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Increase in world leaders tweeting mean an increase in open government?

Just after the new year, the Washington Post advertised a recent study showing that an increasing amount of world leaders are taking to Twitter to increase their reach to nationals, 140 characters at a time. While this new report from the Digital Policy Council does show a significant upward trend in the number of leaders that take to Twitter (75% increase from 2011), the more revealing graph is the one below that highlights which country’s heads of state have the largest amount of followers and supposedly the larger trend towards open government.

The Wash Post continues to state that “the numbers sound like a big win both for Twitter and for open government, which have gone hand-in-hand since even before the Arab Spring uprisings popularized social media as a form of civic participation in 2010.”

But does the increased activity of a country’s leader (or their designated ghost tweeter) on Twitter really indicate a broader move for an open and transparent government? Is this a necessity for governments whose citizens are simply more active on Twitter?

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Alexander B. Howard

I’ll expand upon the comment I made at the Washington Post article. First, a quibble with the reporting. It’s worth noting that President Obama also tweets on his campaign account (@BarackObama) as well as the governance account (@WhiteHouse). The last tweet he personally sent there was January 8th.

The President also engaged in a Twitter chat earlier this winter where he read and responded to tweets; that does not appear to be a regular habit, at least based upon statements from his digital director.

On a larger front, it’s worth asking, as you have, whether a world leader (or, more often, his or her staff) is a “big win” for open government or not.

The accountability and transparency that the medium provides would seem to rest upon the participation of an increasing number of citizens who are sharing what they’re seeing or reading, as opposed to what the world leader is saying or sharing, which can often amount to a press release or decree, shortened into 140 characters or less. Constant, personal used on Twitter, like that of Mayor @CoreyBooker of Newark, shows how the social network can be leveraged in governance by an executive. The key difference with Booker, however, is not just that he’s tweeting personally or frequently: he’s listening and directly engaging with constituents who are asking for help, reporting problems or making arguments for policy.

Whether world leaders could or should use social media in the same way as a mayor may be an open question, but the example set on Twitter by, say, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves does suggest some possibilities.