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Monday, September 13, 2010

Why Governments Use Social Media and Why They Should

Lately, I've been exploring whether public forum doctrine may impede desirable governmental uses of interactive social media.   As part of that project, I'm examining both government incentives to use social media and citizen interests implicated by government social media use.  

Governments must speak in order to govern.  Governments speak to educate and to inculcate democratic values, to shape behavior and norms.  Governments seek to persuade, manipulate, coerce, nudge, wheedle, and imprecate.  They tell citizens to say no to drugs, to vote, to return the census, to get flu shots, to pay taxes, to wear seat belts, and to volunteer.  Indeed, effective government communication is essential to effective policy implementation.  Without the acquiescence of the governed, it is almost impossible for a democratic government to perform its roles and functions, and acquiescence is secured through communications. Traditionally, government has spoken through mass media using advertisements and position pages, interviews and pamphlets, public art and press conferences.  Now, however, the government has begun to convey its message through emails, websites, Facebook pages, tweets, and text messages.  Here’s why. 

Access to citizens.  The government has a host of practical reasons for using “new media” for communications with citizens.  Willie Sutton was reported to have said that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” and governments turn to social media because that’s where the citizens are.  However, sheer audience size is only part of the picture. 

Access to Desirable Audiences or Constituencies.  Audience demographics are also important.  The audience of citizens that the government reaches via social media is likely different than the audience that the government reaches via traditional mass media, and these differences may make the audience especially desirable for government communication purposes.  MySpace users, for example, skew younger than citizens who attend city commission meetings or watch the network news, making MySpace a better platform for informing college freshmen about the benefits of the meningitis vaccine.   In addition, government may wish to reach social media audiences because they are more likely to be politically engaged than their fellow citizens. It is not far-fetched to presume that the same initiative that leads social media users to seek out government information online may lead them to other types of political engagement. 

Community-Building and Political Engagement.  Government actors have not been slow to appreciate that social media is not just a tool for communication but a tool for community-building and engagement.  Social media create social relationships, and they may help mobilize citizens from different walks of life and strata of society.  Social media may even help humanize government by giving citizens the sense that their voices are being heard by those in power, thereby defusing social tensions.

Crowdsourcing and improved governance.  The sense of community that is sometimes fostered by social media may ultimately improve not only the relationships between governors and the governed, but also the processes and outcomes of governance.  Social media can serve many of the functions of town hall meetings without the expense or the geographic or time constraints.  Indeed, social media can be used not just to create communities of citizens, but even communities of “experts,” who can share their knowledge to improve the decisions made by government actors. 

Speed, Economy, and Elimination of Intermediaries.  All social media, whether interactive or not, have the advantages of allowing government speakers to quickly and cheaply introduce messages into the public information stream without having to rely on intermediaries.  Social media are ideal for communicating during emergencies because government can issue messages to citizens with rapid speed.  Moreover, social media create a direct line of communication between governor and governed.  Social media decrease government reliance on the traditional mass media to relay (and potentially distort) government messages.  In an age when citizens are highly skeptical of the mainstream media, often for good reason, eliminating their role in the communication process is tremendously beneficial to government actors, though of course it creates an avenue for disseminating propaganda.

Responsiveness.  In order to maintain legitimacy, democratic governments must appear to be responsive to the needs of citizens.  Interactive social media allow governments to gather information from citizens, to listen to their needs and interests, and to respond directly to them quickly and efficiently.  Indeed, the desire to appear responsive to the needs of citizens is a key impetus behind government use of social media.

Luckily, government social media use, even when motivated by pure self-interest, often benefits citizens.  Citizens have an interest in receiving government information quickly, cheaply, and without distortion.  They also have a strong interest in having governments that are responsive to their needs and interests.  However, it is also worth considering how government use of social media fosters the First Amendment interests of citizens.  I use the word “interests” rather than rights because the Supreme Court has never explicitly interpreted First Amendment doctrine to require governments to enable citizens’ exercise of First Amendment freedoms.  That said, the effect of public forum doctrine is to create, in the words of Cass Sunstein, “a right of speakers’ access, both to places and to people."  Public forum doctrine acts as a government subsidy for speech.  The government must hold open traditional forums such as streets and parks for the benefit of speakers who would otherwise lack the resources to reach a mass audience.   Yet, the Supreme Court has been oddly reluctant to extend this understanding to places that have not been open to the public since “ancient times.”

