Big Brother vs. public safety

Image via <a href=In a previous post I questioned the value of a Twittering police department not following its followers back. The response from @ShawneePD (actually the city of Shawnee, Oklahoma‘s Chief Information Officer, Stephen Nolen): most followers deem it too “Big Brother.”

Point well made. Especially in light of this article from the U.K. Overwhelmingly positive in its portrayal of social media’s ability to start groundswells of citizen support and action, the article made a brief mention of law enforcement protest monitoring:

The principles of “flashmobbing” – impromptu gatherings of people, arranged by text message, for mass pillow fights or silent discos – is now being used by protesters too. It allows large groups of people to gather in one place at short notice before the authorities have the chance to block their efforts.

… In the weeks leading up to the G20 summit, the police have been monitoring these sites in an effort to stay one step ahead of the protesters. One senior officer warned it could turn in to a “cat and mouse” game around the streets of London, with police trying to stop incidents, organised hastily and online, as they flare up.

So yes. I do see the point of not following your followers back. However much respect the public may have for police, however much they support enforcement of laws, a person’s choice to engage in activities based on deeply held beliefs is a matter of First Amendment rights.

The need for monitoring

Yet mass protests are still a matter of public safety. At the very least, large crowds have the ability to block traffic. At worst, you get the 1999 World Trade Organization riots. Crowd control is necessary, and to control it, you have to know where it is.

So, while it may not be advisable to follow the most vocal of tweeting protesters, agencies that anticipate a large crowd of any kind—missing-child vigil, or post-athletic event celebrations—may want to stay on top of Twitter.

This can be done using both hashtags and generic terms, such as the names of prominent hubs where people may be drawn to congregate (street and/or building names), event/individual names, and so on. (Remember that not everyone remembers to use a hashtag; generic terms can be misspelled; not everyone follows the same conventions, for instance using both G-20 and G20.)

Don’t have time to devote to staying on top of manual searches? Use a service like Monitter, which pulls in tweets based on up to three user-defined search terms. A brand-new service, Yahoo! Sideline, allows you to customize groups according to a variety of keywords. In other words, just as you might use TweetDeck to group “PDs” you follow, Sideline would let you group a series of keywords or phrases.

Protecting everyone’s rights

It’s likely that at least some members of the public will still call this “Big Brother.” But if using social media is about listening to your customers—the people who benefit from your products and services—then it should be possible to back up your reasoning with a well-thought-out blog entry or editorial. Monitoring a protest enables faster response to criminal activities that do take place; monitoring a vigil for a crime victim may help catch the perpetrator. In short, it’s a way to ensure everyone’s rights remain secure.

Image: Rev Dan Catt via Flickr

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