Here’s my take on the furor in the Philippines over Mislang’s Twitter fiasco and the recent moves to regulate the use of social networks by government employees. This whole issue goes beyond an individual’s mistakes; turning to mere regulation of social networks is the worst way to move forward.
» The Aquino administration should renew its social media policies, but it should do so as part of an overall review of their social media strategy…or is there even one in place?
» The Twitter fiasco by Mislang has been met with relentless, severe and sometimes cruel condemnation by both allies and opposition of Aquino. While I share the criticism and rejoice in social media’s ability to amplify public criticism, I must also warn against cybercitizens’ fascination with the ‘digital scarlet letter’.
» The Aquino administration has the chance to elevate social media use in government from a communications and PR tool to that of a relevant platform for good governance. However, mere regulation of the use of social media networks by government employees is the wrong way to begin.
Carmen Mislang, speechwriter of President Benigno Aquino, Jr. and part of the contingent of the state visit to Vietnam, got into hot water a few weeks ago after posting several ‘undiplomatic’ tweets on her personal Twitter account. This prompted Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang to temporarily put tweeting by his staff on hold, while he reviewed social media guidelines for Twitter (and possibly also look into Facebook guidelines as well).
If the Philippine government is serious with social media, then renewing social media policies is just one item in the long list of things to do. And it doesn’t even fall under the initial steps.
I hope Secretary Carandang won’t mind considering some of my insights on social media and governance. If he were a client of mine, I’d ask him to consider three points. The short version:
1. Focus on strategy before tools. Renew their whole social media policy (not just Twitter’s but all their social media channels), but only as part of a bigger review of their overall social media strategy and social media governance.
2. Engage in meaningful conversations amidst public critique. Deal with negative online perception by conversing with the public within the social web itself. Be present where your critiques converge, face the ugly remarks, respond with honesty, and be transparent about how government plans to move forward in this (and other such) cases.
3. Think not just ‘social media’, but ‘social government’. Clearly define social media’s role in (good) governance and democracy. Make this the framework for developing a social media strategy.
People and goals first; tools and tech last
The ‘social’ is more important than the ‘media’. And the ‘social’ is harder to do. You can start tweeting in minutes without really thinking of why, what and how to tweet. Or you can create guidelines in a snap. But you won’t solve anything if you let yourself be distracted by the latest shiny object in social media and focus on tactics first without a clear social media strategy in place. At best, it will be hit and miss. At worst, it will backfire at you. Although, the examples I raised are business cases, we can draw enough parallels to government; these mistakes are certainly not exclusive to businesses alone. Government should really be clear which goals social media need to help realise, and how it is supposed to achieve these goals. Don’t jump the gun when you know you lack qualified community/network managers, appropriate social media policies, and the relevant strategy and roadmap.
Does Malacañang want to get feedback from the public only (hope not!) or does it want to promote engaged conversations? Will it play content curator or issues mediator? And just like what brands today that immersed in social media are realising: is Malacañang prepared to let go of its ‘brand’? To lose control and yet be able to manage this ‘lost’?
I hope that the social networking policy that Secretary Carandang is developing won’t be primarily used to muzzle the staff despite the negative sentiment created by Mislang’s Twitter fiasco. Instead, it should help them preserve the authenticity of the social objects they share without losing sight of the proper context and purpose of their content. While social networks, and consequently, their users, evolve organically, it doesn’t mean we cannot participate in it within a strategic framework. In fact, it is in government’s best interest to invest resources on developing social media strategy and resolving social media governance issues before zooming in on the tools to use. A well-designed social media strategy will result in social media initiatives that are more efficient (it will help determine which social networks to optimise and prioritise); effective (it will help refine and create targeted messages); and sustainable (it can address the problem of scale in social media).
And I hope Malacañang doesn’t stop its review with Twitter. It should make sure it has the proper guidelines in place for all its social channels. I already posted my critique of the way President Aquino’s Facebook page is being used and especially how it dealt with the local and international backlash during the Manila hostage crisis.
