Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Battle of the sockpuppets (part of the discussion at Media140 Brisbane)

I'm at Media140 in Brisbane today on the panel Web 2.0 or Web too far? where six of us will be discussing how the internet can be used to "distort, misinform and distribute propaganda" and how we should use the web to democratise scientific knowledge.

This is a key topic for governments as well. The internet is a fantastic mechanism for democratising communication, giving every citizen a voice. However it can also be used to create a choir of false voices to amplify a given point of view or drown out legitimate perspectives.

These voices are often referred to as sockpuppets, a term Wikipedia defines as "an online identity used for purposes of deception within an online community."

The first sockpuppets were used by individuals to pose as third parties in support of their views during a debate on an online forum or chat channel. This use, while annoying, was often detectable by other participants or administrators and often resulted in the perpetrator being named and shamed, suspended or even expelled.

With the growth of the internet as a mainstream media and with the rise of social media, sockpuppets  became important tools for people pushing particular views. By creating multiple personas, individuals were able to have a disproportionate influence over discussions on matters important to them, and sometimes matters of interest to the public.

As it has become easier to register domain names and build websites, generate hundreds - or thousands - of email addresses and program personas to provide differently worded statements supporting the same cause, sockpuppetry has grown from being the act of passionate or misguided individuals into a strategy used by groups seeking to amplify their voice beyond their active membership.

In the last few years sockpuppets has expanded into use by commercial and political interest groups. Sockpuppetry has become big business, with groups creating fake personas to emphasise points of view and influence government decisions and outcomes.

In some cases this approach has been embraced by governments, for example The Guardian recently revealed that the US military has tendered for the creation of sockpuppets to be used to spread particular messages online. Reported in the article, Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media, the article states that,
A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an "online persona management service" that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.
The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".
These sockpuppets - or perhaps 'socksoldiers' - have been designed to go into battle against extremist and radical forces who, presumably, are using similar techniques to incite negative views and violence against the USA.

This specific approach is designed to target websites outside the US and the company involved has stated that the sockpuppets are not being designed to infiltrate Facebook, Twitter or US forums and blogs.

However there have been past claims and concerns that the US government has targeted citizens, such as in the below video regarding the possible use of sockpuppetry to deflect complaints about the Army Corp of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina.

Sockpuppetry may be illegal in certain countries, if you are impersonating a real (and usually living) person. However there may be loopholes regarding totally fake personas, 'anonymous' posts or people use pseudonyms, which could also be for legitimate purposes. I'm not a lawyer and can't comment on Australian law in this regard.

However, regardless of the legal position, it can be hard to detect well-executed sockpuppetry particularly where experienced operators are involved. It can also be difficult to prove offences and prosecute perpetrators, who may be based anywhere in the world.

While it may be very hard to detect the scope of sockpuppetry, its impact can be profound.

Imagine running an online government consultation on an issue where there's commercial interests and millions of dollars at stake. A business, or a lobby group representing them, could invest in the creation of a few hundred sockpuppets to emphasise a particular perspective or provide weak or offensive opposing arguments (known as a 'strawman sockpuppet' - used to discredit or weaken an opponent's argument by presenting an extreme or distorted view).

How about during the public (online) discussion of a policy initiative - such as a mining tax, carbon price, same-sex marriage, plain-packaging of tobacco products or limits on pokie machines. Lobby and pressure groups, political parties and corporations could all create hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of sockpuppets to represent their views. Or maybe they already are using these, and similar, tactics to create the perception of having public support.

These sockpuppets could even become well-defined personalities, expressing a particular set of views across a set of topics, interacting with both real people and other sockpuppets to coordinate and amplify particular views through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums and newspaper comment columns.

Due to the sophistication of modern sockpuppetry techniques, some simple sockpuppets - partial personas - could be partially or completely computer-generated and operated, providing short sloganistic comments on a defined range of topics, or amplifying the statements of more fully-formed human operated sockpuppets.

We could see a virtual arms war erupt between groups to design and construct the most influential and cost-effective sockpuppets. At the same time social media, forum and blog sites will be working to design the most effective sockpuppet countermeasures - software that can identify sockpuppets and block them (probably blocking some legitimate human voices in the process).

