Government, Twitter, and the News

Last Wednesday, a tweet was sent from @rdsahl:

Gov Patrick: WashPost blog floats your name for HHS. Are you in the mix? Would you take if offered. Thanks.

Fortunately, staff in the Governor’s Office was watching Twitter. They not only look for tweet “replies” directly to @MassGovernor, but also use Twitter Search‘s RSS feature and so were able to find this reference to the Governor. In just about an hour, @MassGovernor replied:

@rdsahl As the Governor has said countless times, he is staying put and running for re-election. – Kyle Sullivan, Press Secretary

This quote was in Friday’s Boston Globe (p. B2) and the story was also picked up by Associated Press. There was bit of a flurry in the Twitterverse and blogosphere because @rdsahl is NECN reporter R.D. Sahl and he was using Twitter to do his job. Yay, social media!

But there are a few issues that this case raises:

1. The debate over bloggers versus traditional journalism is somewhat pointless. It’s not a question of one or the other, it’s how the two spheres can complement each other to improve the quality of information available to people.

2. Twitter has no mechanism for verifying identity – you are who you say you are – and there is no published formal process for challenging people making false or misleading identity claims. What if @DevalPatrick (an account that is used to point to a website critical of Gov. Patrick) had responded to @rdsahl instead of @MassGovernor? Would he have know that it was not the Governor? Without some form of identity verification, the authenticity of information found on Twitter is suspect.

3. Finally, this highlights two reasons for monitoring Twitter. The first is to be sure incorrect information is not being spread. The second is to increase opportunities for volunteering useful and correct information in a forum where many people can see your individual responses. It is an indication of your competence and commitment to service.

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Allen Sheaprd

HI, I would add reason #3 – to hear what is not in the papers or on the news. As social creatures we love to talk and learn. New study out compare H5N1 or bird flu with 1918 pandemic will not make the news or the paper. But as a government agency we should be well informed so that should ‘it’ happen the agency can respond instead of google. Story is at : http://www.physorg.com/news153482126.html

Yes, as I heard MicroSoft say at a convention “Check and create your internet reputation or one will be created and maintained for you.”


Jeffrey Levy

Yeeeeeehaaaaa! Fantastic example! And I agree strongly with Allen above. I’ve learned about three emerging issues days or weeks before they showed up elsewhere. Two of those cases were directly related to EPA’s work, and I was able to start some internal discussions before they were any bigger.

Ana Beatriz Cholo

Excellent post! Thank you. Because I have (inadvertently) become the social media person here at my agency, I am finding myself in the position of having to explain how Twitter, for example, can be so extremely useful and in so many ways. Your story (and the subsequent comments) illustrates this all beautifully.

*And it is quite easy to become bamboozled by a false persona. Case in point: I was thrilled to learn the Dalai Lama’s media people had joined Twitter on his behalf. I literally became one of his many “followers.” Turns out the Twitterer was actually an imposter. You live, you learn.

Daniel Bevarly

Sarah – Your Twitter experience is a micro example of the problems with the Web in general, as I am sure you are well aware and experienced. Fortunately, Twitter is a community, by Web definition, and there are some “boundaries” to being able to fence-in these types of abuses. Onine, Anonymity and false IDs rules and while arguments can be made for having them, I find in most cases that it is the ugly side that rears its head more often and is more damaging.

Denise Hill

And no’s 1 – 3 are reasons that many are skiddish about the internet, social networking, etc. Then others do not realize that — You really to take a chance when you enter the rhelm of the internet.

Kim Patrick Kobza

Why not alternatively use an enterprise micro-messaging service like Yammer for internal communications, and/or communications with registered lobbyists/press? Would probably not have solved this problem, but might solve many like it.

Matt Topper

Most government organizations have a problem with the fact that the data is stored remotely on someone else’s server and they don’t have their own control (big surprise huh?). AFAIK Yammer doesn’t have an appliance or downloadable solution. I would look at Laconi.ca for an open-microblogging standard solution within the walls of an organization. Many of the popular clients, such as Twhirl, already has support available for any Laconi.ca instance.

The company I work for, Oracle, also has a completely free, downloadable solution that’s coming available soon. This can easily be linked to PKI/CAC cards to verify identity within the walls. I’m not a big product pusher, so I’ll stop there.

The fact that many of these web2.0 service providers ignore the appliance/download model is a huge opportunity for them that I see missing over and over again. There are many places where companies just won’t allow these conversations outside their firewall/servers, but could greatly benefit from allowing these services to run internally. I truly believe that if the services prove their value within the firewalls it’ll help break down the discussions about deploying solutions outside of them.

Adriel Hampton

Very good points, Matt, esp. about missed opportunities. Sometimes you first have to fit into the culture to change it, a point I make over and over about the non-technical aspects of Web 2.0 communication.

Gabriela Dow

Am up late preparing for a webinar I am giving for gov officials tomorrow on latest developments in eGov and saw this blog topic in the GovLoop RSS feed that I dropped into the dashboard of our permitting system to give govt users an example of communities they may want to stay connected with… great points made, I will refer to some of it tomorrow (with proper credit of course).

It’s crazy, I have over 80 CIOs, City Managers, Building Officials, elected officials and their staff signed up for the webinar and at least half of the questions pre-submitted asked what is Twitter, Facebook, is it true gov agencies use My Space…? My take on all of this as former public affairsconsultant is to stay focused on the message to relay, the purpose and the audience. With that in mind, not much has changed really except that there are new mediums to stay on top of and utilize for easier message delivery and new pitfalls to avoid — not to mention so many new voices in the mix, real-time, as gov agencies try to communicate.

Anyone that wants to sit in on the presentation, just go to http://www.govpartner.com and find the link for “webinars” — I am going to be using an example of the grand old pager machine from my days at the WH Office of Public Liaison and how much that reminds me today of Twitter although the pager machine was so expensive and used only for the most important messages, and today Twitter is free, and used for anything and everything…

And of course I’ll descrive GovLoop as a must-have resource for all of these gov officials and their staff 🙂

Sarah Bourne

Thanks for all of your comments!

Allen and Jeffrey: Good addition. I should have said for 3. “this highlights AT LEAST two reasons”. There’s probably a whole post on why you should monitor Twitter.

Kim, Matt, and Adriel: I’m glad this exchange didn’t take place on a private channel like Yammer! I think it’s a Very Good Thing that this conversation was out in the open, for all the world to see. While there are some excellent business cases for using a restricted channel, I think, as Adriel does, that authenticated Twitter accounts would be sufficient.

Ana, Denise, and Gabriela: It’s always most gratifying when something you’ve done is useful, so I’m delighted to hear that this was for you!


Great thread. We are maintaining a government twitter directory. Almost all of those listed are official and we have tried to verify them through official websites and government or company email addresses. Please drop a comment there to get yourself added. We will be launching an upgraded version of the directory soon. We posted it to our blog intially because that was the quickest way to share the information with everyone.