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How Governments Deal With Social Media

August 9, 2011

This is all part of a historic continuum, as Adam Conner, Facebook's first staffer in Washington, D.C., reflected in an essay shared with this correspondent.

When the use of the telephone became widespread, the ability to establish instantaneous audio communication between two separate points was a game-changer for government agencies. They no longer needed to rely solely on in-person meetings or written correspondence for communication and operations and service became many times faster, more efficient and more personal.

We believe that social media can be similarly transformative to the way government and constituents interact. While it is possible in the first years of a new communication technology to delegate responsibility and knowledge to a few individuals, as adoption grows, it becomes impossible, impractical, and inefficient to silo that knowledge in one place.  This was definitely true of the telephone.

The telephone shifted the way that everyone in the government conducted business on a daily basis. It didn't just affect GS-8 level "Telephone Specialist" government employees. Inevitably, everyone had to have a phone and know how to use one. Understanding how to use phones, email, social media, and the next big thing won't be a requirement -- it'll be so expected that to encounter someone who doesn't will give you genuine pause.

Today, there are still people who install and repair phones but there's no one around who teaches you to pick up the phone when it makes a noise and say hello. In the same way, the duties of "Online Communication Specialist" and "New Media Director" are important and their work will continue for years to come. But these specialized jobs related to using a new technology will eventually fade away as they are integrated into the broader areas they fill. And the title "New Media Director" may become as commonplace as "Director of Two-Way Wirebound Audio Communication."

Editor's Note: For good or for ill, governments have to deal with social media. In Cairo and London and Washington, the way people organize themselves is changing -- and governments are struggling to adapt, adopt, co-opt, or disable the technologies that enable these changes. Here, O'Reilly Media's Government 2.0 correspondent takes a step back and surveys the landscape at the crossroads of social media and political power in the summer of 2011.

In the 1990s, the Internet changed communication and commerce forever. A decade later, the Web 2.0 revolution created a new disruption, enabling hundreds of millions of citizens to publish, share, mix, comment, and upload media to a more dynamic online environment. That two-way communication, enabled by new, highly accessible and scalable Web technologies, is generally called "social media." In the years since the first social networks went online, the disruption has spread to government, creating shifts in power structures as large as those enabled by the introduction of the printing press centuries ago.

"Connection technologies, including social media, tend to devolve power from the nation state and large institutions to individuals and small institutions," Alec J. Ross, senior innovation adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in an interview. "Nothing demonstrated that more than the power to publish and distribute at great scale by historically disempowered individuals with inexpensive devices."


For a recent example, consider the role of social media in revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, where YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter acted in combination with Al Jazeera and mobile phones to catalyze reactions to deep-seated repression. "If governments are not engaging in social media, they are essentially ceding influence and power," said Ross. 

It also provides new capabilities and opportunities to work with the public in collaboration, co-creation or oversight. Social media is changing how state and local government elections are covered, including fraud or corruption reporting. In California, social media is connecting citizens to e-services, and it is an elemental component of New York's bid to be the nation's premier digital city. In Washington and other capitals around the world, legislatures and executive offices now operate in a 24-hour stream of live updates and discussion. This January, the Congressional transition was streamed live online, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. After President Obama's historic speech on Middle East policy, the White House turned to Twitter to discuss it.

"Social media allows for more distributed communication and collaboration when natural or man-made crises occur," said Ross. "This allows for faster and more inclusive, broadly participatory responses to life and death situations." For example, in Australia, social media and geospatial mapping helped crisis responders deal with historic floods. In San Francisco, city services, 311 and Facebook are enabling new ways of solving civic issues. 

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Mainstream media is increasingly merging with social media. Last year, more citizens experienced "Twitter TV" during sporting events like the World Cup. This fall, Facebook and NBC will co-host the Republican primary debate. (Don't get lost in the glitz of social media, though: Election 2012 will be about the data.) In June 2011, Google launched YouTube for Government, offering civic leaders around the world a platform to reach all connected citizens.

Social media does present novel risks and rewards for government beyond the changes wrought by telegraph, telephone, and television. Social media creates new online privacy challenges for citizens and government alike. It presents a real headache for the government employees entrusted with records management. A recent GAO report highlighted the need for consistent social media policies that address security, privacy, and records keeping. 

Under repressive governments and autocracies, social media can act as a tool of oppression as well as freedom. Congress faces challenges in identifying constituents using social media. That said, the Internet has become the public arena for our time. One challenge is that third-party platforms control this 21st-century public square, creating novel issues for government's relationship with the technology companies that host civic dialogue.

After the president and House speaker addressed the nation on the debt crisis and called for public support, House and Senate websites were swamped with electronic interest. Many citizens turned to Facebook and Twitter to contact congressional staffers on social media expecting to be heard.

The White House has turned to social media to advocate for #compromise, starting with a tweet from the president himself on his campaign account. The subsequent ripple of feedback suggested the influence of political communication over social networks. Statistics provided via e-mail by Twitter government liaison Adam Sharp offer more data about Twitter : "Tweets regarding #debt & related keywords peaked two times" during the last week of the debt ceiling debate, according to Sharp, driven by Monday's primetime speeches and Friday's "Call to Tweet." Further, Sharp wrote that @mentions of members of Congress increased three times from Friday over Thursday, a five-fold increase over the previous week's average. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer affirmed to New York Times reporter Brian Stelter that e-mail and tweets from constituents influenced Sunday's debt ceiling deal, along with phone calls. Fittingly, perhaps, the interaction between the two men happened over social media. 

During these dog days of summer, we've also seen massive dissatisfaction with elected representatives expressed by citizens using social media, including the anti-Washington hashtag Jeff Jarvis started during the debt-ceiling debate. Social media platforms will continue to reflect both that tension and a reality. While technology empowers citizens to have a real-time conversation with their governments, the men and women entrusted with making laws and policies will find better ways to govern amid the tumult. Congressional staffers are on social media but, as Nick Clark Judd pointed out, "it bears mentioning that the conversation that congressional staffers are listening to on social media is the same one they've been in for years."

Whether or not social media played a critical role in the debt ceiling debate, Middle East revolutions or the 2008 and 2010 elections, one truth has become even more clear in the summer of 2011: these channels now complement the use of phone, email, txts and television in the business of government, and they're not going away.

Alexander B. Howard is the Government 2.0 Correspondent for 
O’Reilly Media and a technology writer focused on open government, innovation, and online civics.


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