Social media is more than a way for us to communicate with friends and family. In fact, social media networks are quickly becoming a way for us to communicate in general, even with public and private organizations. Well aware of this new trend, governments around the world are beginning to use social media to communicate with their citizens.
Far beyond simple polling and providing information about government services, however, governments are using social media in surprising ways. Here are a few of the approaches that governments are using to monitor or communicate with their citizens.
For the 2012 London Olympic Games, U.K. police used social media to watch and disseminate information about criminals and other disrupters. For example, by tracking the conversations of those planning protests on Twitter, police gained warning of events well in advance and were able to adjust accordingly. In other cases, police were able to monitor the conversations of spectators in real-time, quickly learning of any unforeseen problems at the games.
While analysts certainly pay attention to conversations on all forms of social media, the 2012 U.S. presidential election brought Twitter into the spotlight with the creation of Twindex, a political analysis tool that tracked user sentiment towards Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Interestingly, while traditional polls indicated a lead for Mitt Romney before the election, Twindex correctly predicted a win for Barack Obama in key swing states.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) caused quite a stir recently when it published a blog post on preparing for a zombie apocalypse. While intended as a joke, the sheer number of readers of the post highlights the significance of social media in informing the public on how to prepare for real emergencies.
While social media cannot be used to detect earthquakes, it can be used to broadcast alerts. When an earthquake hit Washington, DC in 2011, Twitter users as far away as New York learned about it seconds before it reached the Northeast. Where traditional alerts take a number of minutes to reach users, Twitter users are often able to react in seconds.
In New York City, public officials have established online profiles for 280 city offices. By accessing these profiles on networks like Facebook or Twitter, citizens gain a direct connection to the many individuals responsible for their public services. This creates both a dialogue for comments or questions and a means for the government to inform citizens of any changes in services.
It can sometimes be difficult for city dwellers to remember when to put out their trash or recyclable refuse, particularly when schedules change or when different neighborhoods hold different collection policies. To address this issue, Vancouver has started using Twitter to notify residents when they should put out their trash. By informing residents the night before, Vancouver streamlines the collection process and helps citizens stay on top of any changing schedules.
These examples are just a small sampling of the options available to governments for connecting with citizens. In every case, however, governments benefit by creating a human face for a sometimes confusing bureaucracy. In the years to come, we will likely see innovative additions to the list above as governments become more familiar with the advantages of social media. For citizens wishing to stay up-to-date with the latest developments, local government websites and USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov are available with the latest in government social media practices.