Several of India’s politicians appear to view minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor’s online activities with nothing less than suspicion. Most recently, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Venkaiah Naidu’s ominous advice to the minister that “too much twitting will lead to quitting” was cause for much hilarity. However, the incident is symbolic of a deeper issue: While several Indian politicians have begun to consider the online sphere worthy of some attention, by and large policymakers are staying away from using social media. This despite the fact that Indians are proving to have a voracious appetite for it: At last count, the country had 8 million Facebook users, a number significant enough to spur Facebook into announcing last week that it would set up a Hyderabad office.
In contrast, whatever social media platform you prefer, it’s hard not to bump into the US government online these days. The White House currently has around 1.7 million followers on Twitter, close to 50,000 fans on Facebook, and has uploaded over 2,000 photos on Flickr. According to Comscore, Whitehouse.gov, the official website, had around 2.1 million unique visitors in January. The administration has a social media team, staffed by eight full-time employees.
To watch a slideshow about the social media reporting tour organized in February by the US Foreign Press Center, click here
Sure, some of it smacks of PR. Recent posts on the White House blog, for instance, consist of footage of Barack Obama sitting down for a friendly chat “with some of the regulars” at a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, and a post about Michelle Obama reading The Cat in the Hat to commemorate Dr Seuss’ birthday. The administration’s regularly updated Flickr stream, which includes pictures of “First Dog” Bo, is pure eye candy for a nation that’s as obsessed with its presidents’ personal lives as India is with those of its Bollywood stars.
But there’s some real value too. There have been several instances depicting the substantial power of social media. The government’s recent text messaging campaign, which raised at least $34 million for Haiti, was one. The initiatives surrounding the 2008 presidential election, which deservedly earned Obama the moniker President 2.0, are another. The role of Twitter and YouTube in last year’s Iran election protests is a third.
Additionally, social media forces more transparency in government, offers the public easier access to information, and lowers the barriers to political participation. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican Congressman, largely attributes his campaign’s success to YouTube. The video site allowed him to reach voters on a mass scale without ponying up the kind of money his contender—who reportedly outspent him six times—did.
That said, a more fundamental question is how, and indeed whether, social media can be harnessed to offer value on a more sustained basis. Social media is distinct from traditional media in its potential to be a two-way street: to create a space for dialogue and debate that is relatively non-hierarchical. What still hangs in the balance is how the US government will translate the information it accumulates online into tangible benefits offline.
“We don’t know how social media changes the dynamic. We know we should be there, but we don’t really know what happens to the information once it’s out there,” says Gordon Duguid, a US department of state spokesperson.
So far, despite large investments in social media, the US government has been more concerned with broadcasting information and soliciting feedback than focusing on the more valuable, although harder to tap, aspect of how to incorporate this feedback into policymaking. That said, the government’s social media efforts are worth watching. If it is successful in managing the information generated from this platform, other administrations around the world could gather a few pointers on how to harness such tools to be more responsive to their voters.
Saabira Chaudhuri is multimedia editor, Mint. She was part of a social media reporting tour to the US organized by the US Foreign Press Center. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org