All of us who use Twitter are probably guilty on occasion of wanting to shout up about a job to highlight something we see as important – a success story where someone was helped, a criminal caught, officers who’ve acted bravely, etc.. We want to highlight our work, the pressures on us, the successes we have and help explain to the public the reality of our work and what we’re contending with as we wrestle with it – sometimes literally. In that context I want to write here about something I’ve done as much as anyone and to caution against it: therefore to the extent that this might look like a telling off – and I really hope it doesn’t – it’s one that applies to me at least as much as anyone else. It’s something (I think) I’ve stopped doing after listening to others on Twitter who live with mental health problems: live-tweeting mental health or suicide related jobs. And I mean this both in the sense of an organised live-tweetathon, for example of a kind that was once set-up and then cancelled at the last moment by a police force street-triage team; as well as the occasional live-tweet by an officer in a shift, but which is put out in real time as just one job of many they’re dealing with that day.
What harm could this cause, you may ask? We normally anonymise tweets about all the things we deal with and mental health issues are, we keep insisting, a part of our “core business”, so why shouldn’t the public learn of someone’s life we’ve saved or the hours we do spend sitting about in mental health units when all the laws and guidelines say we shouldn’t? After all, we could be at the next 999 call helping other people by then, couldn’t we?! It all comes back to the identifiability of individuals within the tweets – not that the public at large will identify the person being referred to, but the person themselves may recognise the person being referred to and we quite simply don’t know what impact that will have. Would you want one of your most desperate moments of all, broadcast without your express permission, even if the officers did take steps to minimise how likely it would be for a third-party to read it and identify you? Potentially not.
But we also know that third-party identification has occurred, despite those attempts to ‘anonymise’ things so this is not just a hypothetical risk.
It’s remarkably straight-forward: even if you tweet something without using someone’s name or age, by simply stating their gender after they have been detained, located or arrested, we’re also telling 50% of people reading, “this is not about you”. If my local police did that in my home town (Bromsgrove, Worcestershire – population c29,500), then we’re certainly narrowing down on just over 14,000 people if we’re trying to think who it may be. Although that’s still a lot of people and whilst there is the possibility Bromsgrove police have detained someone in Bromsgrove who is not from Bromsgrove, that only narrows it down further because the police do mostly detain people in their own home area, when using s136 MHA or criminal powers of arrest.
We also find other clues that narrow things down –
- General indicators of age – elderly man, young woman or teenager. We’re narrowing this number down even further:
- Of the c14,000 men in my home town, how many of those will be teenagers or pensioners – well, at any given time, most will be neither; so that excludes most men and we’ve now narrowed things down to a few thousand.
- How many times would my local force use s136 in a given day? – well, they used it 786 times in the whole of the previous year, that’s twice a day, force wide and I live in a small town in one of the three counties they cover.
If a tweet goes out about detaining an adult male in Bromsgrove under s136 and I know that I was detained on that day, it’s almost certainly me, without further information. And because I’m an individual in a tweet, not a police officer conducting a criminal inquiry, I only need to believe the tweet could be about me, for potential damage to be done.
If you scan social media on this point, you can meet people who now know that they were at the centre of a police-tweet some hours or days earlier. This has included examples of police helicopters tweeting pictures from heat-seeking equipment of their search for someone in a wooded area – the picture including that human being, just located. It has included a tweet from a small town by a twitter account connected to that town and making reference to enough vague identifiers to narrow things down quite considerably whilst telling the person just how many officers and resourced were expended on finding them – just in case they didn’t feel bad enough! << of course, we all know that wouldn’t be the intention of the officers. Police officers join and go to work every day to help people, even where there may be a view that someone has fallen between the cracks or could have been helped earlier by others. But it always risks looking like we may be describing the burdens we carry.