So to preserve the integrity of online consultations and engagements, what do governments need to do?

Firstly there's the need to educate public servants and politicians about the risk of sock puppets and how they may be used in attempts to derail legitimate policy and program discussions and consultations. People need to be educated on how to recognize basic sockpuppets and on how to implement preventative policies and barriers to screen out fake voices and personas.

Secondly government needs to consider its own countermeasures. Automated tools that can detect potential sockpuppets from their behavioral patterns, use of stock phrases and by who they follow, support and revile. These can provide flags for human moderation, after publication, of positively identified sockpuppets.

Finally, government needs to consider approaches to verify individual identities online (in its own consultation and engagement sites) which still permit anonymity and the use of pseudonyms, however present high barriers for sockpuppets to surmount. This can be done through human detection techniques, IP matching and semantic analysis, as well as by providing a facility for authenticated identities online while still protecting the privacy of participants.

For governments, still coping with moderation issues and the concept of consulting online, there needs to be significant thought and reflection put into the risk of sockpuppets - not to mention significant thinking on whether it is ever appropriate for government agencies to use their own.

Here's the panel presentation:

media140 Brisbane 2011 // Panel - Web 2.0 or Web too far? from media140 on Vimeo.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

2011 Intranet Innovation Awards are now open for entries

The fifth annual global Intranet Innovation Awards have just opened and you have until Tuesday 31 May to submit your entry.

What I particularly like about these awards is that the judges aren't simply looking for the best Intranet, you can simply submit the best functionality or feature in your Intranet. This means that if you have a 'average' internet, but have one brilliant and innovative feature you can enter just that feature and have a chance at winning.

The four categories for the Awards include,

  • Core intranet functionality
  • Communication, collaboration and culture
  • Frontline delivery, and
  • Business solutions
Full details of the categories, with examples, and the scoring criteria is available on the entry page.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Advertising agencies, digital agencies, web developers & printers - you need to understand government's online requirements

It has been an interesting experience working with advertising and digital agencies, web developers and printers while in government - particularly having been on the other side myself for more than ten years.

While some are very good, others definitely 'need development' - particularly in the web delivery space.

Government has a number of requirements for websites and other online properties, however it sometimes appears that these are not always well understood by service providers - or maybe it is simply that some may occasionally seek to 'cut corners' on quality to increase profit margins.
 Service providers are expect to know the mandatory government web requirements when responding to government tenders. As AGIMO states in the WebGuide:
Service providers should be familiar with the Mandatory Requirements and the other guidance provided by the Web Guide when responding to Australian Government tender processes for relevant services.
Below is a list of things that service providers really, really need to know when building Australian Government websites:
  • Complying with WCAG's accessibility minimums is a mandatory requirement for government
    I've been told by supposedly experienced (private sector) web developers that the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 doesn't apply to government, and that it is optional for governments to meet WCAG requirements as it is a 'non binding international agreement'.
    I've also been told by web developers that they won't implement some accessibility features because they 'believe the site is accessible enough already' - despite not meeting WCAG standards.
  • A scanned document turned into a PDF isn't accessible under WCAG 2.0
    Telling me that a scanned document - essentially an image - is accessible to screenreaders if it is converted to PDF doesn't communicate that you're a 'web professional with more than 10 years experience'.
    A Microsoft Word document or InDesign file converted to a PDF also won't meet the Australian Government's minimum standards.
    When you provide PDFs to government, if you are not also providing the content in an alternative accessible format, you will often not meet your contractual requirements.
  • You must include a privacy statement, disclaimer and appropriate copyright notices on government websites
    Telling government staff that a 'Website privacy policy is only necessary if you're collecting email addresses or other information online' is incorrect and creates significant risk for your client.

  • Government Departments can use social media channels
    There is no stricture forbidding Government agencies from using social media channels for communication or engagement activities. In fact many already do - and often in more advanced ways than the private sector.
    There's also no 'conclusive study showing that Australians don't want to associate with agencies or government campaigns via social media channels'.
    There's also limited need for government to engage 'social media experts' who don't understand how to use social media services - such as having a Twitter account that doesn't use hashtags or retweet others or writing a Facebook strategy that just lists the standard Tabs and doesn't provide evidence of expertise in using 3rd party applications or iframes to customise a Page.

