A local Twitter account, @kushLOYALTY420, fires a shot into the social media world seeking information. “Is there any road blocks in Carrollton or Villa Rica?” writes the user, whose real name doesn’t appear on the account’s profile.
Not long after, another account, @FuzzAlert, tweets, “A new speed trap was set near 201-299 East Montgomery Street, Villa Rica, GA 30180” and links to a map with the location pinpointed. Early the next morning, the account reports another speed trap in Villa Rica, this one on Veterans Memorial Highway near Andy Mountain Road.
In the emerging social media scene, this could be described as an unintended consequence. It’s taking place worldwide, but there is little consensus on what should be done. Brazil has gone so far as to sue Twitter, demanding that the micro-blogging site suspend the accounts of users who tip drivers off to police roadblocks and radar traps.
American First Amendment laws may prevent similar action here, but not everyone here agrees that it’s a major problem. Tom Mackel, chief of police for the University of West Georgia, says Twitter can’t stop you from getting pulled over if you’re acting reckless.
“You’re not going to get the benefit you think you will,” he said. “It could actually be a benefit because people might think twice about going out if they know there is a road check, or they may use a designated driver.”
Mackel acknowledged that social media sharing of police activity is nearly impossible to combat, but he isn’t worried. For one, law enforcement road blocks don’t stay in one place all that long, and police radio scanners have been available to the public for decades. Not to mention that patrol cars tend to circle areas near a road block for drivers trying to avoid it, and on nights like New Year’s Eve patrols are stepped up everywhere.
“People want to know what the police are doing,” Mackel said. “It’s interesting. That’s why cop shows are popular.”
As far as shutting down accounts that share such information, Mackel says it might not be wise even if it could stand legal scrutiny.
“It’s not like they are doing anything that’s going to bring civilization to its knees,” said Mackel. “It needs to be in perspective if we censor this.”
Law enforcement has also solved crimes through social media. Last spring, Douglasville police tracked down four teenagers who burned down a historic mill through a Facebook tip.
Amber Smallwood is a mass communication professor at UWG who studies social media. She says Twitter and Facebook are double-edged swords in many ways.
“Using Twitter to avoid police road blocks is disappointing, but I’m not necessarily surprised,” she said. “That’s the way people, specifically younger people, tend to communicate rather than through phone calls or text messages. They will use social media to find out what’s going on. If they were talking about plans for the night then that’s just one thread.”
Twitter, Facebook and other social media make what were once private conversations public. It isn’t always pretty, but Smallwood says it reveals what was already being talked about, just not seen by everyone.
“In some ways you wish people wouldn’t talk about things, but thank goodness they do,” she said. “Think about political season when a candidate might say something horrible. I think, ‘they shouldn’t be allowed to say that,’ but then I think it’s good that they do, because now I know what they stand for.”
Once it’s on Twitter or Facebook, the police see it too.
“It lets the police know what’s being shared, and they can move the road block or check any alternate routes being discussed,” said Smallwood. “It’s sort of a cat and mouse game.”