Should Local Governments Rely on Facebook for Public Communications?

Back when social media were just getting popular I was a strong supporter for government use especially in times of crisis or emergency.

Going “where the people” are seemed a simple justification for why a government agency might want to use Facebook. Facebook is relatively cheap to get started, it provides a standardized platform, it enables discussions, its use is not limited to young people, and — most importantly — it can hook into a large population of potential users that might not otherwise be directly reachable.

Now I’m not so sure. I gave up using Facebook. I found it annoying and didn’t trust how it was using and selling information about me and my online interactions.

I’m no privacy nut but I decided that Facebook just isn’t trustworthy. Yet its popularity is clear. In many cases it is also being used as a default identity management system. You can see this when you go to a website that lets you log in using your Facebook credentials. Who am I to argue with success?

While researching local government program transparency I ran across my home town’s “social media” page. It lists, for the Alexandria, Virginia city government, the social media badges for various programs and departments. Of the 14 programs and departments listed,

1 mentions using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube
3 mention using Facebook and Twitter
9 mention using Facebook only
1 mentions using Twitter only

I agree 100% with the value of city governments using social media to communicate with citizens. At the same time, I have serious reservations about Facebook’s reliability in terms of privacy protection and monetization of personal information. Given such concerns, is it appropriate for city governments to rely on Facebook for communicating with the public?

  • On the one hand, many citizens use Facebook so it makes sense to “go where the people are.”
  • On the other hand, using a tool that has some of the features of a “walled internet garden” and a history of issues with protecting personal information seems problematic to me.

Am I being overly sensitive since I gave up using Facebook myself and don’t recommend it to others? Or should the fact that so many people use Facebook be the real deciding factor?

I would welcome a discussion of these questions either here, on my blog, or on Google+ where I originally published this list.

This post was first published on April 17, 2013 on my web site. Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in digital strategy, collaborative project management, and new technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Jive Software, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, Social Media Today and Oracle, and the World Bank Group. His experience includes the management of projects involving the conversion or migration of financial and transaction data associated with large and small systems. Contact Dennis via email at [email protected] or by phone at 703-402-7382.

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