To Protect and Tweet

There’s been some discussion recently of the NYPD’s initiative to educate members of the force in the best practices of social media. On more than one occasion, police officers have used their personal social media accounts to share controversial or inappropriate ideas and information. The NYPD also attempted to use its Twitter account to engage the public in a positive way by soliciting followers for stories about experiences with officers, which went completely off course…as one might expect.

The article linked above gives an update about the NYPD social media education, noting:

The training, which is accompanied by a 34-page Twitter manual, advises dad humor, animal rescue photos, and hashtags. It warns against seeming insensitive and fighting with trolls. “Twitter combat is unwinnable and it’s pointless,” Zachary Tumin, a deputy commissioner, told the Journal. So far, police are pleased with the results — they’ve grown their Facebook fans 40 percent and their Twitter following 80 percent since January 1st. There are now more than 40 official NYPD Twitter accounts, and the department says that dozens more are coming.

All of this got me thinking. The authority of the police department is built on more than a legal mandate. The citizenry has to buy into the authority of the police department in order for officers to do their jobs. At the heart of this “buy in” is trust and faith. The social media failures of the NYPD have more to do with a loss of trust and faith than they do with social media protocols. Beyond all that, though, the authority of the police department is built on a fragile set of symbolic tools. Although the police are, in theory, “of us,” as citizens on patrol, they are necessarily distinct from us in their training and the privileges and responsibilities that go along with it.

Police have the unique right to detain, arrest, or even kill other citizens, as circumstances dictate. It’s imperative that the public recognize and respect officers’ right to do so, and so they wear a uniform and a badge. The uniform and the badge are differences that make a difference, symbolically speaking. The uniform and badge distinguish each officer as 1) an authority separate from the typical citizen, and 2) a member of a broader system of authority trusted with the care of the community. The symbolic association is crucial and so officers have very specific protocols for wearing their uniforms and strict guidelines for the use of their badges and weapons.

In turn, the public recognizes the authority vested in the uniform, badge, and weapon and agrees to cooperate and obey commands. Of course, the reality for too many folks is that the uniform, badge, and weapon have become symbols of antagonism, racism, and corruption.

Twitter, and other forms of social media, are biased towards the familiar. They bring celebrities and politicians closers to their fans and constituents. This frequently backfires because celebrities carefully cultivate an image, which can be destroyed in a heartbeat with a single inappropriate posting, or the revealing of private photographs, as in the unfortunate case of Jennifer Lawrence and company. Politicians are similarly afflicted. The closeness of Twitter and other social media is what makes them compelling. Authority is undermined as the previously unreachable and unattainable interface with the public in a way that resembles “rubbing elbows.” This has created a new reality when it comes to fame, but it also poses a dilemma for institutions like the police department.

The struggle for police departments today is the public’s increased exposure to brutality, corruption, and the inherent racism in the system. Every incident involving an officer roughly, brutally, or fatally assaulting a civilian erodes the authority we’ve tacitly agreed upon. Our new windows into corners of the world, far flung and distant, has open our eyes to the experiences of others and the horrors of power. NYPD thinks social media also contains the antidote to this dilemma. Certainly, the old thinking about Public Relations would suggest that damage control must counter negative coverage. Meet the negative with an overwhelming positive to spin reality and you can win the PR war. In fact, the closeness of social media can’t help but undermine further the authority of the police because it’s in the nature of the technology itself. Fuzzy kitties and dad stories will meet stories of brutality on the battlefield of social media, but the content hardly matters as much as the bias of the medium. The public will no longer recognize the uniform and the badge as distinguished marks of authority, whether they feel antagonism or delight. Social media (and really electricity is the lifeblood here) guarantees the elbow-rubbing and the dispelling of old illusions cast in the guise of uniforms and badges.

Tweet away, NYPD….for all the good it will do you.

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About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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