The social media revolution presents a problem for governments. The widespread use, relative low cost of disseminating information and collaboration benefits of social media technologies all provide great incentive for governments to get online. The problem is across many areas of government there lacks direction, procedures or a framework of how exactly social media should be used.
This week I delve in to two questions to get a better handle on what is driving social media use in government, the challenges presented by such use as well as the impacts that both government and social media are having on each other.
What are the drivers and inhibitors of social media implementation and adoption in government?
Social media is being adopted across government and politics for far too many reasons to detail but we will dig in to a big few:
For politicians, building a personal brand now requires being across nearly all forms of social media with Facebook and Twitter being key. When it comes to winning elections it also appears social media has a considerable impact. Both the Obama and Trump presidential campaigns benefited from their social media strategy via Obama’s massive voter mobilization efforts and Trump’s ability to leverage ‘fake news‘ to build enthusiasm in his voter base.
Of course social media usage extends far further than just this in government. Widespread social media adaption (2.7m kiwis visit Facebook each year) means social media can provide governments with a unique ability to connect to citizens, provide better services and obtain feedback/commentary about performance.
For matters of transparency social media can reduce corruption in government by providing citizens with information about government expenditure, means to organize, or controlling expenditures. The OPEN initiative in Seoul has been one of the most successful initiatives to utilize Web 2.0 and SM technologies to create checks and balances on internal government processes and monitor expenditures and resulted in 68% of citizens creating the program for “noticeably reducing government corruption”.
There are however challenges. Governments operate with strict procedures and policies which outline everything from how communications are sent, to whom and even down to details such as the size of font on press releases. The organic nature of social media means such networks are entirely independent of government requirements and overcoming internal bureaucracy hurdles is no easy feat. In the US alone there are over 18 pieces of legislation that must be considered by any agency when planning social media communication ranging from the Americans with Disabilities Act all the way to the Paperwork Reduction Act. The internal culture of government agencies can also be another strong obstacle, where employees may refuse to embrace new ways of operating whether it be from inertia, potential corruption or technologies that may well otherwise put them out of a job.
How does government affect social media use and how does social media affect governments?
In December 2010 the world saw a literal revolution, kicked off by social media. A Tunisian man Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire after local government authorities confiscated his fruit cart. Within hours social media set the Arab world alight and the Arab Spring had begun. Activists would use Twitter to bypass government restrictions on communication and protest, Facebook pages coordinating events sprung up and encrypted messaging using Blackberry phones led to a wave that literally toppled governments, spread political instability across the gulf and sparked the political and humanitarian crisis that is the current Syrian Civil War.
Yes, social media tools are now so powerful that they can take down entire governments and of course governments have begun to fight back. Internet censorship is common in many parts of the world with China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkmenistan being some of the most restrictive regimes. So whilst social media use can bring down governments, governments can also restrict the access of users to networking platforms as well as strictly monitor the personal communications of individuals.
The Open Government Initiative. Image Source: WhiteHouse.Gov
In the Western world governments have been impacted by social media in different ways. Arguably the strongest impact has been a sudden need for government to adapt and embrace social media technologies. The Obama Administration in 2011 began the Open Government Initiative which focused specifically on increasing transparency, participation and collaboration across US Federal Government departments with the aim of increasing public faith in government, improving government decision making and bringing together a cohesive framework for social media implementation. As noted in the previous question, a complex web of legislation and internal policy still governs much of how governments are required to communicate and initiatives are underway across the world to modernize and simplify such requirements.
However even in the Western world with our established democratic freedoms governments are not free of creeping censorship requirements. In the wake of the London tragedy last week ‘WhatsApp’ now finds itself the latest target with British MP’s calling on the ability for the government to have ‘backdoors’ in to encrypted message conversations.
It seems there is a current equilibrium between governments and social media with consistent reaction and counter reaction. We may well see far more government integration in to Web 2.0 (and beyond) and social media technologies but is the trade-off going to be sacrificing some of the usability and very nature of social media technologies? Time will most definitely tell.
As always there are specific offline readings that have helped me delve deeper in to this topic:
The impact of polices on government social media usage: Issues, challenges,
and recommendations from the Journal; Government Information Quarterly
Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: E-government and social media as openness and anti-corruption tools for societies from the Journal; Government Information Quarterly