Every minute, roughly 350,000 tweets are born, ranging in content from entertaining to informative to pure noise. It’s no surprise that this “tsunami of information,” as Martin Gurri calls it, is leading to confusion and frustration that manifests itself in a breakdown of trust in public institutions. Americans’ trust in their government is more fragile than ever, and the kaleidoscope of realities on social media is undermining what’s left of it.
As everyone from tech companies to the federal government tries to shape this torrent of information, activists are calling for one group in particular to butt out of the conversation altogether: law enforcement. They have even coined a word, “copaganda,” to delegitimize anything being said or posted on social media by someone in uniform.
This progressive branding exercise is not only false but dangerous. When police post photos of the gun used by a supposedly “unarmed” civilian shot by them, or when they follow up decontextualized video clips of an incident with the full dashcam footage, they are giving the public the opportunity to evaluate all the information available, rather than just unverified information that goes viral after a high-profile incident.
In some ways, police departments view social media in much the same way they view body cameras. They greeted both technologies with suspicion initially but eventually embraced them, realizing that they can now tell a story through their eyes and enhance transparency and community relations in the process. You can’t help but wonder whether, if police in Ferguson, Missouri, had had greater access to body cameras and social media, the aftermath to the Michael Brown shooting would have been different.
Messaging and social media outreach by police departments are built on the understanding that community relations are a pillar of good policing and vital for any organization that relies on public trust to carry out its duties. It is so critical that the 2015 post-Ferguson report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing from the Obama administration dedicated an action item to encouraging police to use social media effectively, noting that “false or incorrect statements made via social media, mainstream media, and other means of technology deeply harm trust and legitimacy and can only be overcome with targeted and continuing community engagement and repeated positive interaction.”
Radical activists see positive police interaction, whether online or offline, as “problematic.” Crime-prevention information that can save money and lives? Fearmongering. Cops helping local teenagers? Exploitation of minors. Radical activists characterize any attempt to connect with residents in a non-enforcement setting as a cynical ploy orchestrated by a police PR machine. A group in San Francisco recently shut down a cops and kids ice cream event by shouting “F*** the Police” and pressuring the small business owner who hosted it.
Fortunately, many departments are doing great work connecting with their communities online and receiving daily feedback from residents—but what happens if any of the nation’s 18,000 police agencies uses its voice dishonestly? I’m of the unfashionable opinion that social media users are savvier than many think. If police departments put out a false narrative, people can and should call them out. But if you cry “misinformation” at the sight of police scooping out ice cream for kids or tweeting an incident debrief, it will be harder to take you seriously when you do have a point.
Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images