The matter revolves around complaints that the helicopter has received, across Twitter, from members of the public upset by the noise the helicopter makes. Such complaints are not uncommon. As a regular contributor to my own forces account I am well aware of how the tweet complaints / questions come in when the chopper is overhead someones home. They will vary from basic questions such as ‘what’s happening in x’ or concerns like ‘the helicopter is overhead. Should I be worried?’ We also get complaints about noise and these are predominantly at night. Nobody wants a disturbed nights sleep and the noise from the helicopters can upset many people.
Yet the crux of the issue is not the complaints that have been made but the way they have been responded to. When a tweet to an account is replied to it will automatically put the original tweeters @ name at the beginning of the reply. Otherwise the original tweeter may not see the account has replied. However, such a reply would not appear on the timeline of every other follower the replying account has. The tweet is there to be seen if people go looking and drill down into the account but it won’t show on followers timelines because it starts with ‘@’.
If you put any text whatsoever before the ‘@’ symbol on a reply then the tweet will go to the timeline of every single follower the account has. So what have MPSinTheSky done? When they replied to at least 3 tweeters they put a full stop (a dot) before the ‘@’ symbol.. like this.
. @anyuser… reply reply reply.
In the Guardian report the Met Police are quoted as saying
The Metropolitan police said the @MPSinthesky account was designed “to engage with its followers and other Twitter users who raise questions about its work”, adding that it added a character before the @ symbol “so that @MPSinthesky followers continue to be informed of the incidents the ASU are involved in”.
In itself this response seems fairly laudable. So looking at the tweets it seems, at a quick glance that it is something that the account does. Here is an example of how they have replied to a tweeter but using a dot have put an image on the timeline of all their followers that may be of interest.
They have replied to the tweet and added the image for all to see. There really is no problem with this. So then we have to look at one of the tweets that has been raised as a problem.
In this tweet we can see that the user Sarah has posted a fairly light hearted tweet about the noise overhead.
The reply again has the dot added and goes to every followers timeline. Yet the reply is loaded with sarcasm. To be fair it’s the sort of sarcasm that officers use on a daily basis amongst themselves but don’t generally voice to the public. So was it right to use such sarcasm and was it right to (dot) the tweet and share with all?
Many times as a traffic cop I have politely told a member of the public that the road is closed and no they cannot go that way. When I have spoken to colleagues I may have expressed my frustration at how some people are incapable of reading signs and understanding why the cones are all the way across the road. This is common and is not unique to the police. Staff who deal with a nasty customer in a shop will no doubt remain polite and then voice their anger and frustration to other staff later.
This is the rub of the issue with the tweets. The first example is a little unorthodox in twitter parlance but ok. The second example has a tone of voice that would normally be kept for private conversation with colleagues. This is then exacerbated by the fact that the MPSinTheSky have chosen to share that sarcasm with 91k followers.
Is the MPSinTheSky therefore responsible for the replies that have been engendered. In some ways yes they are. They chose to (dot) the tweet and shared that sarcasm. Social media users do regularly pick up on such posts and the replies then follow. Those replies can be supportive or go straight into criticising the complainer. This has clearly happened in this case.
So what should they have posted? They should have simply replied;
“Sorry to have disturbed you Sarah. We were helping @MPSWandsworth find a suspect with a knife.”
This is polite. It contains the same information without the sarcasm and is not going to every single follower of their account.
The action of putting the (dot) before the tweet in this complaint case is akin to saying ‘I know most of you support us and our fight against crime… but look at what this idiot is saying’ – That is clearly not a message that we as the police should be publishing.
So going back to the quoted Met statement. A quick review of the account shows the use of the (dot) on a few occasions but as you scroll back there are none. This is borne out by an examination of the recent tweets but also because if they had been doing this for a long time then the complaint, as made, would have come much earlier. The statement from the Met is therefore either announcing a ‘new policy’ on how they tweet (they haven’t said this) or is a damage limitation exercise.
So what happens now. The fact that the MPSinTheSky account did not respond demonstrates a state of panic. Maybe they missed it amongst all the mentions? Possible but I find that a bit hard to believe. The silence tends to suggest that the mistake is realised and they either do not know what to do about it or have been told not to by the Comms team.
Are the MPSinTheSky responsible for the mysogynistic tweets? In simple terms, no. They cannot account for what other people may tweet but it is blatantly clear that they could have prevented it happening in the first place by not posting the tweets.
In reality the account is a good one. They have a strong following and regularly post engaging and informative tweets. They have made a mistake. They have inappropriately applied sarcasm to a small number of tweets and then exacerbated it by sharing with all their followers.
Advice is needed. An apology would go a long way too. They should then get on with doing the good job they do on a daily basis.
Are MPSinTheSky on the skids? No. Error is the discipline through which we all advance. They should be allowed to learn from this incident, move on and become even better as a consequence.