The police, of late, have not done themselves any favors on social media. Last week, the NYPD found itself deluged with pictures of police brutality after attempting to promote the hashtag #myNYPD. This week, Maryland's Prince George's Police Department has decided to live-tweet a prostitution sting operation. The PGPD, which covers part of the area surrounding Washington, DC, announced on Twitter, Facebook, and its blog that it would be holding a sting "sometime next week" and tweeting photos during the arrests:
We won't tell you when or where, other than it's somewhere in the county sometime next week. The PGPD's Vice Unit will conduct a prostitution sting that targets those soliciting prostitutes and we'll tweet it out as it happens. From the ads to the arrests, we'll show you how the PGPD is battling the oldest profession. Suspect photos and information will be tweeted. We're using this progressive, and what we believe unprecedented, social media tactic to warn any potential participants that this type of criminal behavior is not welcome in Prince George's County.
The PGPD, along with other police departments, has uploaded photos of seized weapons and drugs on Twitter and Instagram, and it's asked for help identifying suspects by posting pictures of them. Likewise, the practice of publicizing prostitution arrests is nothing new. It's not unusual to see photos of arrestees published alongside stories in newspapers or on websites, and some cities have begun "campaigns of shame" that involve exposing johns on social media. Live-tweeting a prostitution sting, though, edges much more towards a salacious PR move. It's not simply an online police blotter, it's an invitation to a spectacle, particularly given the suggestion that they'll be posting pictures of sex workers as they're arrested — and the reach of social media is much wider than that of a local paper or TV station. It's not even possible to write about it without, to some extent, playing into its game.
It's questionable how much can be gained by these shaming tactics. Heavy-handed police action can just make sex workers more vulnerable, either by forcing them into unsafe conditions or undermining efforts to provide rehabilitation services for people who need them. UK police, for example, are rethinking the effectiveness of high-profile brothel raids, and New York is attempting to stop police from treating carrying condoms as evidence of prostitution. The fact that much sex work exists on the margins of society is exactly why campaigns like this can be carried out: it's easier to gawk if we see the people involved as somehow not like the rest of us.
Which isn't to say that social media isn't, to some extent, a platform that naturally lends itself to public humiliation. Information spreads quickly, whether it's a public gaffe or a piece of leaked information, and it (usually) can't be centrally controlled. In this case, though, it's possible the PGPD will end up hoist on its own petard, as the response online hasn't been particularly positive. The whole thing has been decried on Twitter as a cruel publicity stunt, with critics taking up the police-provided #PGPDVice hashtag. The police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.