By Mohan K, Tech Evangelist
Social media as a tool for engagement and activism between citizen and government officials has been gaining popularity in societies around the world. A decade ago, the tools came to prominence when used for activism in the form of The Arab Spring, and more recently gained notoriety in America to mobilize radicals for the infamous ‘siege’ of the US Capitol after the presidential elections. Not surprisingly, politicians and senior government officials in India have been taking cues from around the world and are using social media platforms to shape the dialog with citizens.
The Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi has defined the blueprint for social media engagement between the Indian Government and citizens. Mr. Modi’s tweets and social media posts are eagerly followed by the public and members of the fourth estate alike. His Twitter account, with more than 76 million followers is among the top-10 in the world, competing with the likes of Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Elon Musk. Perhaps the only other politicians to be on the top-20 list are former American Presidents Barak Obama and Donald Trump before Mr. Trump’s account was banned by Twitter for his erratic activism after losing elections.
Engaging the public: or just another means of broadcasting?
Indian politicians and political parties have been eager to copy Mr. Modi’s playbook, and most are using social media as a mouthpiece to mobilize their cadre. Senior Government officials and bureaucrats are following suit by trying to be visible on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – retweeting, liking and re-sharing appropriate proclamations from their political leaders, and posting a few pictures of cute puppies or motivational quotes along the way.
Most major political parties have developed “IT Cells,” that primarily focus on broadcasting on a variety of social media channels. They sometimes come up with creative #HashTags to generate buzz on topical issues or quickly jump in to refute claims and counterclaims by the opposition. The IT cells and social media groups goad their party workers to create accounts and groups while ensuring they ‘subscribe’ ‘follow’ and ‘like’ and share the posts of their leaders, essentially amplifying a message.
The trickle-down effect of such social media ‘campaign’ can be obviously amplified by repeated likes and shares, but can also be counterproductive – Most politicians and bureaucrats are using their accounts to cultivate followers primarily to demonstrate how ‘influential’ they are. This is a digital version of the ‘hired crowd’ that politicians gather during their rallies. Government officials jumping onto the social media bandwagon seem to miss a key point – social media platforms are designed to generate “social” engagement, and such accounts fail miserably when used only as a one-way broadcast or a mouthpiece for official proclamations.
Corporate brand managers realized this early during the social-media boom when irate customers would tag their accounts after a poor customer experience, and a silent, non-reaction would be instantly noticed and amplified by the digirati.
Experiments with social media engagement with public services
We frequently read about groups of disgruntled citizens mobilized by social media when an untoward incident occurs in a community. Given this need to engage citizen and ensure law and order, police departments across the country have been actively managing social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms. One can frequently see the accounts responding to citizen’s concerns in near-real time.
In Bengaluru, where I now live, the local city corporation, BBMP has rolled out Sahaaya, an effective social engagement App. One can login to the App and add complaints and grievances related to civic issues like garbage collection, road maintenance, animal and pest control and other sundry services. A ‘ticket’ is raised and tracked by officials of the concerned department in the specified ward, who have strict Service Level Agreements (SLAs) to respond to such grievances. I have frequently used the App to complain about garbage collection and even to report a civic encroachment. The ecosystem of officials managing the App seem to be accountable to requests from the public.
In another instance, I have tried to use social media to draw attention to a long pending issue faced by my family. My father had acquired a parcel of land in the outskirts of Bengaluru over two decades ago, and the registration of title has been pending for some technical reason that officials haven’t been able to explain. Despite futile attempts to follow up with officials through my lawyer, they continue to drag their feet. I was told by a few middlemen that a payment of a large ‘bribe’ would ensure instant results, but I wanted to avoid a graft payment.
I took to social media and identified key groups in platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and other forums to engage folks to highlight the issue. I also created a Change.org petition, and began frequent tweeting and posting about the issue on forums, trying to draw the attention of decision makers.
After a few months of diligent tweeting and tagging key officials and ministers, I finally got a response from the decision maker – the Deputy Commissioner of Bengaluru, Mr. J Manjunath, who tweeted back
“Sir, I was unaware of this issue. Will find out where the same is kept pending and would definitely address the same on the next working day. We are committed towards providing a responsive administration. Thanks & regards,” (link: https://twitter.com/JManjunathIAS/status/1487505207156445184)
It has been over six weeks since Mr. Manjunath’s tweet and I haven’t heard back from him or from officials in his department. Not exactly the responsive engagement one expects on social media.
The lessons in using social media to engage with citizens
When it comes to using social media to engage with citizen, there is certainly many a slip between the cup and the lip. While individual officials and elected representatives are busy with the demand of their day job, they need to be creative about ensuring management of their social media accounts too.
• Not a one-way communication – Indian politicians and Government officials are accustomed to using traditional news media to make an announcement or proclamation. Social media tools, on the other hand, are designed to elicit instant feedback and to ‘engage’ with an audience. When an official posts an opinion, s/he should be prepared for real-time responses from others on the platform.
• Broadcast fatigue – Most of us tune out screaming headlines and commentators yelling about some ‘breaking news’ or the other. In the same way, folks are learning to tune out ‘trending’ Hashtags from official accounts that are merely sycophantic or merely echo a known opinion.
• Unresponsive social media accounts – Citizen have varied needs that they expect elected leaders and government officials to resolve, and they traditionally travel long distances to queue up and meet officials. Submitting an online request or petition to an unattended social media account is a sure-fire way to generate resentment among members of the public. A silent, non-reaction to a public appeal or petition by citizen will also be noticed and amplified by political opponents.
Senior government officials and political leaders taking to social media underestimate the amount of effort required in managing an engaging platform. Many are genuinely busy with their demanding jobs and may not be able to monitor their social media accounts in real-time. They can learn from corporate brand managers who engage specialized contractors to manage corporate social media accounts. The specialists are given operating-procedures on responding to routine queries and know when to escalate customer complaints and issues to corporate leaders before they generate negative PR.
Bottomline : Government officials and politicians are generally known to take the rap for being un-responsive; but they have an opportunity to turn the tide by investing in a team to responsively address queries to their social media accounts.
About the author – Mohan K is a technology executive with a multinational company. The opinions in this article are his own and not that of his organization.