Social Media: Citizen Engagement or Gov’t Control?

@BareKnuckleDawg recently sent me the following concerns regarding government use of social media:

  • I regard this “Gov 2.0 thing as the governments way of attempting to spy on the public while “sitting in their lap”, so to speak.
  • The government wants to constantly monitor public sentiment – and I think you are all aiming for a degree of control over it.
  • I believe the government wants to monitor public sentiment in realtime and have the ability to “shutdown” any user they choose

My response was that nothing I’ve said, and nothing I’ve ever heard, matched these suspicions. I’ve talked to a whole lot of people at a huge range of agencies at every level: federal, state, local, and even other countries. In every case, *every single case*, the discussion centers on ideals of citizen engagement, open government, transparency, etc. But I also acknowledged that it’s possible some agencies will use these tools in that way. I mean, people can use any tool, online or off, for nefarious purposes.

I suspect there’s no way to convince anyone of what we’ll actually do in advance, so we just need to do it instead. And in a free society, the best defense is citizens keeping an eye on things.

But I also think this is a wide-open discussion topic, and I’d love to see loads of people share their thinking. To get the ball rolling, here are a few questions to ponder:

  1. What’s the “real” reason gov’t agencies want to engage in social media?
  2. Is there any way to convince skeptics like @BareKnuckleDawg that they’re wrong, other than just doing it and showing what we’re up to over time?
  3. If some agency does use social media the way suggested, how should other agencies, the public, the media, etc. react?

As you discuss, feel free to suggest other questions and I’ll update this main post.

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Craig Sellars

1. The “real” reason should be to measure public sentiment, to better engage the public and to take this into account (among other things) when fulfilling our mandates. We have to follow the statutes; enacted by the politicians; elected by the people, but public input will help fine tune our interpretation in real life. This will, hopefully, avoid an ivory tower interpretation of the law. Social media is just one more input to improve the way we serve.

2. I am not sure we will ever convince true sceptics as it is in their nature to question everything. The terms “spying” and “control” display a strong distrust in government. The most mature and effective way to convince the majority is to just do it and show transparency over time. There are many people who have had numerous bad experiences in the past and we may be able to make some of them feel comfortable with government again, but it will take time. It can seem cold, but we serve the majority, as decided in a democratic election, and we serve the best interests of our country.

3. The leadership of that agency and the public service leadership in general need to acknowledge the fault, make what amends they can and move on. Just like every tool, there is always a chance someone will misuse it and a large number of users increases the chance from likely to inevitable. The best way to minimize that risk and allow for effective action should the inevitable happen is to take an active role and educate public servants on what is and is not acceptable.

“All the tools we have within our reach must be approached with professional responsibility. We must measure what we communicate with reasoned good judgment and maturity. Some will abuse the freedom social media offers. But we can’t manage for the few. We can offer trust, and expect this trust to be honoured. I’m excited we can accomplish the ‘public good’ in amazing new ways, totally unimaginable only a few years ago. We are poised at the edge of a new frontier. The bold will blaze the trail there. The others can follow.”
~Beth Beck, Space Operations Outreach Program Manager, NASA

Great topic Jeffery, hear you on the forum today!


Kevin Lanahan

I’d echo Craig’s thoughts, with a couple other points.

1) An agency may want to engage the public, or it may want to gauge opinion, or it may just want to distribute its news releases in a new venue. Shortly after an agency begins experimenting with social media, it will learn that you MUST engage and interact with your fans/followers/readers. The public demands it.

So whatever reason an agency begins with, it will eventually morph into interaction with the public or it will be a quaint relic of government’s attempt to be hip.

2. There isn’t any way to convince folks like BareKnuckleDawg. But as long as they can go to your website, or pick up a news report from wherever they get their news, they can still get your message. They just won’t get it on Facebook or Twitter. And they probably block all the cookies on all the sites they visit, and wonder why the web isn’t more fun.

This is another reason why social media has to be part of an overall communication strategy, but it can’t be the only communication strategy.

3. I would hope that Homeland Security and the IRS does monitor social media for enforcement purposes, but think that if my agency tried to do something like that, the governor, attorney general, the feds and media would/should come down on us like a ton of bricks.