OTTAWA - The G8 and G20 summits will be patrolled by police on horses, on bikes, on rooftops and in helicopters.

But there's a different kind of patrol online.

The RCMP-led Integrated Security Unit used social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook during the 2010 Winter Olympics, but it was a one-way flow of press releases and links to their own websites.

This time, they're talking back.

During both summits taking place next week, police will maintain a 24-hour-a-day presence on social media, getting out information on road closures, motorcades and trying to correct misconceptions about what is or isn't allowed.

On Thursday, for example, the @G8G20ISUca account on Twitter was clarifying comments on which ramps and lanes onto major highways were closed.

Earlier in the week, the team of people behind the handle replied to one user's frustrated comment.

@G8G20ISUca, it read, Do us all a favour and let this be the LAST G8 meeting in Canada. Ever. Please.

The reply?: The Integrated Security Unit does not choose the venue or time.

The overwhelming police presence required for the summits, and some of the public-relations challenges that appeared during the Olympics, made summit security realize they needed a more proactive approach this time around.

Officials brought in Marco Battilana, who handled web communications for the Games, to oversee their summit plans.

Turning to social media to engage the public is part of the RCMP's drive to improve, he said.

"We're learning about the general atmosphere is w/ the public," he wrote in an interview over Twitter.

"Plus, we're realizing benefits of providing timely info to them + partners."

Toronto police's Twitter account has fielded queries on everything from how long people should allow to get to the airport, to what to do if their bike is removed from a no-parking zone.

But it's not just about information, said Toronto police Const. Scott Mills (@graffitibmxcop), who has been using social media to communicate with the public for over three years.

"I really believe you've got to let the people speak, and speak back with them," he said.

"Because if they speak in a negative tone, and you don't speak back with them then they continue on thinking in the same way."

Some activists have criticized the way police are using Twitter, calling their efforts childish and ineffective and accusing them of finding yet another way to spy on them.

The @G8G20ISUca account only subscribes to the Twitter feeds from other police officers, though they have over 1,000 followers. The Toronto Police feed follows about 600 people, including activists.

Mills acknowledges it can act like a tip service. Before teen singer Miley Cyrus appeared at the Much Music Video Awards in Toronto last week, he had Twitter followers telling him about a potential threat to the artist from someone else online.

He passed the information up the chain of command.

Mills said the point of being online is to know what's going on.

"I'm a police officer, I'm there to keep the peace not to engage in what the issues are," he said in an interview.

"We're just there to make sure that the peace is kept so the more information we can get out, the better."

Summit organizers have been trying to use the Internet to drum up interest in the meat of the meetings.

For the last six years, the Foreign Affairs Department has turned to the Internet to solicit opinions on various policy issues.

For the summits, they opened up an e-discussion on security policy and one on youth engagement, which allowed people to submit their ideas. The results were sent to the top Canadian diplomat in negotiations, known as the Sherpa.

"People are expecting to be able to contribute online," said the department's deputy director of e-communications, Mark McLaughlin.

But McLaughlin acknowledges the process isn't yet entirely social as there's little interaction.

"We're moving in that direction, but we're not quite there yet," he said.

"Partly because of time pressures ... but as people become educated with how the medium works, I think we are going to see more of that."

The official Canadian voice of the summits on Twitter is @CanadaIntl, which is being used mostly to distribute press releases.

The account won't be as interactive as the police.

"We cannot engage on issues of party politics," says Foreign Affairs' official Twitter policy.

"We welcome feedback and ideas from all our followers. Unfortunately, we are not able to reply individually to all the messages we receive via Twitter. We will, however, attempt to engage in conversation when possible."


On the web:

Toronto Police's Social Media to the Summits:

Summit e-discussions:

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