Blue light? Red light.

Yesterday afternoon this tweet [screengrab above, in case it gets deleted] popped into my stream, as a result of a RT from a friend. This friend has thousands of followers, and tends to pick content with care, so it caught my eye.

I’ve been interested in this type of message for a long time now. I wrote a piece over three years ago about the consequences of asking people, en masse, to amplify a lost person message – along with some suggestions on safeguards that might help us hang to some of the benefits but minimise wasted time and miscommunication.

I took a closer look at the account behind this tweet, @policeuk, because of its name. UK policing is one of those sectors that has its own .uk domain (like nhs.uk, mod.uk etc). In the case of the police, the website Police.UK has a highly distinctive branding as a primary source of official crime and policing information online.

So, not unreasonably, I concluded that @policeuk was so similar to the “official” brand as to be of genuine concern.

What is the @policeuk account? It claims to be a “Breaking news” feed – amplifying stories related to policing. Nothing wrong with that by itself. There are tons of accounts doing similar things. Good luck to them. But the weight given by “RT @policeuk…” seems to be a pretty powerful accelerant. That tweet’s currently had over 1,200 RTs.

Sadly, in this case, it was all too late. A body had been found, but no update or clarification had followed. That’s bad. Perhaps worse, a few hours before this tweet was sent, the real police had issued a press release asking the public not to get involved in search activity, adding to the irresponsibility of this tweet. (Yes, that’s right, that link 404s. Humberside have clearly adopted the Argyll & Bute school of media handling. For their full press release archive, try here. Oh, wait…)

Anyway, the RTing continued uncontrollably…

Back to the @policeuk account. Its output is pretty odd. There are links to random news stories which may or may not be “police”-related. (Most news stories, are of course, in one way of another). But there’s also some weird stuff asking followers to comment on The Sun and Those Nude Harry Pics. [Update 28 Aug: this tweet has since been deleted]

And perhaps oddest of all is the account bio: #AntiWinsorNetwork we are not associated with the police in any way shape or form. tweets by @gonzomedia [NB. that disassociation statement was added after I started making noises about the account yesterday]

AntiWinsorNetwork? Wossat then? As far as I’ve established, it’s a grass roots policing community campaigning brand that arose at the time of the Winsor review into police pay and conditions.

Read that bio again: “we use the tag of a policing-related campaign, but have no connection…” er, m’kay…

And who are @gonzomedia? A self-proclaimed media organisation – with a website that doesn’t work. Hmm. They’re not this GonzoMedia, anyway.

So is this really worth making a fuss about? Some worthless content gets RTd a lot? Lots of people waste lots of time on the internet? That’s hardly news. And it’s not going to be stopped by a few whiny tweets and a blog post.

Except this one really is a problem. There’s a definite quality-by-association issue. This is the gem of a “retraction” that was finally published:

And is it beyond the realms of possibility that @policeuk could become recognised as a twitter brand that people start to turn to for help, or to report Serious Things? I think it’s highly possible. And that would be criminal.

If the GonzoMedia(.co.uk) people really want to build their brand using like this, I suggest:

  • change the account name to avoid the “PoliceUK” formulation
  • put something along the lines of NewsFeed into the account name
  • take the word “Police” off the account profile picture (and preferably the pseudo-emergency-services design)
  • either lose the hashtag or the claim that the account isn’t police-related from the bio – both together are incoherent
  • [optional] have some sort of content strategy, and quality control
  • And if they don’t do these things, I fully expect the Home Office, ACPO, NPIA, or any of a number of other relevant organisations (who are all now aware of this issue) to have it taken down sharpish. I haven’t got going on the Facebook page, but it’s going to need similar scrutiny.

    It’s not a question of free speech.

    It’s much more important than that. [pace Shankly]


    Update 28 Aug, 8am

    I see that during the night @policeuk/Breaking News (Police) announced its demise*. Well, not quite. It announced on Twitter that it wasn’t tweeting any more, because of my post. And on Facebook it did the same, but went a bit further and invited its contacts to give their opinions on whether it should stay or not. (The comments make fascinating reading.)

    Personally, I’m saddened. I had no idea they’d suffered “5 days of constant abuse and campaigns” by trolls. After all, I only spotted the account about 5pm on Sunday afternoon. Whoever gave them the other 3½ days of grief should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves!

    Read this slowly, Facebook visitors and other newcomers: there is no trolling. There is no abuse. There is a bit of gentle piss-taking, because this is the internet.

    And there is a challenge to its branding, based solely on the way the word “police” is being used, with some clear suggestions on what it could do to fix this and carry on exactly as it has been. I also suggest that if it chooses not to, it’s very likely to attract official interest. Pointing those things out is not “trolling“.

    Oh, I’ve just noticed the Facebook URL. facebook.com/policeuk? No, I don’t think so. That should go too. I’m sure NPIA have an eye on this one too now.

    If you are now desperately missing real police output, can I suggest you go and find your local force page? They look like this. Or a Twitter account like this? The latter all have, or should have, a blue tick indicating they are genuine. Or go and get your newsy fix from, well, a real news organisation. There are plenty about. They have (mostly) responsible approaches to reporting, fact-checking, timely coverage and that sort of stuff. And if you want to bellyache about coppers with like-minded people, you’ll find a space.

