#MyNYPD hastag failure: A sign that without trust Twitter does not serve as a resilient infrastructure during emergency reporting

By now the major social media failure of New York Police’s social media department has made it around the world. The well-intended pull tactic to ask citizens to tweet their best memories and share pictures with NYPD using the hashtag #MyNYPD was by an overwhelming majority of Twitter users used to send in pictures of their worst memories:

The hashtag was trending for two days in the US and created spin-off initiatives around the country and around the world:

I believe it was an honest attempt to use a tactic to actively engage citizens. Other government departments are extremely successful in asking citizens for their input or for sending in pictures, like the Department of Interior for example. There is research out there that shows that citizens feel more engaged and ‘heard’ when have options to directly get in touch with government officials through unofficial channels, such as social media.

However, what is interesting about this story is not so much that NYPD was surprised by the flood of negative images or might have misjudged the open culture of the Web. Instead, I find it much more interesting that NYPD won’t be able to rely on Twitter as a resilient infrastructure during emergency situations. Clearly, thousands of people in NY don’t trust the police in the first place and that has significant implications for outreach and preparedness messaging. If no one listens to you or even makes fun of you, how will you be able to create a trusted voice online? Who will listen in case of another hurricane that shuts down power lines? A recent Congressional hearing has shown that citizens’s cellphones were still connected to the Web and served as a lifeline during the power outage.

I believe this is an important lesson for NYPD to build a trustworthy online presence – in combination with the same offline trust of course – so that they can rely on social media during emergency situations. This has to be done between major events and not at times when citizens actually have be reached in an emergency. A tough road ahead for NYPD.

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About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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