Who is the Social State?

If you ever want to catch my ear, just start talking about government use of social media.  It is a fascinating cornucopia of opportunities for applied research and practical policy work.  This thought-provoking post by Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene over on Governing motivated me to post my first blog topic, to continue this conversation into one of my areas of interest–the person(s) and policies behind the profile.  I’ll keep this relatively short, more questions than answers, something get my thoughts out now and revisit later.

Any technology potent enough to be interesting will inevitably destabilize existing institutions, power relationships, social structures, reigning economic and technological systems, and cultural assumptions.” – Brad Allenby [1]

Social media and social networks existed long before the Internet.  However, the long arm of the Internet’s reach and speed has given rise to communities of digital media unlike anything we’ve ever known.  Seven in ten people in the US use social media, 8 in 10 people age 49 and under.  Government has also jumped on this ubiquitous communication train.  Public administrators and legislators at every level engage the public, stakeholders, and each other.

Some in government hopped onto social media platforms as a natural extension of their duties, such as with legislators or administrators within public-facing offices.  Others saw social media as “part of the presidential mandate: ‘We had to use social media to accomplish the goals of the Open Government and Transparency initiative.’” [2]  When done right, social media allows members of government to increase transparency, accountability, and increase civic engagement through greater public consultation and participatory democracy.  But what does it mean to do it right?

Operating social  media differs for individuals, non-governmental organizations, and government.  Individuals are bound only by the terms and conditions of the particular social media platform.  Organizations may have an additional layer of social media use policies.   Government policies vary by office, but may have many additional layers such as communication data retention (archiving).  Doing it right, at least for government, starts with following these policies and procedures; yet the lack of uniform policy standards creates a veritable wild west of government social media use.

How to get it right, whether it is social media or anything else, is a billion dollar question and way too broad.  Despite the additional communication and data policy layers that accompany government, many of the following considerations are also valid for private companies and nonprofit organizations.    Additionally, although I say social media, most of these thoughts could equally apply to conversations about email policy.

I would start at the beginning, start with the social media account profile.  Is the account an official government account or an individual/personal account used wholly or in part for official purposes?  We can look to our two most recent US presidents Twitter presence as a perfect example.  President Obama frequently used the @POTUS account for his presidential executive activity and his @BarackObama account for personal and political party activity.  President Trump conducts most of his presidential communications via his @realDonaldTrump personal account.  He took over control of the official @POTUS account, but primarily uses it far less frequently and mostly to retweet instead of posting original content.  These two different approaches carry real implications for communications and data management and policy.

From an institutional perspective, setting policy to prevent using personal social media accounts for official government helps alleviate concerns about account continuity between elected officials and administrators.  In the case of the two US presidents, they agreed to clear all of the Obama-era @POTUS tweets from the account and start the Trump administration with a clean tweet slate.  This may or may not become practice between future presidential administrations.  However, many other official administration accounts preserve their posts between staff changes.

These practices vary and can become more complicated for elected officials in state and local executive and legislative offices.  In some cases, official accounts are created, but those accounts are personalized to the officer holder.  In the case of my local Washington DC, the current mayor, Murial Bowser, has the Twitter account of @MayorBowser for her official mayoral business and a separate account @MurielBowser for her personal and political campaign business.  Additionally, she has the @TeamMuriel for the mayoral executive office communications on behalf of @MayorBowser.  For each of these official and personal accounts, she includes her first and/or last name.  This allows the personalized touch that might be appreciated by her constituents, but does not lend well for once she is out of office.  On one hand, the next mayor will likely need to create new accounts to differentiate her/himself, possibly following the same personalized account name trend for all of its pros and cons.   Furthermore, it is not customary to use the mayor honorific to former mayors, and so continued usage of these personalized official accounts may confuse those not familiar with the current landscape of government officials, as in the case of former DC Mayor Vincent Gray and his still active @mayorvincegray account.

In addition to any challenges faced by isolating official and personal social media account names, several other questions arise that pertain to the usage of those accounts.  How do we address data retention in these accounts?  For example, should government officials that use personal accounts for official business be able to delete social media posts without running afoul of data archiving policies?  Similarly, what are the implications and repercussions of first amendment rights if a government official  blocks the social media accounts of a dissenter?  Does it matter, and if so then how, if that blockage occurred on a personal or official government account?

The more I think about this matter, the more questions arise.  Future posts will explore these issues in greater detail and expand into related topics, such as the ‘faceless bureaucrat’–the unknown government administrator(s) that posts using an office name. [3]

[1] p.33 from Allenby, Brad. (2015). Emerging technologies and the future of humanity. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 71(6): 29-38.
[2] p.126 from Mergel, Ines. (2013). Social media adoption and resulting tactics in the U.S. federal government. Government Information Quarterly 30 (2): 123–30. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2012.12.004.
See also: Lee, G., & Kwak, Y.H. (2012). An open government maturity model for social media-based public engagement. Government Information Quarterly 29:492-503. doi:10.1016/j.giq. 2012.06.001
and Zavattaro, S. M., & Sementelli, A. J. (2014). A critical examination of social media adoption in government: Introducing omnipresence. Government Information Quarterly, in press / forthcoming. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2013.10.007
[3] Mergel, Ines. (2013b). A framework for interpreting social media interactions in the public sector. Government Information Quarterly, 30(4), 327–334. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2013.05.015