This Is Your Brain Online: The NYPD Twitter backlash

By Carl Miller

The NYPD was caught in an embarrassing Twitter backlash this week. New Yorkers were asked to Tweet a picture of themselves with police officers to show, on #myNYPD, how close the police service was to its citizens. The hashtag became, as one user called it, a 'smashtag' as it was hijacked by people tweeting pictures of officers engaged in alleged police brutality, or, in one example, apparently frisking a dog.    

This is not the first PR campaign on Twitter to backfire. Domino's #gamechanger campaign was met with derision (the game changer was a square base), whilst McDonald’s #McDStories became an opportunity for people to share their worst, rather than best happy meal memories. KFC's #iatethebones became a Hannibal Lecter meme, Durex had to shut down its poll for which city was most in need of 'instant protection', while Kenneth Cole, a shoe retailer, received a backlash for its catch phrase 'boots on the ground'.         

British political parties will be eyeing all this nervously. All three will be planning to use Twitter heavily in the run up to the general election next year to connect with voters and galvanise volunteers. Each must know what damage can be done if Twitter explodes in their face.

Twitter, as a powerful if volatile new medium, has three broad characteristics that make it a minefield for campaigning. 

Appropriation – Very simply, people use Twitter on their own terms. This is, in fact, the core animating principle of social media: people are able to craft and spread the messages that matter to them. Organisations might feel that their messages, #tags or promotional invitations are being hijacked by Twitter-users, but this is in fact the whole point of Twitter. People use the platform precisely because it gives them this power.

Virality – The word 'viral' is nowadays used a lot, but it links to an older idea that we are influenced by the behaviour of the people we are socially connected to, and that because of this, certain behaviours – everything from how we look to whether we are obese – are copied, replicated and spread through social networks.

Viral transmission isn't limited to social media, but these new digital platforms provide a new ecosystem for species of idea most suited of all to be virally transmitted: the meme. Memes are ideas – often symbols or images – that have evolved to be particularly good at convincing us to spread them. From Psy's Gangnam Style to Lolcats, these images explode from obscurity to ubiquity literally overnight.

Power laws – The consequence of viral transmission is that, a bit like a runaway mine cart, if a Tweet does start picking up speed, it is likely to go faster and faster as it bounces from one social network to the next. Most tweets don't go around the world, of course, (I wish I was retweeted a little more frequently), but a small number do.

We often describe this as a power law, where a small number of tweets (or indeed, any micro-blog) account for the vast majority of retweets. Twitter is actually full of power laws. A small number of accounts are much more followed than anyone else. A small number of users are responsible for the vast majority of tweets. The 80-20 tends to hold on Twitter: 20% of users are responsible for 80% of content.

The scary thing for organisations is that it is incredibly hard to know which tweets will spread and which won't. One of the things successful memes have in common is that they 'interrupt' our browsing habits; they are funny or shocking enough to make us sit up and take notice. Memes can only be shocking if they are in an important sense different to what came before it, and therefore different from other memes.

These three attributes taken together make for a pretty scary landscape for parties to step into. They have little control over the messages people produce and know that any tweet has the potential to go around the world and turn their candidate into a laughing stock.

Many organisations attempt to prevent this by tightening control: producing wooden, legalistic tweets that read as if each has been written by a committee and personally signed off by a CEO. These tend to backfire in the opposite direction: no one shares them or cares about them. The most successful political voices on social media – Stella Creasy, Tom Watson, Douglas Carswell – are independent voices: funny, personal and sometimes irreverent.

As the parties prepare for 2015, they'll be preparing for an election where they'll have abdicated, whether they like it or not, a great degree of control in how their messages are spread. They will have to genuinely accept that 'engagement' is now a two-way street, and lots of people won't be reading from the same script.

If people are Tweeting pictures of brutality, or angry comments to politicians, they are trying to say something. Success in 2015 will depend on how each party manages to swim with this tide, loosen their grip on communications and, above all, get better at the other side of engagement: listening.

Carl Miller is the founding research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos. It is the first think tank institute dedicated to researching digital society.

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