The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Stephen Jeffares: Policing by Hootsuite: How social media management tools mediate encounters between front line police and local citizens

Stephen Jeffares, University of Birmingham

Like many public service organisations in the developed world, the police have incorporated social media channels as a means of two-way communication with the local citizens they serve (Crump 2011, Meijer and Torenvlied 2014). The increasing use of social media by both police corporate communications and indeed front-line officers comes at a time when the public services are embracing digital era governance (Dunleavy et al 2006) seeking to channel-shift away from costly face to face interaction in order to meet budgetary pressures (Kernaghan 2005). The growth of mobile internet connected devices has enabled local citizens to report crimes, comment on events and ask for help on social media channels. The reporting of crimes is a moot point, for while police force social media accounts warn in their bios “Do not use Twitter to report crime” people do and on a daily basis. As service users, citizens are now accustomed to the likes of airlines, energy companies and telecommunications operators actively engaging with customer requests across social media channels. A growing number of citizens, it seems, have expectations of public service providers to follow suit. In addition, as public services embrace the opportunity to disseminate news and appeals for help, a growing proportion of citizens share, comment and debate content posted by public service agencies across social media.

In order to manage scheduling, posting and in-bound service requests public service agencies, like their private sector counterparts, use social media management software tools (Charest and Bouffard 2015). Although the functionality of these tools varies, they resemble dashboards, where posts can be scheduled and several feeds or streams monitored, filters set, alerts activated and referrals made. Although social media management of this kind is now well established, it has attracted relatively little attention from public administration research (Jeffares 2014). This is curious given the potential role for these tools to mediate what is seen, by whom, when and how. While research to date has focused on the frequency, sentiment and content of public service related social media activity (e.g. van de Velde 2015), the mediating role of tools at the interface between citizens and front line workers has been somewhat overlooked (Tummers and Rocco 2015). In response this paper asks two questions: how do police and communications officers manage front line social media encounters with citizens? And second, what role does the design of social media management tools play in mediating such encounters?

In addition to focusing in on police work, the paper concentrates on three common forms of encounter that takes place daily between police and citizens across social media. Each of the three forms of encounter pose distinct challenges on the police service. The first type of encounter is “Citizens Attest” where a citizen reports an incident to their local police service, sometimes with a location, photograph or video to back-up their claim. The second type of encounter is Cry-Wolf, like the Citizens Attest the citizen is reporting, but more critically asking for help. The timeline and profile of the citizen suggests such requests are frequently and suggest a hoax request. The third is Pillory-Fight, and results from arguments that erupt following the common practice of local police services sharing news of recent convictions of a local offender on social media. The celebratory posting of the police record photograph (mug-shot) and news of conviction can result in controversy about age, gender or commonly race. In all three types of encounter the police service, from the outside at least, appear to remain silent. In some cases of Citizen-Attest the user will receive a reply requesting they report the incident to a non-emergency number but it can appear as if nobody from the police is listening or monitoring these encounters.

By combining established design principles of front line ethnographic study (Tummers et al 2015) with online text analytics (Jeffares 2014) this paper goes behind the scenes in a large police force, interviewing and shadowing both communications and police officers as they monitor social media communications to explore if and how the three types of encounter are managed. The paper then reflects further on the role the software in this regard. For instance how does the tool support processes of reply and reporting in the case of Citizens-Attest? Support processes of filtering and referral in Cry-Wolf? Support processes of moderation and policing of Pillory-Fight? Furthermore, how do these “supported processes” of reply, report, filtering, referral, moderation and policing speak to a broader agenda around algorithm assisted decision-making.


Crump, J. (2011). What are the police doing on Twitter? Social media, the police and the public. Policy & Internet, 3(4), 1-27. 

Charest, F., & Bouffard, J. (2015). The characteristics of the e-influence of Community Managers: Issues for the e-reputation of organizations. Public Relations Review, 41(2), 302-304.

Dunleavy, P., Margetts, H., Bastow, S., & Tinkler, J. (2006). New public management is dead—long live digital-era governance. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 16(3), 467-494.

Jeffares. S. (2014) Interpreting Hashtag Politics: Policy Ideas in an Era of Social Media. London: Palgrave.

Kernaghan, K. (2005). Moving towards the virtual state: integrating services and service channels for citizen-centred delivery. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 71(1), 119-131.

Meijer, A. J., & Torenvlied, R. (2014). Social Media and the New Organization of Government Communications An Empirical Analysis of Twitter Usage by the Dutch Police. The American Review of Public Administration, 0275074014551381.

Tummers, L. L., Bekkers, V., Vink, E., & Musheno, M. (2015). Coping during public service delivery: A conceptualization and systematic review of the literature. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, muu056.

Tummers, L., & Rocco, P. (2015). Serving Clients When the Server Crashes: How Frontline Workers Cope with E‐Government Challenges. Public Administration Review.

van de Velde, B., Meijer, A., & Homburg, V. (2015). Police message diffusion on Twitter: analysing the reach of social media communications. Behaviour & Information Technology, 34(1), 4-16.

Stephen Jeffares