    Having an account illustrates you're aware of a channel, using the account well demonstrates your expertise.
  • Building a fake persona on a social media channel then revealing it as fake and a government promotion can be considered false and misleading practice
    Suggesting to a government agency that they should create fake personas and interact as though they were real, build a following or trusting friends and then unveiling the activity as a campaign at the end isn't good advice to provide any organisation.
    Sure there's LonelyGirl and the Jacket Girl, and several other instances of actors used to create fake personas - but never by government agencies. Providing the truth is important in government campaigns and being authentic is important to build trust and respect online. Creating fake personas usually isn't conducive to these and can also break the acceptable usage terms of services such as Facebook (which you should read).
Finally here's some tips - collected from discussions with my peers across a range of government agencies and jurisdictions:
  • We don't need you to build us a CMS and we don't want to finance the creation of your own 'you-beaut' in-house CMS and then pay you every time we need it upgraded. Consider building expertise in an off-the-shelf product - particularly an open source platform with global support.
  • Frontpage doesn't qualifies as a modern web development tool used by experienced professionals. It also leaves code in your pages if you don't edit it out (caught!)
  • We do often notice when you copy code and leave the original author's name and credentials in the (web page) source without appropriately compensating or crediting them.
  • Everyone knows that designers love arty fonts, but if the government agency doesn't own the rights to them they can't use them. 
  • Making all the text links in a website into images isn't a good idea - it makes them inaccessible!
  • Audience usability testing should almost always be a required step in web design. Even if your random sample of three staff really liked the design and could use the functionality, what does the website's audience think?
  • Background music is never acceptable in a website. Self-playing video is only acceptable where there's accessible alternatives and the video can be controlled by the user.
  • Government agencies don't want to pay for your custom reporting system that only you can access so you can give us interpreted results for web traffic. Use a standard web-based platform and give the agency access to the reports.
  • Don't tell agencies it will cost $5,000 per month to host a small government website via your ISP. Particularly when their website lists their prices (up to $30 per month) - oops!
  • When a government agency asks for an email newsletter system with double opt-in subscription, bounce detection, automated unsubscribe, open and click-through reporting, simply using a web-form to collect email addresses and sending emails via Outlook is not a quality outcome.
  • When asked to design a website for an agency to implement in-house, don't provide code or custom functionality that can't be used or build on the agency's platform.
  • It doesn't cost $10,000 to add a share button / reporting system / embed a YouTube video into the website - particularly when the agency is providing all the code for you.
  • You're not a 'Government 2.0 pioneer' if you've never heard of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce, the eGovernment Resource Centre or this blog. Knowing Obama used social media in his first Presidential campaign no longer earns brownie points.
  • Even if this is 'the first time' a government agency has asked you to make a website or PDF accessible to WCAG 2.0 standards, that doesn't mean that your previous standard will meet current government needs.
  • Just because your contact in government hasn't had previous experience developing websites doesn't mean they aren't supported by people who have a lot of experience.
Any other gems out there that people are prepared to share?

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Round up from the Canberra Gov 2.0 lunch

Several people have blogged about today's Government 2.0 lunch, and I've linked to their posts below.

I also took some notes on Alison's talk, as follows:

Community Management
Tools/tech are not community. Community is about the people and their relationships and may, or may not, be formed using all different kinds of tools.