Other inherent qualities of a tweet narrow things down even further: if we know the timing or rough timing, the identity of the officer who responded and tweeted or anything specific about the incident. Officers may withhold all information about the patient they think is identifiable, but they themselves may be identifiable – if I’ve been helped by PC Smith at 9pm and remembered his name because of how supportive they were; and then by 10pm PC Smith is tweeting about an incident as they book off-duty, that may make me realise it’s about me, even though there’s nothing identifiable in the tweet. If police were searching for me whilst I’m missing and they find my in a difficult or unusual place and refer to it, even non-precisely, that may make me realise the tweet was about me.
And finally, there’s descriptive wording: recently a police force twitter account described a specific person who was detained as ‘volatile’. The force concerned is large, they use s136 a lot, but given it came from one of their local accounts, it narrowed things down massively and they also used the gender of the person concerned, thus ruling out half of the population. I wonder how many people of that gender were detained by that force, in that area of that force, under the MHA that evening? << Note: they even narrowed down the shift on which this took place, thus ruling out those shifts in the day when the detention did not occur.
And this is the big message that bears repeating: the risk isn’t mainly that a third-party may read something and think, “Oh, I bet that’s Billy from down the road”, but that Billy himself may read it and think, “Not sure I wanted my healthcare issues broadcast across twitter, even if they do think they’ve anonymised it. And I’m not sure I’m happy to be described as ‘volatile’ or for any inference to be out there that I’ve consumed resources apparently ‘better’ spent elsewhere on ‘real’ crime. I already felt worthless and I certainly do now every knows!”
WHAT I AM NOT SAYING
And let me repeat this point so it’s not un-said and so no-one accuses me of throwing stones from my greenhouse: I have actually done this, many times. I’ve done this more times than care to admit and it took a long while and some very real examples for the points that were made to me to sink in. When you’ve actually sat down at reasonable length with someone over a cuppa, someone who was the unwitting focus of a tweet and you’ve listened to them explain the reasons why they’d have preferred to have the option and, even then, may well have said “No, thanks” despite recognising virtuous motives, then you can say you’ve got an insight in to these kinds of issues. If you haven’t done that, you may struggle to get it. I certainly did now I’ve actually had the chance to do this more than a few times, it made me realise people on the opposite end of the police-person encounter have questions and concerns I hadn’t even thought about. Unless, I’m misjudging myself very badly, I would venture to suggest some of those things may well have escaped most police officers.
No-one, anywhere, is saying the police shouldn’t use Twitter to highlight the kind of work we do, including on mental health and this point includes highlighting difficulties, human stories and officers’ bravery on occasion – it’s all just about the way we go about this, and when. Using single incidents as the basis for a tweet, risks the kind of thing I’ve heard about a lot from people who’ve had police contact. As do single incidents at the centre of a BLOG and several years ago, I had that experience, too. I’ve got a blog in draft form, entirely finished and ready for publication, but I’m all too aware it relates to a particular case and even though that case has been heard in a Coroner’s Court where all details were made public, it wasn’t a high profile case covered in the media and I am not prepared to publish it without the family’s permission because it relates to the death of their loved one.
If you’re concerned about mental health, suicide prevention and offering support to people, nothing prevents you from tweeting to say so – you could do so because of news articles, new research or simply to signpost people to services by offering helplines or other sources of online information, etc.. I couldn’t help but notice one recent reaction which told us such concerns are unfounded because things are anonymised where names and precise details are withheld and that this is an important topic and it “needs talking about”. Even a cursory scan of that person’s social media feed shows us see they have not tweeted about or discussed the importance of these issues once during 2018. The topic is so important, they haven’t mentioned it. << If you are this person and you’ve ended up reading this BLOG post wondering if I meant you, ask yourself whether I’ve sufficiently anonymised this final paragraph so that you couldn’t tell this remark was about you? Your yardstick was: if no names were used, it has been anonymised. I used no names, I didn’t even raise the matter of gender or rough age, so you tell me: can you spot yourself?!
Post-script: just after I finished this post and whilst I was busy sorting the paragraphing, spell-checking and so on, I was tagged on Twitter in another example of people raising concerns after an official police account tweeted something, just as outlined above. The rudeness and lack of professionalism from what appear to be police officers responding to objections on private accounts was nothing short of breathtaking, to be honest. Various levels of “WOW!”
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.