In late April, the New York Police Department (NYPD) launched an informal social media campaign to improve its public reputation.
Police officers took photographs with willing members of the public who then uploaded their happy snaps to Twitter with ‘#myNYPD’. Soon enough, the NYPD’s remarkable lack of foresight was evident when their humble tag was reclaimed nationwide to expose all manner of police brutality. Occupy Wall Street was first to get the tag trending, wittily paralleling the hollow sincerity of the NYPD with a photo of a young African-American man crushed against a car by a mob of policemen accompanied by the line “Free Massages from the #NYPD. What does your police department offer?” Thousands of photos and retweets later the saga was picked up by national media outlets and deemed the #D’oh NYPD Twitter campaign. Whilst the result was humorous, the NYPD’s campaign to reform public will through social media brings to attention a general trend in policing.
In early May, Sydney University academics Professor Murray Lee and Dr Alyce McGovern released Policing and Media, a book that explores the relationship between the Australian police force, the media, and the public. Using case studies from the Queensland floods through to ‘Operation Eyewatch’, a neighbourhood watch initiative of the NSW Police, the book explores the reasons for and implications of police media output.
But beyond those official, traditional channels, it is important to recognise that police media output now extends to smaller scales. Now that every protestor has an iPhone 5 to shakily document the riot squad bashing up their best friend, police have started bringing their own cameras for documentation purposes. This means that for every two-minute Youtube clip of a protestor being pounded to pulp by the police, there is another clip of the police acting respectfully: filmed, edited and uploaded by the police. It seems relatively harmless – surely the police have a right to represent their perspective? All good media requires balance.
But there is no balance in the relationship between police and those they use force against. The police have access to mainstream media that investigate stories and, to some extent, balance perspectives. Social media, however, is unregulated. The dissemination of information should be democratic, but the police, as an authoritative state institution, will always be perceived as more credible. This allows them to undermine the voices of those who are beaten, cuffed and silenced.
The format of social media also dilutes critical perspectives. Viewers do not realise that a Youtube video by the NSW Police Force is as much propaganda as a comment from the Police Commissioner. In the aftermath of a protest, even if there is a ten minute video of police behaving appropriately, giving it airtime is problematic in that it encourages the belief that it’s good enough for police to be doing their job most of the time. The police should be held to a higher standard than that. This is made difficult when police have extensive control of traditional media through news outlets, propagandising TV shows like RBT and Recruits, and your Facebook news feed.
If the NYPD debacle teaches us anything, it is that it will be decades before police can as seamlessly propagandise through social media as they have through traditional media. Hashtags and statuses will likely always be the domain of the young and dissident. But not every attempt by the police will be as mismanaged as the #myNYPD campaign, and we ought to be cautious of the intention behind police media output or we may lose the critical dialogue that keeps our police force in check.