By Mohan K, Tech Evangelist
Social media as a tool for engagement and activism between citizens and government officials is gaining popularity in societies around the world. A decade ago, the tools rose to prominence when used for activism in the form of the Arab Spring, and more recently gained notoriety in America for mobilizing radicals for the infamous “siege.” of the US Capitol after the presidential elections. It is no surprise that Indian politicians and senior officials are taking inspiration from around the world and using social media platforms to shape dialogue with citizens.
India’s Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, has laid out 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. Her Twitter account, with over 76 million followers, is among the top 10 in the world, rivaling Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Elon Musk. Perhaps the only other politicians to make the top 20 list are former US Presidents Barak Obama and Donald Trump before Mr Trump’s account was banned by Twitter for his erratic activism after losing the election.
Engage the audience: or just another means of dissemination?
Indian politicians and political parties are eager to copy Mr Modi’s playbook, and most are using social media as a mouthpiece to mobilize their cadres. Senior officials and bureaucrats are following suit by trying to be visible on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – by retweeting, liking and sharing appropriate proclamations from their political leaders and posting a few pictures of cute puppies or motivational quotes in road course.
Most major political parties have developed “IT cells”, which mainly 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 intervene to refute opposition claims and counterclaims. Computer cells and social media groups encourage their party workers to create accounts and groups while ensuring that they “subscribe”, “follow”, “like” and share the messages of their leaders , essentially amplifying a message.
The trickle-down effect of such a social media “campaign” can obviously be amplified by repeated likes and shares, but can also be counterproductive – most politicians and bureaucrats use their accounts to cultivate followers mainly to demonstrate how “influential” they are. This is a digital version of the “engaged crowd” that politicians gather at their rallies. Government officials who jump on the social media bandwagon seem to be missing a key point – social media platforms are designed to generate “social” engagement, and these accounts fail miserably when used only as a one-way spread or as spokesperson for official proclamations.
Corporate brand managers realized this at the start of the social media boom when angry customers tagged their accounts after a poor customer experience, and a silent non-reaction was instantly noticed and amplified by digirati.
Social media engagement experiences with utilities
We frequently read about groups of disgruntled citizens mobilized through social media when an untoward incident occurs in a community. Given this need to engage citizens and ensure law and order, police departments across the country are actively managing social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms. Accounts can frequently be seen responding to citizen concerns in near real time.
In Bangalore, where I now live, the local municipal corporation, BBMP, rolled out Sahaaya, an effective social engagement app. One can log into the app and add complaints and grievances related to civic issues such as garbage collection, road maintenance, animal and pest control, and other miscellaneous services. A “ticket” is issued and tracked by relevant department managers in the specified department, who have strict service level agreements (SLAs) to address such grievances. I frequently used the app to complain about trash pickup and even to report civic encroachment. The ecosystem of officials running the app appears to be responding to public demands.
In another instance, I tried to use social media to draw attention to a long-standing issue my family is dealing with. My father had acquired a plot of land on the outskirts of Bengaluru over two decades ago, and registration of title is pending for a technical reason that the authorities have not been able to explain. Despite unsuccessful attempts to follow up with officials through my lawyer, they continue to drag their feet. A few intermediaries told me that a large “bribe” payment would guarantee instant results, but I wanted to avoid a bribe payment.
I took to social media and identified key groups on platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and other forums to get people to highlight the issue. I also created a Change.org petition and began tweeting and posting frequently about the issue on forums, trying to get the attention of decision makers.
After a few months of diligent tweeting and tagging from key officials and ministers, I finally got a response from the decision maker – Bengaluru Deputy Commissioner Mr J Manjunath who tweeted back
“Sir, I was unaware of this issue. I will find out where the same is kept pending and will definitely deal with the same next business day. We are committed to providing responsive administration. Thank you and regards” , (link: https://twitter.com/JManjunathIAS/status/1487505207156445184)
It has been over six weeks since Mr. Manjunath’s tweet and I have not heard from him or his department officials. Not exactly the responsive engagement you expect on social media.
Lessons to be learned from using social media to engage with citizens
When it comes to using social media to engage with citizens, there is certainly a lot of slippage between the cup and the lip. While public servants and elected officials are busy with the demands of their day-to-day work, they also need to get creative with managing their social media accounts.
• It is not a one-way communication – Indian politicians and government officials are used 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 “engage” with an audience. When a public servant posts an opinion, they should be prepared to receive real-time responses from others on the platform.
• Broadcast Fatigue – Most of us listen to garish headlines and commentators yelling about some “breaking news” or the like. Similarly, people learn to weed out “trendy” hashtags from official accounts that are merely sycophantic or simply echo a known opinion.
• Unresponsive social media accounts – Citizens have varying needs that they expect from elected leaders and government officials, and they traditionally travel long distances to queue and meet with officials. Submitting an online request or petition to an unsupervised social media account is a surefire way to generate resentment among members of the public. A silent non-response to a public appeal or a citizen’s petition will also be noticed and amplified by political opponents.
Senior officials and political leaders who use social media underestimate the amount of effort required to run an engaging platform. Many are really 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 hire specialist contractors to manage the company’s social media accounts. Specialists are provided with operational procedures for responding to routine queries and know when to escalate customer complaints and issues to business leaders before they generate negative public relations.
Result : Government officials and politicians are commonly known to be accused of not responding; but they have the opportunity to turn the tide by investing in a team to respond responsively to queries on their social media accounts.
About the Author – Mohan K is a technology executive in a multinational company. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and not those of his organization.