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5 ways social media is changing 'business as usual' for governments

A 3D printed Twitter logo is seen in front of a displayed cyber code in this illustration taken March 22, 2016.

Social media is forcing governments to adapt. Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Eileen Guo
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Impassion Media
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Social media is changing “business as usual” for governments, opening up democratic processes, delivering services both to understand and surveil constituents, managing threats and conducting direct diplomacy. Even so, adoption of social media is slow and uneven, with vast differences both between and within states. As more and more governments move towards e-government, their use of social media will grow.

Image: World Bank

Social media has had significant impacts on governments around the world, forcing them to respond, adapt and rethink governance in a digital age. The stakes are high. Using social media effectively is not just a matter of ROI but also important for citizen engagement, service delivery, crisis management/response and even national security.

There are numerous ways — positive and negative — in which governments are utilizing social media, including:

1. Opening Up Democratic Processes

When its utmost potential is reached, social media is democracy at work. It lowers the barriers of entry for citizens to engage with, provide feedback on, and participate in government initiatives. Whereas politicians and government officials once had to travel to interact with citizens, now online town halls strengthen the connections between them, while providing a platform for direct input on government initiatives.

Social media allows citizens to be the source of ideas, plans and initiatives in an easier way than ever before. We the People, an online petition system started by President Barak Obama, is just one example; anyone can start a petition, and any petition with over 100,000 online signatures requires a response from the federal government.

Meanwhile, in 2008, the City Council of Melbourne used a Wiki-based platform to create the Future Melbourne Community Plan website, drawing over 40,000 page views. In 2011 Iceland used social media to crowd-source feedback for its new constitution.

The Iceland case study illustrates both the opportunities and challenges created by social media for government, as the constitution was not ultimately passed into law, showing that the use of social media as a democratic process is still experimental.

2. Public Service Delivery

Social media has played a key role in the accelerating shift towards “e-government”, the use of the internet to deliver government information and services. E-government goes beyond social media alone, but social media has become a means by which public services are delivered.

In Afghanistan, Government Media and Information Centers provide live updates on Twitter, Facebook, and SMS about security incidents, while in earthquake-prone Indonesia, the National Geology Agency posts early warnings on both Twitter and Facebook. At the city level, Vancouver uses Twitter to notify residents of trash pick-up schedules. Beyond these alert-based services, cities such as San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New York have all developed online 311 systems that allow citizens to provide reports and request services via Facebook and Twitter.

This application of social media is novel to government and citizens alike. While progress so far is laudable, governments still consider it a nice perk, rather than a must-have. This will certainly shift over time.

3. Understanding — and Surveilling — Constituents

The wide reach and instantaneous nature of social media makes it a rich source of real-time information for governments. It has become easier than ever for them to receive feedback via online polls, sentiment analysis and data generated by social media. The huge amount of data that each citizen generates every day — mostly via social media — is a treasure trove of information. One 2013 study estimates that the average American office worker generates 5,000 MB of data daily.

Because of this, social media is a useful intelligence and surveillance tool. Governments monitor keywords, hashtags, conversation flows and geolocation data. This type of monitoring can range from “acceptable” uses, such those employed in crisis or disaster management situations, and potentially more nefarious ones, as in crowd management. During the 2013 protests in Ukraine, protesters received chilling text messages: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

Thus, the privacy and security concerns for citizens — especially those who wish to remain unseen — in the digital world are very significant, and must be balanced against the wealth of information that social media provides.

4. Threat Analysis and Management

Robert Hannigan, the UK’s Director of Government Communications Headquarters, described social media as “the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists,” highlighting a common view government officials hold about the dangers of social media. The same characteristics that make social media attractive to criminals and terrorist organizations also make it a useful tool for governments as a source of threat analysis and management, much to the concern of privacy advocates.

Law enforcement agencies now use social media as a type of open-source intelligence gathering, compiling background checks, criminal records (if any) and credit reports to create real-time threat profiles of individuals in predictive policing.

In addition, it is also increasingly the site of “information warfare.” The Israeli government pioneered this approach by using social media to broadcast in real-time details of its military advances against Hamas. Rather than waiting for journalists to cover the story in a way that was potentially less sympathetic than desired, the government — or in this case the military — took to social media to ensure that they shared their desired narrative, and also communicated directly with Hamas fighters.

5. Direct Diplomacy

Social media can be used as a tool of direct communication between governments and foreign organizations, civil society and even citizens of other states. This falls under the category of public diplomacy.

Notable examples include the U.S. Embassy-Beijing’s account on Sina Weibo in China, one of the largest and most popular social networks in that country, which publishes a daily report on air quality in Beijing; the @Sweden Twitter account, which gives control of the handle to a different Swedish citizen each week, painting an alternative and more “genuine” picture of Sweden than official channels normally allow; or the banter and bickering between @ISAF, the official account of the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan and the Taliban.

The objectives of these social media public diplomacy engagements differ in each case, but overall their goal is to provide an alternative narrative — and platform — for countries to influence their image abroad.

These scenarios of how governments are using social media are non-exhaustive and non-prescriptive. As social media use around the world increases and evolves, governmental use of the platforms will increase and evolve as well. While this piece aims to provide an overview of what governments are currently doing, perhaps the next question is, “What they should be doing?”

Follow the author on Twitter @eileenguo.

This blog series was edited by Shannon M. Dosemagen, Farida Vis and Claire Wardle, from the Global Agenda Council on Social Media. Read more about the ways social media is changing the world in The Impact of Digital Content: Opportunities and Risks of Creating and Sharing Information Online white paper with main contributors Shannon M. Dosemagen, Farida Vis, Claire Wardle and Susan Etlinger and other members from the Global Agenda Council on Social Media.

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