Three roles of community managers
  • Leader - guide, initiator
  • Participant - listener, curator
  • Advocate

Risks of communities
  • Legal - terms of use, copyright, etc
  • Departmental - reputation, internal rules
  • User risks - behavioural, personal attacks, bullying, suicide, self-harm

Risk mitigation
  • Timescale for non-permissible content being live (if post-moderation)
  • Community guidelines - separate to terms of use (impersonation, sock puppets - multiple accounts, etc)
  • Content assessment chart (what is permissible, not permissible)
  • Escalation policy
  • Internal community guidelines

Other notes
  • Community management is not a 9-5th role (what are you going to do with the other 140hrs per week, public holidays, staff holidays, etc)
  • Pre-moderation not recommended as it stifles discussion, but it may sometimes be useful in sensitive discussions.
  • Never delete content - just hide from public view (keep reasons, why removed, who did it)
  • Facebook can be a pain due to its lack of capability to hide comments rather than delete them
  • Don't pre-guess your community by deciding on the topics that should be discussed - such as in a forum. This can fragment the community into groups too small to be sustainable. Instead first build the community, then open up specific topics based on need.
  • Ensure you set context for the community, otherwise you might find the community takes its own direction without your influence.

    Project CODE
    Also at the lunch, Professor Rachel Gibson of the University of Manchester presented an overview of Project CODE (Comparing Online Democracy and Elections), a UK-funded project looking at the impact of social media use by politicians and citizens on the outcomes of elections, focusing on the US, UK, France and Australia.

    Other blog posts about the lunch

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    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    The journey to social public service

    We often talk about the professional values of the public service - honesty, integrity, respect, courtesy, care and responsibility.

    These professional values comprise a major part of the Australian Public Service's (APS) Code of Conduct, and similarly are prominent in many public service codes and charters in Australia and around the world.

    They aim to define and shape the professional behaviour of public servants in the interest of better governance.

    However in many of these codes and charters, again including the APS Code, there's one extremely critical behaviour that isn't named. Communication.

    Perhaps this is because communication is assumed to be at the core of other professional values, perhaps it is believed that communication is implicit in any act of public service.

    Whatever the case however, communication - social interaction between individuals and groups - is necessary in virtually all public service activities. Improve communication and other improvements follow - understanding, information exchange, engagement, efficiency, physical outcomes.

    If we consider improving communication as one of the key ways to improve the effectiveness of any public service, then it is worth considering the impact of poor communication.

    What does this look like? Individuals that choose to not share their experience and learnings. Siloed teams that hoard information to preserve their jobs. Hierarchical structures with communication bottlenecks. Agencies that take the view that they own data collected with public fund and that cannot be shared with other government agencies, let alone the public.

    In all of these cases the solution isn't always to hold an enquiry, change processes, break structures apart (or put them together) or even change leaders.
    However the solution must also involve increasing communication - sharing data, information, experience and best practice so that individuals and teams alike can grow, adapt and improve their effectiveness.

    In the corporate sector this is often termed a 'social business', one that recognises that its survival and success is based on making every staff member as effective as they can be, tearing down any barriers that reduce their individual or collective prowess.

    In the public sector I call this a 'social public service', one where there are open lines of communication across professions, programs and policy areas. Where both individual and team learnings are shared - not just within a team, but across the entire public service. Where individuals are valued not by the knowledge they horde, but the knowledge they share and their personal contribution to the net wisdom of their team, branch, agency, entire service and across multiple services at various levels of government and in different jurisdictions.

    I've glimpsed aspects of the social public service across the Government 2.0 community, where many people are willing to share their experiences with others in other agencies and at different levels of government. I have also glimpsed it in certain professional groups in government, where Fraud officers and Freedom of Information units share experiences across agencies in order to build their own capabilities, at conferences and at events.

    However once people return to their own agencies the budding social public service seems to fade almost into non-existence. Occasionally it is useful to know who to call in another agency for information or support, however the widespread and collaborative creation of knowledge and best practice still remains in its infancy.

    Over the next ten years, as the Government's Gov 2.0, APS reform and innovation agendas unfold, and as we see a new generation of public servants, digital natives used to social media interactions, take on increasing responsibility, I believe we'll also see an increasing trend towards a social public service.

    In fact I believe there's few ways that any of the 'old guard', who built their careers on silos and hoarded knowledge, can slow or stop this trend. As society and policy grows in complexity, individuals will increasingly specialise in smaller areas and, rather than forming new and smaller silos, will need to interact with each other to form a holistic policy and societal view.

