By Allan Lengel
WASHINGTON – When FBI agents recently tracked down suspected financial scammer R. Allen Stanford in Richmond, Va., the press office at headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue quickly tweeted out a blurb on Twitter to notify the media.
“Actually, ” says FBI spokesman Richard Kolko, “the Wall Street Journal broke it two minutes before I did.”
Twitter. Tweeting. This is no longer J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Twitter, once a mysterious, free, cutting edge Internet venue for the young, has gone main stream. Very main stream . Sorry kids. Maybe it’s time to find the next hip playground on the Internet.
The social network with the silly name is slowly generating interest in law enforcement circles like the FBI , which opened a Twitter account about two months ago under the name FBIPressOffice. The office said it is also exploring the use of other social networks.
Kolko said the agency is “still getting use to it”, but it’s already sent out more than 415 tweets including press releases with links , notices of missing children or wanted fugitives and breaking news.
A recent press release read: “Iranian Man, company charged with scheme to supply sensitive technology to Iran”. The same day the office put out a notice about a child molester wanted since 2003: “The FBI is still looking for GRANT LAVELLE HUDSON, III.”
So far more than 1,141 people have signed up as “followers”, many of them in law enforcement and the media.
“It goes up every day,” Kolko said.
Twitter, founded in 2006 in San Francisco, allows users to send out text- based “tweets” that are 140 characters or less to people who have signed up to the sender’s account. The social network continues to grow in popularity, but it still ranks behind Facebook, which is number one worldwide, and MySpace, which is number two, according to Compete.com.
But Twitter is gaining traction in federal law enforcement circles including at the Transportation Security Administration, said Chris Battle, managing partner of the Adfero Group Homeland Security Practice, a Washington public relations firm. Battle has written about social communication networks on his company blog Security DeBrief.
“I think it’s an important audience,” said Battle, a former official at Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the DEA. “Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or a specialty niche site like PoliceLink.com , you have a dedicated network of people who care about an issue. When you care about targeting an audience, it doesn’t get any more targeted than this.”
Still, some agencies have been slow to come around, particularly ones that were already a little reluctant to communicate with the public in the more traditional ways, let alone with these cutting-edge communication tools, Battle said.
“Within law enforcement we have quite a ways to go,” he said. ” There’s a bit of a learning curve. Some of the law enforcement agencies and national security organizations need to catch up with the social media.”
Kolko said the biggest benefit of the social network will be when there’s a major breaking story or big crisis and the media blitzes the FBI press office with calls.
“It will have a great application in the event of a crisis,” Kolko said. ” If some major crisis happens, the phones ring off the hook and every reporter is asking the same exact questions. It can take 30 seconds to send the information on Twitter that we’re going to be giving those people.”
Besides press releases and breaking news blurbs, Kolko says he likes to put up information about child molesters and other wanted fugitives.
“It reminds people that we’re still looking,” he said.
Twitter doesn’t appear to be the last stop.
Kolko said the FBI is exploring other venues.
“We’re looking at Facebook and Youtube,” he said. ” Hopefully that’s in the near future.”