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Why the turbulent times at Twitter matter for law enforcement

Today, more than ever, every public safety agency must strive to be the trusted source of legitimate, truthful and timely information


Spreading misinformation through “wisdom of the crowd” may become easier following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File

I’ll start this post with a disclaimer: I am not a social media expert. What I am gathering from Elon Musk’s tweets since taking over Twitter is concerning though. Let’s take a look.

On November 6 he tweeted, “Widespread verification will democratize journalism and empower the voice of the people.” That utopian view would work, if only there weren’t malicious actors, trolls, sock puppets and bots ready to pounce.

He continued, “Twitter needs to become by far the most accurate source of information about the world. That’s our mission.” Well, how do you do that when you are getting rid of a verification process, and simply monetizing it instead? Foreign governments, malicious actors and people who just plain want to see chaos will pay $8 a month. Unfortunately, many police agencies will not, or cannot. Spreading misinformation through “wisdom of the crowd” now becomes much easier.

How false narratives spread

Wisdom of the crowd strategy is simple. Let’s say one of your officers had to kill a rabid dog that was attacking someone’s pet. Most in your community would agree that was the right thing to do. But what if a malicious actor picks up the story, creates a false narrative, and then uses trolls, bots and sock puppets (fake people) to amplify this false narrative? For example, posting that this officer has killed eight dogs in four weeks, this officer is a K-9 handler, and the rabid dog was actually the playful puppy companion of a six-year-old child and wasn’t rabid at all. By using these manipulation techniques to amplify a false narrative, all of a sudden, your entire community is talking about the incident and traditional news media is calling about it.

Most people in your community don’t understand the way malicious actors and factions work. They don’t realize how manipulating the truth is easier than ever. Dr. Vince Covello, Director at the Center for Risk Communication, opines it takes a person hearing a message only four times from different sources before they come to believe it. Once people believe something, it’s hard to change their minds. Now, multiply that by thousands or hundreds of thousands of fake accounts and you can see the issue. While Twitter claimed to remove a million fake accounts each day and Facebook claims to have removed 1.6 BILLION fake accounts in the first three months of this year, it’s a never-ending battle that platforms are not winning.

There also appears to be slow-growing momentum that social media platforms will be further divided along ideological lines. So much for being able to listen to each other to understand different points of view. Again, malicious actors are rubbing their hands with glee. A divided States is much weaker than a United States, and it appears we may be playing right into their hands.

The challenge is this: Once everyone is talking about or believing a false narrative, no one knows where the fake news started, or what the truth really is – unless there is a trusted, legitimate source that can be heard above the fray.

Rumor control

Public safety communicators and leaders must watch this platform closely. PIOs should monitor social media continually and ensure they are cultivating other forms of direct and indirect communication with their communities. They should also set up rumor control pages on their websites and do their best to use images and video as much as possible, because people believe with their eyes (visuals) more than words, although even this is being challenged with deep fake videos.

Bosses, if you haven’t assigned someone (or bought social listening software), now is the time to act. Work to develop great trust within your community, with elected officials, influencers and the media; have ways to reach those audiences with your message; and develop and carefully curate your legitimacy in your community so you can call out fake information and be believed.

Lastly, add media and social media literacy to your citizen or community academies to help educate your community about how media can manipulate the truth. This could be the game changer. No one likes being misled.

Today, more than ever, every public safety agency must strive to be the trusted source of legitimate, truthful and timely information – always. Stay tuned as I fear the social media landscape is going to get uglier and even more convoluted.

NEXT: So your police department’s social post was removed for content violations

Judy Pal is the founder and principal of 10-8 Communications LLC and conducts media training, communications counsel, and virtual training for public safety across North America. She is a former assistant commissioner with the NYPD and chief of staff with both the Baltimore and Milwaukee police departments. A former broadcast journalist, she also served as head of communications for Atlanta, Savannah and Halifax (Canada) police. Learn more at