While some governments have used social media to monitor unprecedented levels of social unrest this year, many have been leveraging these platforms to improve the quality of their services, engage citizens and cut costs.
In an ideal world, political protests would never escalate to violence if our politicians became better social listeners, opened up more channels of discussion and found effective ways to manage discontent off and online.
US President Barack Obama issued a memorandum on the very first day of his administration in January 2009, instructing heads of executive departments and agencies to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration”. The “social media president” said they should “harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online” and “solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public”.
Have our politicos followed suit?
We’re still playing catch up. President Jacob Zuma (@SAPresident) started tweeting in May this year (just before the local government elections). A number of politicians have established an online presence and gradually warmed up to Twitter such as the ANC Youth League. But the youth league has questioned the value of social media in South Africa, where internet access is still a luxury. It says young people only use their cellphones “to send SMS or ‘please call me’ “.
Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel used social media a little more creatively this month, when the national planning commission posted a visual summary of its findings and launched the new development plan, which maps out the country’s economic future.
But many of the government’s social media efforts still employ the “broadcast” model rather than truly engaging with citizens and communities to solicit public input.
In September, the White House launched We The People, a platform that helps Americans create petitions. If a petition gathers enough online signatures, White House staff review it and ensure it is sent to the appropriate policy experts who issue an official response.
Elizabeth Trudeau, the press attach and spokesperson for the US Embassy in South Africa, said: “In South Africa, in the US and around the world, social media use for governments, businesses and NGOs is booming, and it’s a landscape being rewritten every day as users and events drive and redefine parameters. The social media environment in SA, and more widely on the continent, is dynamic. I think we are all still learning, and need to continue to keep learning how to best engage via these platforms.”
On a more personal level, adopting social media tools has its risks, It can be a career-wrecker as Faizal Daniels found out in November for knocking the boss on Facebook.
Daniels, who was Agriculture and Forestry Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s chief of staff, described President Zuma as “absent-minded” and ANC MPs as “treating Parliament like a shebeen”.
Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, a gregarious tweeter, took some flak this month when in a series of tweets called for men who have multiple sexual partners and refuse to use condoms to be charged with attempted murder.
Public Enterprises Mininster Malusi Gigaba created a Twitter storm in August when he said he hoped to “get lucky” at a SlutWalk march in Cape Town. Twitter users rebuked him for his comments and the Cabinet minister soon apologised and withdrew his comment.
Many social media policies suggest employees keep their professional and private accounts separate but then add that nothing is truly private on the internet, even if you restrict pages to viewing only by friends.
The Government Communication and Information System, which released a social media policy guidelines document for government departments and employees in April this year, makes a similar distinction: “All government employees should think before they post, and they should use their common sense. Government employees should remember that even if they act or speak in a personal capacity, their position as government employees may be known to anyone in the potential audience and may be misunderstood or misrepresented as an official position.”
So navigating the line between official and personal use remains blurry but the benefits, many argue, still outweigh the risks.
“Potential misuse of social media is not a technology problem, it’s a management issue. Organisations, whether governments or business, must address potential concerns through policies, education and training, and supervision. Blanket bans on use of social media are self-defeating — in our case at the US Department of State, social media represents a truly unprecedented opportunity for responsive public engagement. Of course, for any organisation, there must be a clear delineation between business and personal use of social media,” says Trudeau, who is also the person behind @USEmbPretoria.
View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.