Police in Washington are asking the public to stop tweeting during shootings and manhunts to avoid accidentally telling the bad guys what officers are doing.
The “Tweet Smart” campaign was begun in late July by a coalition of nine agencies, including the Washington State Patrol and Seattle police, and aims to raise awareness about social media’s potential impact on law enforcement.
Some have called the effort a step that could lead to censorship. Others dismissed it as silly. Police, however, say it’s just a reminder at a time when cellphones and social networks can hasten the lightning-quick spread of information.
A social media expert at the International Association of Chiefs of Police said she’s unaware of similar awareness campaigns elsewhere, but the problem that prompted the outreach is growing.
“All members of the public may not understand the implications of tweeting out a picture of SWAT team activity,” said Nancy Kolb, who oversees the Alexandria, Virginia, organization’s Center for Social Media.
“It’s a real safety issue, not only for officers but anyone in the vicinity,” Kolb said.
Kolb said she is not aware of any social media post that has led to the injury of a police officer, but she said there have been a few close calls. Other times, tweets have interfered with investigations.
In those cases, police tweet back and ask people to back off.
Kolb said citizen journalists generally respond well when the reasons are explained.
“It’s not that they don’t want the public to share information,” she said. “It’s the timing of it.”
Social media speculation and reports challenged Boston police during the search for the marathon bombers.
Two recent incidents led the Washington State Patrol to organize the “Tweet Smart” campaign: the search for a gunman in Canada after three officers were killed and a shooting at a high school near Portland, Oregon.
“I saw it personally as far back as Lakewood,” said State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins, referring to social media traffic during the manhunt for a man wanted for killing four officers in 2009.
At the time, people speculated online about why police were combing a Seattle park while a search was on for the man, Calkins said.
Seattle photographer Michael Holden said he saw a direct path between asking people not to share crime photos and eventually forbidding them to take them.
Holden said citizens have good reasons to take pictures of police and he does not worry about criminals using social media to find out what law enforcement is doing.
“I think the criminals are probably having more pressing concerns than checking Twitter,” he said.
Perry Merriel, a trucker from Ephrata, said he’s not sure why the public needs a reminder to follow common sense on social media. “They are putting their lives on the line for you,” he said.