Twitter on the frontline

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 i-phone to compliment the rest of my equipment. ( Not much help in a traditional ruck, but essential for mobile communications.)

Using the i-phone 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 i-phone 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…


10 Responses to “Twitter on the frontline”

  1. 1 andyhaden April 5, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I have to say that the use of twitter on the day was superb. It kept everyone informed, quashed false rumours that could have escalated, and assisted with getting to decent camera positions at times! Glad to see the police are keeping up with technical advances in a positive way.

  2. 2 We Are The Brits April 5, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    The democratic process allows for freedom of political expression via peaceful demonstration – West Midlands Police are to be congratulated on their approach to the demo in Dudley on Saturday.

    Excellent planning, co-ordination, logistics and reliable communications via the innovative use of social media allowed people to enage and participate in a ground-breaking event.

    Those who were arrested deserved it, they were in the minority and unrepresentative of either side.

    On Saturday the Police did more than uphold law and order on our streets – they defended democracy – thank you CI Payne and officers of West Midlands Police.

  3. 3 James/ April 5, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    As someone who lives in Wolverhampton (not all that far from Dudley) it was very encouraging to see WMP using such mediums to not only keep people informed of what was happening, but also to dispel any false rumours that could have easily escalated.

    I was actually caught up in Birmingham when the first local EDF/UAF rally took place, and ended up coming out of a shop on New Street with my girlfriend and 10 year old son to be faced with a line of riot Police who quickly ushered us out of the way. As it turned out we only heard protesters and weren’t ever actually in any direct danger, however I still felt pretty intimidated and we’d wondered into the situation (perhaps naively) without any knowledge of the potential danger.

    That day we had read a couple of tweets from friends who were watching the local news and were telling us which areas of the city centre to avoid, but the info was sketchy and not very reliable. Had WMP been using similar techniques (Twitter etc.) on this occasions like they did in Dudley at the weekend we would have been able to avoid any trouble all together, and this can only be a good thing.

    Twitter is an ideal way of publishing a concise message from an official source to a large number of people (all of whom can re-publish that message) very quickly. In an extreme situation use of this medium could save lives.

    Well done WMP for taking the time to understand these technologies, instead of ignoring them because of the potential downsides!

  4. 4 dinkey April 5, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    I followed the demonstration via Twitter hastags #uaf #edl from the comfort of my sitting room and thought your tweets in amongst everything that was going on were informative, measured and useful.

    Can you fix it with your boss to tweet the next Saddlers match ?

  5. 5 David Catleugh April 6, 2010 at 6:07 am

    Brilliant idea to use Twitter. I am at one particular end of “the spectrum” you talk about, but am quick to admit that BOTH groups have undesirable elements. I hope that other forces look at social media, as a way of aiding the fair, and effective policing of legitimate protests. Well done West Midlands Police!

  6. 6 Jon Harvey April 6, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Excellent stuff – is this the future of policing these sorts of demonstrations? Well done West Midlands Police!

    I have blogged about this on my ‘small creative ideas’ blog:

  7. 7 Peter April 7, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Great use of Twitter to dispel rumours. Only wish you could use it to set straight the widely varying accounts of the day that are being written now as the day enters the growing mythology of the various groups with an ideological axe to grind. I read 5-6 this am that have little to tell me they were witnessing the same event. And just like rumours on the day they will all add fuel to fire of next edl outing.

    • 8 cimarkpayne April 7, 2010 at 9:11 am

      Peter, I understand your point, and I have looked at some of the accounts and wondered if I was at the same location as the writer. Post the event, we have to be careful what we say publicly, as there is still an ongoing investigation, and we cannot prejudice any potential proceedings.
      Some of the accounts I have read from independent journalists on the day are very accurate, and I hope people are wise enough to check to source of some of the messages, and understand the leanings of the person who has posted it.

  8. 9 Ben April 10, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Interesting. You appear to have taken a different approach (one of proactive engagement?) to the one of Greater Manchester Police with the EDF/UAF in Bolton. I’m not having a pop at GMP – their tweets were more straightforward reporting without the engagement.

  1. 1 English Defence League (EDL) Protest Against Proposed Mosque in Dudley, UK 03/04/2010 | Vladimir Morozov Photography Trackback on April 9, 2010 at 9:37 am
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