Social media forums, and especially government sponsored ones, have the potential to advance the First Amendment values of free speech, free association, and the petitioning of government for redress of grievances.  With regard to speech and association, social media bring citizens together across boundaries of space and time that often separate them in the offline world.  But government sponsored social media provide speakers with a particularly valuable commodity.  Just as governments use social media to reach desirable audiences, citizens can use these same social media outlets to address audiences that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to reach.  A citizen may seek out the U.S. Coast Guard’s Facebook page, for example, in order to register a complaint about its handling of British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Although the same citizen would be free to set up his own Facebook page to complain about the Coast Guard’s clean-up efforts, the government sponsored Facebook page provides him access to a receptive audience that likely already knows something about the Coast Guard and cares about its performance.

Not only can the Coast Guard sponsored page provide speakers a unique and valuable platform to reach interested fellow citizens, but it can also increase the likelihood that speakers and audience can unite to engage in political action.  Again, audience members who seek information on government sponsored sites may be especially interested in the government policy discussed at that site, and thus more likely than others to engage in action to change or improve the program.  In the Coast Guard example, a citizen might use the government sponsored page to invite fellow citizens to take collective action, such as attending a rally or volunteering to assist with clean up of polluted beaches.  No other online forum is likely to reach quite as interested an audience, nor foster political association, as effectively as the government sponsored one.  Thus, it is incumbent as a matter of public policy to encourage government to open social media as forums for communications to, by, and with citizens. 

Perhaps the most compelling argument supporting government creation of social media forums is that they give meaning to the often neglected constitutional right of citizens to petition government for redress of grievances.  In his new book on the Petition Clause, Professor Ronald Krotoszynski explains that “at its core, the Petition Clause stands for the proposition that government, and those who work for it, must be accessible and responsive to the people.”  Even if governments create interactive social media sites only to create the appearance that they are responsive, citizens can still use them to demand actual responses, as the First Amendment entitles them to do.  Indeed, the use of social media may create pressure for government to be responsive to citizen demands.  This feature of social media forums makes them distinctive from streets and parks, which may sometimes be used to protest government practices and policies in ways that demand action, but do not provide a direct conduit to the government officials in charge of those practices and policies. Although the right to petition is doctrinally underdeveloped, it plays an important role not played by the rights of speech or association.  The Petition Clause guarantees not just a right to speak, but a right to speak to those empowered to take action in response.  It therefore helps guarantee governmental accountability to the electorate, which is the essence of democratic self-governance. 

 

 

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on September 13, 2010 at 09:19 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Lyrissa Lidsky, Web/Tech | Permalink

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Comments


Do you think nlrb's position will help government employees to partake in the world of online social? (or at least get out from alias)

http://www.nlrb.gov/shared_files/Press%20Releases/2010/R-2794.htm

Posted by: Chris S | Nov 5, 2010 8:55:02 AM

It seems that online anonymity and governmental apathy in the face of petition would create problems. Respectively, with anonymity online we find a decrease in civility and effective argumentation, and if the government used social media with the petition clause as a reason and then did so only in appearance, it seems to reason that such an action would further erode decreasing public confidence in its government.

Also, such easy access to petition would most likely create such sheer volume of petitions that it would render the government powerless to address any significant amounts of petitions to appease the people's expectations of the clause.

However, social media as an outlet for governmental speech seems like a good idea, with attention to class and economic disparities.

*Qualifier* I'm not a lawyer so I may not be contributing adequately to the legal concerns of this topic. These are just some thoughts I had while reading.

Posted by: J. M. | Sep 13, 2010 3:28:24 PM

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