Living with the digital scarlet letter
Filipinos have shown great affinity for and acclimation for social networks despite the relative lack and lower quality of communications infrastructure and networks in the Philippines in comparison with Western countries. In a recent report, it placed no. 6 among countries with the highest Twitter penetration in the world.
We have adapted quickly to social technologies using it to voice discontent with government or help each other in times of great need. In the case of Mislang’s Twitter blunder, the social web served as a reservoir of the deluge of criticism levelled against her ranging from articles that don’t mince words to hate pages on Facebook.
On the flipside, this incident brings to mind cybercitizens’ fascination for branding the digital scarlet letter. Social web and cloud computing make it easier for our professional and personal mistakes to be cached, downloaded, shared an continuously scrutinised. The ‘permanent memory bank of the Web’ makes forgetting — and forgiving — even more difficult.
In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites Stacy Snyder’s case as a reminder of the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, Mayer-Schönberger notes, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.” (The Web Means the End of Forgeting)
But how can we forgive, digitally and otherwise, if “…the Internet records everything and forgets nothing”? How do we forgive in a world that has forgotten how to forget mistakes?
Let me be crystal clear: Mislang made a mistake and she learned her lesson the hard way. I agree with my favourite writer and columnist, Conrado de Quiros, that Mislang’s tweets harms her boss, the President of the Philippines.
However, it’s not just Mislang who should get the blame: it’s her office as well. The matter of undiplomatic and tasteless tweets in this case was not just a matter of an erring public servant, but a government office that has erred in its perception and use of social networks. Sure, Mislang should have exercised better judgment and common sense, but the Presidential Office should have already drawn up a clear social media policy in the first place. And taking a step back, before even attempting to define guidelines for social media, Malacañang should have first had a well-designed social strategy in place. Well, the Palace might say they have one already, but from what I can infer from this Twitter fiasco and the President’s FB page, it seems that even if they have a strategy, it is not a good one.
What also needs pointing out: after exposing a wrongdoing, we should be open to forgiving and allowing the wrongdoer to make things right. We need to discover new forms of empathy as Jeffrey Rosen wisely pointed out in his article, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting”. Isn’t it ironic that even as we now supposedly live in a tolerant and permissive time, where second chances can be granted, we are actually all quick to brand on others the digital scarlet letter? Nowadays, the worst thing that an individual or organisation has done is the first (and the only?) thing we (choose to) remember.
As I mentioned in a previous post, “discovering news forms of empathy in this digital world can help us all learn better from our mistakes and actually serve the interest of transparency and accountability better; it can give us the drive to reinvent and be more true to ourselves; we can be motivated to forget and be more forgiving of ourselves and others. Ultimately, I hope it helps us emerge as wiser and kinder beings.”
“Social on the outside, social in the inside”
The entire flurry over the Aquino administration’s use of social media may lead you to ask: why does it matter really? What do social media have to do with running the country?
A lot — if you believe in e-democracy and in democratising and socialising data to empower the public domain. Social media is neither the latest, shiny, new gadget in the market to be used superfluously without a good strategy, nor is it a solution to be taken outside the realm of democratic principles.
E-democracy thrives in a framework that acknowledges the Internet and other forms of digital technology as political media; each one possessing the radical potential to drive democratic processes and be transformed in return. I’ve discussed lengthily the role of interactive and social media in good governance in several posts. I’ve summarised the points below:
“In general, E-democracy as a paradigm focuses on creating more democratic communities by enhancing democratic processes and values (e.g. participation, accountability, transparency) through information and communication technologies and strategies. What makes the notion of E-democracy more interesting these days is the framework where it’s taking place: Web 2.0.
Wikipedia defines the term “Web 2.0″ as “…a perceived second generation of web development and design, that aims to facilitate communication, secure information sharing, interoperability, and collaboration on the World Wide Web. Web 2.0 concepts have led to the development and evolution of web-based communities, hosted services, and applications; such as social-networking sites, video-sharing sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies.”