    (Interestingly, having seen some references in those comments, it seems the same outfit is responsible for Breaking News Teesside. Fine. No problems with that. It seems hugely popular. It’s giving people a space to talk [cough] about local Newsy things. It’s another thing that the internet is there for. So it’s not like they don’t know how to do this.)

    And if all those are too official, or propaganda-ish, do please set up your own bear-pit online space. Just don’t put “police” in the name.

    All clear?

    *if visiting from a Facebook link, this means “end”.


    A final update: 29 Aug, 11am

    Well, there we are. After a whole 24 hours** of flouncing and muting, they’re back. Not sure who these “haters” are, to be honest. Critics, well, that’s a different matter.

    Now, is this my problem? Nah. I suspect there are quite a few within the policing community who are now taking a good look at the branding issues involved. Over to them. I will await with interest what happens, and will post any updates here.

    I guess there are some for whom an issue like this could become an overwhelming, illiberal, ranting crusade. But I’m not one of them.

    **though in the compressed timescales of the guy behind these, he probably thinks he put his toys down for at least a month.


    Really, really final update: 11pm

    Fascinating link from February 2012, from the Mirror. Read it for yourselves. But note that even a national newspaper (ok, not the brightest, but hey) said: “they wormed their way into a police Twitter account…” Well. That looks like form, as they say. And perhaps a piece of evidence to support what the case set out above. They were hacked, they say. Yeah, yeah, tell that to the judge.

    Central or decentral?

    Yes, nice easy question. Should be a short post.

    One of the debates that stuck in my mind at the UK GovCamp 10 came from a session hosted by Alastair Smith. Ostensibly about the ‘UK snow’* and what that had meant for the likes of local authorities in delivering services and information. At least that’s what I think it was about. One can never quite tell with unconferences.

    The difficult issue of managing information in disrupted conditions. One of my favourite subjects, be it weather, strikes, train disruptions or pandemics.

    “How to tell people about school closures” is an excellent example.

    Why’s it so difficult? Here’s a little list:

    It’s a highly localised decision. It’s taken by the headteacher of a school, often at short notice. What if they’re stuck in snow, or can’t communicate their decision to anyone? We’re talking about disruption here, remember?

    It’s highly time critical: if the information is to be useful it has to be delivered in the very tight window between decision and parents’ departure for school (or rearrangement of childcare, or whatever) and almost by definition this will be outside normal working hours.

    There are no obligations or penalties associated with how well it’s done. (There may be a motivating issue about OFSTED reporting of absence, but I consider that secondary to the actual information process, so am discounting it from this analysis.)

    There is no consistent, expected place to find the information. In some areas schools brief local authorities, in others local authorities brief local radio, there are numerous instances of online information, but little in the way of standardised approach.

    Kids are involved. Kids who may just have a conflict of interest were there to be any opportunity to game the information. Just possibly.

    A variety of tools are used to try and get the message out: from notifications that are actively sent to parents (by SMS, email or phone) – so-called information ‘push’; to information made available for consumption (by web, radio or pinned to the school gates) – the ‘pull’ side. Some parents and schools have developed cascade networks, formal or informal, to pass on the message. Others haven’t.

    Do we have any plus sides? Well, the only one of note is that snow closure is usually predicted, to a greater or lesser extent. Something I suspect that fuels even more ire when information management fails. Surely, we cry, they must have know this might happen? Why weren’t they prepared?

    Accustomed behaviours are highly personal. Parents have become used to a particular information channel, be it the radio or the web, and any changes to that will cause even more confusion, at least at first.

    All complex stuff – did someone say that public service information management was easy?

    But where the GovCamp discussion got most interesting was when we tackled the nub of the problem – the overarching philosophy of whether it was worth trying to centralise information at all in such circumstances. Even at the highest level, opinion is divided between attempting to centralise so that information can all be consumed in one place, and ensuring that it is maintained as locally as possible to guarantee its speed and accuracy.

    For there are classic trade-offs in this decision. There is no unequivocal ‘right’ answer.

    Get it to a central point of consumption (or data feed that can be consumed elsewhere) by whatever communications protocols and brute force pressures you can: advantage – easy to find; disadvantage – very difficult to make foolproof, prone to error.

    Or keep it distributed, and make it easier for people to get closer to the source of the decision to get the most accurate picture: advantage – saves money, fast-when-it-works, accurate; disadvantage – hit-and-miss, accessibility, findability.

    The list of challenges above should make it clear why this is far from the trivial information management problem that some might assume. One chap in the GovCamp session maintained that all it would take would be a firm hand of authority to be laid on headteachers to comply (“or else their school would be assumed to be open”). I fear that view represents a hopelessly outdated approach to getting things done that actually work.

    I’ll come off the fence. I think the answer to a problem like this doesn’t lie in ever more sophisticated linking and aggregation. Building big central solutions, even with a grass-roots crowdsourcing component, probably isn’t going to work.

    Instead, my experience and my gut are combining to suggest that local is the place for this information. Ubiquitously local – on school sites, via SMS, on the radio, via local authorities. Keeping them in step is the challenge: but a challenge that’s more worthy of effort than building elaborate information pipelines and monumental repositories.

    *if you’re wondering why this phrasing is used, there’s some background here – which might also show why I’m so interested in it.