TSA struggles through its love-hate relationship with social media

Websites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are unlikely to get a friend request from the Transportation Security Administration any time soon.

Like most other government agencies, TSA has an active presence online and in social media, with a website, blog and pages on YouTube and Twitter.

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But, while other agencies primarily use those tools to get a message out, the TSA frequently finds itself battling firestorms sparked when any of the nearly 1.8 million airline passengers it checks for flights each day sends out a message from their cell phone or computer complaining about a screening, pat-down or bag search.

Just this week, TSA battled negative headlines after a woman posted a picture on Twitter of a note a TSA inspector had left behind after searching her bag and finding a sex toy. “Get your freak on, girl,” the inspector wrote.

The story went viral, and TSA apologized. Then, through its own “Blogger Bob” Burns, TSA told the public the worker responsible for the note had been removed from checking bags at Newark’s Liberty International Airport.

The ‘freak on’ case was not the first time a story involving TSA became national news after a post on social media by an irritated passenger.

Earlier this year, video was posted on YouTube of an older woman being patted down at the Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Ariz. The woman claimed in the video that she was sexually assault by the TSA officers who searched her by hand.

In another case, a passenger standing in the security line at the Kansas City International Airport posted a photo on Twitter of an 8-month-old baby receiving one of the controversial TSA pat downs.

TSA has made headlines with its Internet presence, too, and has sought to highlight its efforts to protect passenger safety.

“Blogger Bob” posts a week-in-review column that spotlight items found at airport security checkpoints. A recent such post revealed that in one weekend, TSA found guns, throwing knives and inert grenades carried in passengers’ bags.

TSA tweets the “Blogger Bob” reports and also uses YouTube to highlight its efforts.

Posts like that show TSA has done a good job trying to use social media to its advantage, said social media observer Anil Dash. But like most government agencies, TSA is more limited than a private business would be in what it can do.

“TSA was early to blogging and social media in general, and does a great job of communicating clearly in a human voice, with a well-defined policy on things like comments,” Dash, a New York-based blogger who writes frequently about social media, said in an email to The Hill. 

The problem for TSA, Dash said, is that they are mostly reacting.

“Their social media staff clearly aren't empowered to actually impact policy at the agency, and that leaves them either having their hands tied in trying to change things, or stuck being the public face for ridiculous policies,” he said. “In the ideal case, social media communicators on the front lines of engagement with the public can work as a type of ombudsman, influencing the decisions that policy makers put into place, based on their direct knowledge of what the public wants.”

TSA sees social media as an effective tool to fight back at “myths” about it, a spokesman said.

“The blog has been a great tool for TSA to explain the whys of security to the traveling public,” TSA spokesman Kawika Riley said in a statement provided to The Hill. “It’s also an excellent way for TSA to share information about what we do and debunk myths.”

TSA’s blog, and its blogger Bob, have won multiple awards, including the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s (AFCEA) “Government Wide Initiatives Excellence Award  for Social Media” in 2010.

TSA critics like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), however, see the other side of the social media equation: The quick distribution of troublesome incidents keeps the often-criticized agency on its toes.

“Social networking is a positive for the American people because it lets government officials know that they are not acting in a vacuum and their actions are going to come back to haunt them if they’re not behaving appropriately,” Rachel Mills, a spokeswoman for Paul, said in an interview.

Paul, who is also a candidate for the Republican nomination for president next year, has called for abolishing the TSA.

Dash said while TSA may win awards for its presence, it will remain difficult for the agency win minds on social media.

“I hope the TSA heads that way, but understand that their being part of the general Homeland Security infrastructure might present something of an obstacle to it,” he said.

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