Another police-Twitter scandal over the weekend. The feed of 17 year old Paris Brown, the first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner, contained some pretty stupid things she'd tweeted a couple of years ago. This is a new genre of story: public-servant-said-something-silly-on-Twitter. As more of us determine that our thoughts deserve to be shared with the world via social media, it will become more common. In a brilliant spoof, the Onionreported that the every potential 2040 presidential candidate is "now unelectable due to Facebook".
For what little it's worth, I think Paris showed a fair measure of decency and courage to get out in front the country's media yesterday to apologise. She is only 17. Maybe I am being too generous because, like Paris, I used to live in Sheerness, so I'm defending a fellow Islander. But whether you like it or not, a lot of teenagers talk trash on social media. And if the idea of a Youth PCC is to connect particularly disengaged, disinterested young people with the police, Paris might actually be a pretty good person to do that - especially after this experience.
Anyway, for some reason, police misuse of Twitter is a particular popular branch of this news genre. I released a report on police use of social media last month, and the truth is the British Police are actually rather good on Twitter. Nearly all forces have feeds. The Met Twitter account has almost 100,000 followers, and Greater Manchester Police over 120,000. Some forces have multiple accounts for towns, boroughs, neighbourhood forces. West Midlands Police lists 157 of them. Many individual officers have one too. Given the sheer number of accounts, remarkably few of them do silly things.
In fact, Twitter is being mostly used to inform the public rapidly and directly about things going on in their area. Staffordshire Police have been using Twitter for dispelling bogus rumours since 2010, starting with dealing with English Defence League protests and counter-protest. West Midlands Force used social media and particularly Twitter to counter rumours of an attack on the police station by posting 'twitpics' of officers standing outside the station. Nottinghamshire and Greater Manchester Police used social media in a similar way to provide reassurance and appeals for information during the August 2011 disorder, with a great deal of success. And our work found that the majority of people that follow police accounts are local to that force - suggestive that they are seen as a useful source of local information.
So don't be put off by Paris - follow your local force. You might be surprised.