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How the government uses social media?

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Recently, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) added an Instagram account where they show off confiscated weapons and contraband.  And while this isn’t the TSA’s first foray into social media (they also have a Twitter account and active blog since 2008), their Instagram is stirring up some controversy. With the availability of a high speed internet connection on most mobile phones and tablets, Instagramers and Tweeters alike are always updating their feed and watching others 24/7. So what better way to reach those who are on these platforms likely while at the airport then where they go to socialize while waiting for their flight.

Jarring Images Speak to the Reality of the Job

This controversy stems from the TSA making the exact types of contraband confiscated very public.  TSA spokespeople claim that this is meant to demonstrate the increase in the number of weapons and firearms that people are bringing into airports.

But the public display is far more jarring than that; many of the weapons are knives and guns, but there are also grenades, homemade explosive devices and other objects such as a stun gun disguised as a pack of Marlboro cigarettes.

So while the public is seeing how effective the TSA’s pre-flight screening process is it is also seeing just how unsafe it might be to fly.  For some, the thought is that the intrusive body imaging scans and pat downs that the public have been subjected to are now justified.  For others, the thought of the weapons that the TSA is not finding is the more palpable fear.

A Warning to Smugglers or a How-To Guide?

But that also raises a very real concern that’s just starting to hit the discussion panels: does this new TSA Instagram account harm or actually help smugglers looking to bring weapons and contraband onto planes? If you have taken online business courses or if you know anything about marketing you are probably aware of the incredible exposure social accounts, like Instagram, can get. Is this exposure going to help deter smugglers or have them competing for their turn in the spotlight?

The TSA’s stance on the matter is that showing off how good they are at their job will deter smugglers from even trying.  It’s sort of a pat on the back for the agency to publicly display their catches, akin to a fisherman posing with his prized catch.  But does that serve as a deterrent for the other fish in the pond?  Some experts say yes.

The thought process behind this type of campaign can be seen on a smaller scale in malls and retail stores around the country.  When shoplifters are caught, stores often snap a Polaroid of the suspect and slap it up onto their “Wall of Shame”.  The idea here is not only to shame the thieves and provide employees with a clear warning of who is persona non grata in the store, but also to warn other potential shoplifters that the security and loss prevention are competent; steal from us and you will get caught.

Does Going Public do more Harm than Good?

On the other hand, the TSA isn’t posting pictures of people who tried to smuggle items onto airplanes, it’s posting pictures of the actual contraband itself.  This means that potential smugglers aren’t seeing the distraught faces of their peers, but rather the wares that don’t make it through.  Essentially, it’s a guide telling you “what not to bring” if you want to get contraband onto planes.

For instance, smugglers now know which types of guns trigger alarms.  There are many plastic guns and knives that are supposed to get through metal detectors, now smugglers know which ones don’t work and can look for alternatives.

And the stun gun disguised as a pack of smokes?  Well, that’s probably the last one the TSA is going to see since everyone now knows the TSA is keen on the trick.  Sure, one or two more people might try to sneak it on, but since the TSA has posted a list of what will get you caught, smugglers will just try something new.

Of course, only the test of time will tell, but isn’t that a dangerous test to run?