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Anti-Encryption Social Media Campaign Backfires Spectacularly

#UnlockJustice is the #NotAllMen’s of anti-encryption social media campaigns.

As even the most deft social media ninja will tell you, social media campaigns are hard. But it really seems like the New York Police Department should have seen this one coming.

A coalition led by the NYPD and Manhattan's top prosecutor launched a campaign to "highlight the impact encryption is having on public safety and victims of crime" on Monday. The campaign took off with a press conference on the steps of Manhattan's City Hall, along with a hashtag, #UnlockJustice, designed to garner social media support.

"Americans have a right to privacy, but crime victims and surviving family members have rights, too–namely, the right to have cases solved with the strongest evidence available," Manhattan's District Attorney Cyrus Vance said. "Congress should not permit companies to manufacture devices that are impenetrable to judicial search warrants. It should not permit companies to provide criminals with unprecedented, evidence-free zones. Crime victims are entitled to stronger protections than criminals."

But the hashtag launched along the campaign fell flat, and soon backfired. Several people, including tech and security experts, hijacked the hashtag to criticize the coalition's campaign.

Looking through the tweets that included the hashtag#UnlockJustice, it's clear that most Twitter users decided to ignore the campaign's goal and use the hashtag to bash it instead.

"Governments are trying to get engaged with the internet while not understanding how the internet works," Amie Stepanovich, the policy manager at Access Now, a digital rights group, told me.

Matt Blaze, a computer scientist who has testified in Congress about the importance of encryption, echoed Stepanovich's thoughts.

"Seriously, whoever in the NYPD and the Manhattan DA's office greenlighted this needs to get a different job," he tweeted. "'We've got to take this fight to the Internet!' someone at the DA's office said. Guys, that's the last place you want this fight."

To make matters worse, the law enforcement and crime victims' coalition picked a hashtag that was already associated with an entirely different campaign to support criminal justice reform, launched last month by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).

Representatives of the FCNL were not happy that the coalition led by the NYPD and Manhattan's prosecutor's office took over their hashtag.

A spokesperson from Manhattan's District Attorney's office declined to comment.

This is not the first time something like this happens. You might still remember the NYPD's epic fail from two years ago, when it launched the hashtag #myNYPD, asking people to tweet pictures of them with police officers. The hashtag was quickly overtaken by users complaining against police brutality, tweeting pictures of violent arrests and clashes between cops and protesters.

"I guess they're not that good at social media," FCNL's spokesperson Jim Cason told me in a phone call.