Government 2.0, Social Media and the New Stockholm Syndrome

Everything old is new again, and with innovative technological advances granting the public greater access to government, businesses and the community, the rules of traditional social psychology still apply. As users tap into a new era of transparency and direct dialogue, it is important to consider that more access does not always lead to empowerment without an equal advancement in understanding, critical perspective, and most importantly, an upgraded BS meter to know when seats at the table may still only be intended for spectators no matter how its presented.

In historical context (as in six years ago), the mainstreaming of embedded journalism in the Iraq War was heralded as a breakthrough allowing media across the spectrum direct access to the war front and troops, comparatively unfiltered, for broadcast to the American people. This new level of transparency was instituted in response to criticism from the media themselves, unsatisfied with the access provided to them during the first Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan.

What resulted in many cases, however, was classic Stockholm Syndrome – objectivity and critical perspective blew away in the desert sands when those tasked with reporting on the war conflictingly owed their lives to the protection of the very people they reported on. And while this effect may not have been completely apparent to the media as it was occurring, there was one gatekeeper who saw the benefits of this perceived access in a controlled environment – the government.

As a military Public Affairs officer at the time, I had the honor and opportunity to play an instructional role in the troops’ preparation for embedded journalism with the goal of warding them from Lima Syndrome. In the final stages of the elite Army Ranger School I would pretend to be an embedded journalist during the full-on operational simulations, crawling through ambushes with the troops, jumping out of helicopters, wallowing in the more than ample Florida panhandle mud. Unknown to the students, I would attempt to subtly influence them – telling them their families would see them in the newspapers back home, offering candy to men who were deprived of food and sleep to the limits of their bodies, making bonds that I would later attempt to exploit the sweet hell out of to gain sensitive operational information.

By the end of the day, if I wasn’t under guard with half a dozen dirty looks cast at me from men sick of my stories back home and Twizzlers, then I failed to demonstrate that mutual cooperation must not come at the expense of critical judgment.

Now, in this new era of Government 2.0, Social Media and the rest, a new level of access promises to provide even greater transparency, participation and information sharing – and as a result, better service. Just like many citizens cannot be bothered with educating themselves on how government and politics work outside of the soundbites they hear on the news, Cian Dawson observes:

What is desired, however, is the perception that more information and more opportunity to provide input equates to greater access to the decision-making process. There is a large disconnect, however, between what is popularized as transparency and dialogue and what effectively is in reality – and in between these perceived outcomes is the potential for a new Stockholm Syndrome that can steer opinion and sacrifice critical judgment for newer, shallower access to the same observation window outside the real game.

While true Stockholm Syndrome generally involves life and death situations, I use this as an example to demonstrate the power dynamic that exists today none the less, whether you are a constituent, elected official, government employee or blogger. And besides, the perception of access and power is a life or death struggle for many in DC. We must take more than a few moments at each turn and separate ourselves from the hype and the promise of Government 2.0 and Social Media, and refocus on the end goals and how to achieve them without allowing ourselves to be subtly influenced in ways we won’t anticipate.

And for those of us in DC it probably starts with one less 2.0 cocktail party a week.

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Joe Flood

I’m a little confused by this. Are you saying that those who practice Web 2.0 in their agencies (as bloggers, for example) sympathize with their captors (bosses?). I’d agree with that, if that’s your point – it’s natural to not want to irritate the people who pay you.

And how is having fewer 2.0 cocktail parties going to help this? To be flip, I’d say more social events are needed, for they bond government bloggers into a community beyond their individual agencies.

Justin Herman

The last line about cocktail parties was a little tongue in cheek, as I’m told my posts can be a bit too wonky. For many people such gatherings are a great opportunity to meet and get collaborations started – for many others, its a black hole of wasted time and hummus.

Justin Herman

To answer your first question, I wasn’t really applying it directly to bloggers, but certainly it does in many ways. I think more importantly, Web 2.0 can place users in the role of the embedded journalists, and therefor this effect is more widespread than one blogger, one journalist, one web developer, but to all users who seek to influence decision-making. Such people can easily be steered to making decisions that unknown to them have already been chosen.