Each morning when I wake up, one of the first things I do is grab my phone. I start my day by reading though several news sites to see what is going on in the world. Next, I go through my emails. Eventually, I end up looking through my social media accounts. Often, I discover this is not the best way to start my day.
When I started using social media over a decade ago, it was to catch up with old friends and keep in contact with current ones. As my cadre of social media “friends” increased over the years, I realized that most of them were actually acquaintances, and I really had to think hard to remember how I know some of them. Social media has made for some very interesting relationships. There are people whom I used to only know vaguely but now know very thoroughly, due to their frequent posts. These are people I would otherwise have known only in passing in my normal life.
While Facebook and Instagram have given me deep views into my acquaintances’ private lives, Twitter is unique in its ability to give me detailed views of individuals’ thoughts on politics and events happening throughout the world. While both Facebook and Instagram are of a more personal nature, Twitter is an open political form. I follow politicians, news reporters, law enforcement agencies and fellow police unions. Very few of my real friends have Twitter, so nearly all of the people I follow are people I barely know. I follow them for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge about their views of the world. I often gain valuable information by following politicians and the news media on Twitter. Reporters frequently tweet information long before a story can be written, edited and posted on a news site. Politicians post their talking points, priorities and agenda in much more detailed versions than are covered in news stories. Just as Facebook can give you a deep view of a distant acquaintance’s personal life, Twitter can give you a deep understanding of the agendas and political feelings of those in power whom you interact with.
Social media can be used not only to glean information, but also to push out important information. Relying on TV and print media to push out information can be ineffective, in that the media strongly filters what you give them. Often, I find a detailed interview or carefully crafted press release turned into a story that sounds like “The cops are evil, but the union says they aren’t, but they really are.” Social media allows me to bypass traditional media and reach people directly with my full and unedited message. Many departments and associations are now finding that they can effectively communicate directly to citizens without having their messages edited by the traditional media.
While social media has its benefits, it can also be a place of danger. In our hyper-politicized world, I read many posts from both friends and strangers that cause me to have strong reactions. My instinct is to engage, correct their erroneous beliefs, set them straight and win them over to my way of thinking. Many times, I have written long, detailed responses, which, smartly, I have later deleted. I realize that by engaging, I will only invite point and counterpoint, never actually changing anyone’s beliefs or opinions. I do not recall ever reading a social media thread where the original poster has changed their mind after reading the counterpoint replies. There seem to be endless threads where people who disagree just argue past each other without considering the other person’s viewpoint.
As law enforcement professionals, we must be very careful what we post about and who we engage with on social media. An errant or misunderstood post can have devastating effects on you, your agency and the law enforcement community at large. Even if you think you are in a “private group” or communicating with “friends,” you are not. There is no such thing as a private social media group, and anything you post could easily end up being made public. Your post could get you fired, your agency embarrassed and the image of all law enforcement officers tainted. You may ask, “What about my First Amendment rights?” You have chosen to work for the government, and as such, your employer does have some control over your speech. As the Massachusetts Supreme Court wrote in 1892, you “have a constitutional right to talk politics, but [you have] no constitutional right to be a policeman.” Your employer does have a fairly broad right to control your speech, both on and off duty, especially if it reflects negatively on your department.
Regardless of whether your political beliefs are on the right or left, whether you love the president or hate him, no matter how eloquent you think your response is, I strongly encourage you to avoid making controversial posts or being baited into pointless debates. You are not going to change anyone’s mind, and it could wind up hurting your career. Do not post anything that you would not want to see screenshotted and posted in the media, or printed out and handed to you during an internal affairs interview. Personally, I am tired of all the political posts. I want to go back to the time when social media was about being social, and posts were just photos of people’s kids, pets and vacations.