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Air Force checked blogs, Twitter to gauge New Yorkers' anger about flyover

The Air Force closely monitored blogs and social networking sites, including counting the number of messages posted every minute on Twitter, to gauge the swift and angry public reaction to the flyover of Air Force One during a photo shoot in New York City in April, according to internal e-mails the Defense Department released on July 31.

The Air Force notified the New York City Police Department and other public safety agencies in the New York-New Jersey area about the flyover, but asked them not to publicly disseminate the information. As a result, when Air Force One and two F-16 fighters started circling New York Harbor on April 27 for the photo shoot, many residents became fearful that they were in for a repeat of the airline attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The flyover led to evacuation of office buildings in both New York and New Jersey.

The project, intended to capture photos of the iconic blue-and-white Air Force One jet as it flew above the Statue of Liberty, was scheduled between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and before 11:30 a.m. the blogosphere started to react, according to e-mails the Defense Department released in response to multiple freedom of information requests.

At 11:22 a.m., Capt. Anna Carpenter, a public affairs officer at the 316th Air Wing that runs Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, home of the group that operates Air Force One, sent an e-mail to her bosses about a New York Times City Room blog item on the flyover. "This one's a little nasty," it said. "Should we prep some damage control?"

Damage control would turn out to be fruitless, with both traditional and new media piling on what turned out to be a public relations debacle, according to internal assessments prepared by the public affairs office of Air Force North, the command responsible for protection of U.S. airspace. The command is based at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

The Air Force North internal media assessment on April 27 assessed blog comments on the flyover as "furious at best" and counted the number of Tweets issued on the social network site Twitter as occurring "one per minute and growing." By the next day, the rate of Tweets concerning the flyover had grown to three per minute, and the Air Force North analysis showed amateur videos of the flyover on YouTube had been viewed more than 260,000 times.

By April 29, the Tweet rate had slipped back to one per minute, an Air Force North analysis noted, but viewership of the YouTube videos totaled more than 1 million in just two days. On April 30, the flyover Tweet rate had declined to one every four minutes, Air Force North reported.

The Air Force's 101st Information Warfare Wing, based in Salt Lake City also monitored social networking reaction to the flyover and reported in an internal April 28 e-mail that "to say that this event is being beat like a dead horse is an understatement. Has really taken off in Web 2.0."

Maj. Susan Romano, director of public affairs for Air Force North, said she does not have a full-time staff to monitor social networking sites, but does so in the case of news events that involve her command. This helps gauge public reaction and to assess whether information on social media sites is accurate, she said.

The Army monitors social network sites only on an episodic basis, said Lindy Kyzer, a social media expert who works in the New Media Directorate of the Army Public Affairs Office.

The Army applied the lessons it learned from the public reaction to the Air Force One flyover when the service's Golden Knights parachute team made a jump over New York City from helicopters in July. The New York Army Public Affairs Office closely monitored Twitter to check if the public had accurate information about the event.

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