There is no doubt that our politicians depend on Twitter during election campaigns. However, the institutions they head are neither well represented nor well received, owing to a clear lack of social media strategy.
The importance of social media, its direct outreach and inherent potential to shape public opinion is uncontested. Used in the right way, it enables quick and effective dialogue with citizens making it indispensable to any government.
Twenty two percent of all Indians are estimated to have become users of the internet by end of 2015. This makes India the second largest internet population in the world – behind China and ahead of the US. The scope of growth is immense, particularly on mobile. With no local controls favouring home-grown companies as in China, Indians have voraciously adopted popular US-based services such as Facebook and Twitter. These names are ubiquitous within our internet story. We are Facebook’s second largest market with roughly 150 million monthly active users. India’s Twitter users stand strong at 20 million, including major commentators, celebrities, politicians and business leaders. Tweets of public figures are followed tenaciously, with print and electronic media often quoting them as formal statements of expression, in many cases without consent.
The NDA’s campaign strategy for the 2014 general elections included social media as an essential tool to reach out to voters. Driven by its success and strong backing from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, social media usage became an integral part of governance, even if it isn’t always used to its full potential. Many members of top leadership are active users who have attracted a large following. Senior ministers and civil servants have aligned their personal social media avatars with the operational and strategic objectives of their institutions.
It is worthwhile to analyse the effectiveness of this marriage. There is no doubt that our politicians depend on Twitter during election campaigns, for communicating opinions and rebuttals, and in situations of political unrest and emergency/disaster management. However, the institutions they head are neither well represented nor well received, owing to a clear lack of strategy and the nature of this medium, where users have a short attention span and prefer interacting with “real” identifiable persons. Government institutions require a more thoughtful framework as their application is mostly limited to plain dissemination of information on their activities.
There have been a few exceptions which should be recognised. The Ministry of External Affairs’s (MEA) engagement during the Yemen and Iraq evacuations and the Railways Ministry’s initiatives addressing passenger complaints are noteworthy. It can however be argued that these exceptions are more resulting from the initiatives of the concerned ministers, rather than a formalised strategic framework.
The gap is most visible during a crisis. Why didn’t the prime minister immediately tweet a statement after the Dadri mob lynching, instead of staying silent for over a week? For a statesman who is hyper-active on social media – the fact that he did not (or wasn’t advised to) urgently express the government’s take on such a politically charged and divisive issue reflects poor management. Similarly poor handling was also observed during the JNU student agitation, when the home minister made inaccurate comments based on a fake Twitter account, adding unnecessary fuel to the fire.
There are also instances where the government could have proactively used social media to defuse, and not exacerbate, a potentially sticky situation. For instance, in November 2015, Moody’s Analytics published a report that stated that if Modi didn’t keep his BJP “members in check” he could risk losing “domestic and global credibility”. Instead of iteratively questioning the various technical aspects of the report through tweets or a Facebook post (as finance minister Arun Jaitley is well known for doing), the government reverted to a more traditional and overly defensive response. The government statement, incorrectly, tried to frame the report as a “personal opinion of a junior analyst”, giving the incident far more attention than what it would have gotten in the first place.
There are numerous other examples where the government social media’s usage was incorrect, significantly delayed, or omitted when required.
The first step in a formalised approach comprises prioritisation. Since significant human and financial resources are required for sustained social media engagement, it is important to determine whether a particular government institution requires a dedicated strategy or not. Only agencies with a more “public” profile and which may benefit from increased citizen engagement should be considered. Other esoteric and “non-priority” agencies can have a skin and bones setup, focused solely on plain communication of activities. Regulators such as TRAI, SEBI, RBI and ministries such as corporate affairs, commerce and industry, external affairs, human resource and development, and skill development would benefit from prioritisation. On the other hand, there is very little reason for the Ministry of Coal or Shipping to have a dedicated social media strategy.
A single point of contact for each ministry is preferable, rather than different platforms for constituent departments. Currently there are separate Twitter handles for the Department of Electronics and Information Technology and Department of Post, both falling under the Ministry of Communication and IT. There are separate Facebook pages for the Ministry of Tourism and ITDC, a PSU under the same ministry. With the MEA having an active Twitter presence, there is no reason for the existence of “Indian Diplomacy”, a Twitter handle covering similar issues. Multiple points of contact only dilute the message, evidenced by the low number of followers.
Local bodies such as law enforcement and municipal agencies can benefit greatly from enhanced social media interaction. The Delhi traffic police’s collaboration with Twitter to assist during the odd-even scheme through the delivery of real time traffic information was very well received. There are case studies all over the world showing positive and successful usage by local bodies. The Spanish national police’s Twitter handle (@Policia) has more than 2 million followers and has a dedicated 10-member team interacting with citizens on different social media platforms to prevent, dissuade and combat crime. It has presence on Facebook as well as Youtube. The Spanish police does not use social media for mere communication but rather sends content-rich messages that uses “plain” language, often humorous or provocative in order to attract a large audience. It also shares pictures and information on wanted criminals, leading to numerous arrests driven by active reporting by the citizens. Similarly, local municipal bodies in the UK use applications such as FixMyStreet or SeeClickFix as means for people to submit reports about the state of public spaces. This saves expenditure on regular inspections as a visible issue is reported instantaneously and gives a localised tangible benefit to the citizens.
Institutions should further leverage social media by exploring areas such as open consultation with the public to drive policy; collection of data and individual views for research; receiving key information inputs from citizens to enhance operational performance; promoting public services and specific delivery channels; and forming cross-linkages with related government departments or private bodies.
TRAI’s open consultation regarding net neutrality made the debate mainstream. There is no reason why other regulators and agencies cannot similarly use social media to intensify their dialogue with all stakeholders. Facebook and Twitter are very suitable for open discussions and soft-testing policy topics through public surveys and opinion polls. Local bodies, as discussed earlier, would benefit immensely from information inputs from citizens. All digitisation initiatives of the government, which aim to move administrative procedures online should be aggressively promoted via social media. Lastly, on-ground cross-linkages between different agencies (government to government, government to private, domestic and cross-border), for instance through MOUs, should be reflected within the social media activity of the respective agencies e.g. through webpage links or hashtags.
Lastly, a clear protocol should be in place to manage crisis situations, which sets guidelines on designating responsible person(s)/department(s) by nature of situation, advisable time-frame and standard templates/approval processes before publishing a response. Twitter trends need to be constantly tracked (for example, RBI governor Raghuram Rajan’s re-appointment) to respond to points before they become politicised. This process will go a long way in defusing sensitive situations by avoiding misinformation and speculation.
Social media is a new and highly effective mode of interaction and influence, which the present government acknowledges. It requires constant engagement and adequate resources to be effective and needs to go beyond being a one-way street. Citizens would recognise good and inclusive governance only when their insights are invited, responded to, and included in policy promptly and effectively. Moreover, social media enhances scrutiny by different interest groups and requires adequate tact and process from the government to effectively diffuse volatile situations. Because one must remember that the trolls are always ready.
Nikhil Arora is a financial services professional based out of London.