The Government and Social Media
When considering social media, most people think of their Facebook friends, the latest cute video they saw on YouTube, or their favourite celebrity photos on Instagram. They probably don’t think about a governmental department creating cool content or their local MP clicking on the “like” button for their latest posting.
However, governments, and politicians, are now involved in social media. They might have been late to the the party, however they are using social media for different purposes, they affect social media, and are affected by it.
There are several good reasons for governments, their departments, and agencies to get involved in or use social media. These include information and knowledge sharing between different parts of the government, improved communication with the public, and sensing the public opinion regrading its operations.
The Intelligence agencies in the U.S, for instance, are using Web 2.0 tools to share and integrate information and knowledge amassed between them (Mergel 2010). These
enables them to use less resources, react quicker to threats, and to make more accurate decisions.
In an era where people are spending more and more time on their smartphones or tablets, social media networks are used to spread important information in a fast and efficient way. In New Zealand, the NZTA is using its Twitter account to update the public on accidents, driving conditions, or road closures.
Social media also allows the public to communicate their opinions back to the government. This communication can be either explicit or implicit. Feedback and posts on governmental social media account allow users to express their opinion on services, actions, or plans of public entities. Analysing social media content, conversations, and public sentiment, enables government agencies to gain insights into the public opinion, even if not expressed explicitly.
The use of social media can be beneficial for giving voice to different opinions in the public,to counter the “official” tone of the government or main stream media, and thus enhance the democratic process.
The usage of social media by the government can have negative effects as well. Concerns about privacy and information security are compounded by the amounts of information which could be gathered from the social media networks.
U.S. Police departments used information from social media networks to track protesters. After a public outcry, Facebook and Twitter have shut down the data access to company which supplied the information to the police departments.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has started asking visitors to the U.S. to disclose their social media accounts information. According to the agency this is done in order to identify and mitigate terrorism threats, however it raises concerns for other potential uses in the future.
Governments can also use social media to track and arrest users who dare to publish opinions unfavourable with the authorities. As social media gave a new avenue for opposition forces, and human rights and democracy activists, to express their opinions, several countries across the world are actively trying to quell the dissent. These may be manifested through the censorship or blocking of social media services, or through detaining or arresting bloggers and other social media users.
Extensive use of social media by government agencies may also disadvantage parts of society which are less inclined to use it. People with disabilities or without access to the internet may be left behind, having less opportunities to communicate with the governments or its agencies.
As governments, their agencies and departments, are part of our society, they are also now involved in social media. This has some positive sides and some negatives. On the balance of things, it seems that there is a greater potential for good usage and influence then a bad one. At the end of the day, it will be the reaction of the public to the way that governments use social media, the way it will hold it accountable, that will determine the outcome.
Mergel, I. (2010). “The use of social media too dissolve knowledge silos in government”