‘Gov 2.0’ is a take on Web 2.0 in the sense that principles of good governance such as transparency, accountability, grassroots empowerment and communication converge with similar values emanating from Web 2.0 technologies. ‘Gov 2.0’ aims to capitalize on the momentum for change and broad engagement, wherein the democratization of data brought about by Web 2.0 technologies have played a significant role. It’s a platform where technologists can rise to the call of public service and where different stakeholders in government and civil society — policy-makers, elected officials, upper management in city, state, and federal agencies, private-sector internet business and cultural leaders, and the citizens — can establish a common agenda for the pursuit of good governance and stronger democracies.
This is how I see it: in order to govern – and to govern democratically – one needs to ensure that citizens have the means to raise their voice and be heard; provide venues to gather and organise; stimulate and safeguard processes for discussion, collective decision-making and action.
The digital realm is currently widely used by citizens to interface with government. Government uses websites, portals, e-services and the like to disseminate information. But just providing information is not enough. Steven Clift, Founder and Board Chair of E-democracy.org, asks: where is ‘democracy’ in these interfaces?
By the same token, interactive media proponents like those in our profession should explore how democracy can be designed so “that it survives and thrives online”. We should identify “…the incremental contributions the Internet” and other digital technology can make when democratic principles are applied to it. Clift posits: how do we “…make those tools, features, practices, and rights universally accessible to all people in all cities, states, and countries?”
Social media form platforms for good governance. Taking social media into the framework of e-democracy requires not only the presence of government’s public-facing social channels, but also relevant changes within government itself. A genuine social media strategy should address external social media issues, as well as internal ones. If government really wants to leverage social media, it should aspire to be social on the outside and social on the inside.
Where to start? Learn from best practices.
“A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.””
(Memorandum of the Freedom of Information Act by Barack Obama)
So how do we go about building the sidewalks, public squares, town halls, hearing rooms and community centres into government’s digital and online interfaces that will ensure the public can assemble, discuss, decide, act and collaborate with government?
Not with less social media, that’s for sure.
Kudos to the Presidential Office for speaking against HB 184, which regulates the government employees’ use of social networking sites Facebook and Twitter during office hours. Just saw on the news that the Presidential Office is now OK with regulating the use of social networks. I don’t know what to make of this; I am extremely disappointed. While the Presidential Spokesperson said that social network regulation doesn’t have to be a law, they are still operating within the famework of regulation: their starting point is still to decrease time spent on social networks by government employees. Trying to control social networks this way bespeak cluelessness about the profound impact of social networks in society, culture and, yes, governance. Regulation is not equal to optimising and leveraging social media for good governance. Instead of starting from a negative standpoint on social media, the Presidential Office should realise social media as an integral part of Governance 2.0. There are enough success stories in government (and business) where employees’ work productivity was positively influenced by their more meaningful and relevant involvement in social media.
Instead of merely regulating the use of social media in government, the Aquio Aministration should try to:
- Leverage the wisdom of crowds (public and civil servants). Social media creates an open dialogue not only between government and citizens but also between different government agencies as well.
- Democratise data to enhance civic participation. Provide citizens real access to relevant information and the actions they can take.
- Bring government to the people, wherever they are. Utilise new media tools and strategy to make government services more effective, accessible, and transparent.Encourage accountability through transparency. Acknowledge, assess, and embrace social media.
- Leverage social media. Use existing (user-generated, co-creation driven) technology to reach wider audiences at minimal cost to taxpayers.
- Review organisational capacities and identify areas that need to be improved in order to respond the demands of managing E-democracy products and processes.
There are many inspirations the Presidential Office can draw upon from best practices, such as the Federal IT Dashboard, GovLoop, Apps for Democracy and much more. These examples demosntrate just how social media benefits government offices and stimulates civic participation. More details here and here.
“(U)nderstanding the power of communities, the multiple personas of their members, their expectations, their aspirations and how to interact with them …” are essential skills that the Aquno Administration should try to learn and master. In doing so, government (as well as non-government and businesses alike) will hopefully be able to not just architect information, but also architect meaningful engagement.