more modest growth in the number of followers of the accounts managed by neighbourhood and borough policing teams. 402 such accounts which were already set up in June and still used in august have grown from 108,000 to 166,000 followers – an increase of 54%. Some of them, such as @brumpolice and @suptpaynewmp have gained several thousand new followers.
There is more work to do in understanding how the police have used these sites, what the impact has been and what new and effective practices have emerged. Much will be changed by the events of the last week, including the way the police work with local citizens to share information and maintain confidence. We can expect the police service to build on what it has learned about the potential of social media for closer engagement with the public.
Note on the data
The number of followers for 41 force accounts and 402 local policing accounts were downloaded on 22 June 2011 and 11 August 2011 using NodeXL, which is a free extension to Excel. http://nodexl.codeplex.com/. The source of the account names are the lists @nickkeane/ukcops-who-tweet and @nickkeane/uk-police-force-twitters. The local police list excludes specialist units, ACPO officers’ accounts and others which aren’t used primarily as channels for communicating with the local public.
Jeremy Crump is a director at Cisco Systems and was previously Director of Strategy at the NPIA. He will be publishing articles on the police service use of Twitter later this year.