    This mirrors the progression of the sciences, which started as an undifferentiated topic - 'scientists' who studied the entire world around them - and fragmented into specialised disciplines. These disciplines, similar to the public servants of today, formed silos defined by their area of speciality and then, over the last twenty years, have begun re-converging, with many major discoveries coming from the combination of specialists from different fields.

    Equally we're seeing more and more public policy issues that cross 'traditional' portfolios. There's more and more collaboration between government levels and increasing requirements for people to cross-skill.

    This progression will drive the impetus towards a social public service, supported and facilitated by an array of communications tools, amongst them - and possibly the most important - social media, used to collaborate, communicate and empower.

    So what will this future social public service look like?

    Possibly flatter and more fluid, with cross-functional groups formed as needed to develop a given policy, manage a project or program or deliver an outcome, less loyal to departments, divisions and branches and more loyal to the public service as a whole, more adaptable to change, less separated by portfolio or layer, more focused on customer service and definitely more communicative and social.

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    Friday, April 08, 2011

    Should the government be leading on computing energy-efficiency?

    As government increasingly digitalises, one of the hidden costs is the increase in electricity use by government computers and servers.

    More computers equals more power use, more cost and, ultimately, more strain on electrical generation across Australia.

    So a practical way for the government to prompt energy-efficiency, not only for the government itself but across the country, may be to mandate the electrical use of the computing devices and data centres it is willing to buy.

    We've been seeing some companies with a large data footprint looking to reduce their power use per device for a number of years now.

    Google has led a massive program to reduce power use across the hundreds of thousands of servers it needs to deliver the most popular website in the world. While search is the company's main business, their main cost is power, so it makes good economic sense, as well as good environmental sense, to minimise the power they need. Google unveiled their work several years ago and releases data quarterly on their data centre performance through its Google Data Centers website.

    Facebook, which has begun competing with Google for the top global site position, has now come out and made its data centre design open source, freely available for other organisations to use. As discussed in this article from ZDNet, Facebook open sources its server, data center designs: Hardware fallout to follow, the strategy is designed to reduce costs for Facebook, as well as prompt large hardware manufacturers to focus on improving the energy efficiency of their servers.

    More information is available at Facebook's new Building Efficient Data Centers with the Open Compute Project page and at OpenCompute. We're not talking small savings here - Facebook reports a 38% reduction in energy use coupled with a 24% reduction in costs in one data centre.

    Imagine if government took a leading position on energy-efficiency for computers and data centres. With over 162,000 staff in the Commonwealth public service and around 5,000 websites, there's massive scope to encourage positive structural change in the computing field.

    Like Google and Facebook, government's job is not to design the most cost and energy efficient data centres.

    However there's potentially massive cost savings and economy-wide efficiencies if we introduce policies which encourage data centres to continually reduce their energy costs.

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    Thursday, April 07, 2011

    How much would you pay for government transparency?

    After a fanfare opening around two years ago, the US government's proposed budget cuts may force and seven other Gov 2.0 and data sharing websites to close down or dramatically curtail their activities.

    When first launched was the first national website for providing centralised access to government data in reusable formats.

    The website was lauded globally for its role in supporting the US government to become more transparent, and allow citizens to analyse and repurpose public data.

    However in March the first rumblings appeared. Apparently the site's visitor levels had plateaued, and Congressional budget cuts threatened the ongoing survival of the website as well as a range of others including,, IT Dashboard and (as well as a number of internal government sites including and FedSpace) dedicated to making government policies, processes and information more accessible to citizens.

    When I first read about the closures in ReadWriteWeb's article, & 7 Other Sites to Shut Down After Budgets Cut on 31 March, my first thought was that this was a clever April Fools prank designed to wind up open government advocates.

    This was followed by the GovFresh post on 1 April, Congress weighs deep cuts to funding for federal open government data platforms and assorted coverage across a range of government IT and news websites.

    However over the last week it has become clear that this is a legitimate issue, due to budget cuts the US Congress is proposing.

    In response the Sunlight Foundation has launched a campaign to Save the data and a range of influential open government advocates have weighed in, such as Tom Steinberg, the founder of the MySociety charity in the UK who is now working in the UK Cabinet Office to support the UK Government's open data initiatives.

    Apparently the collective cost of all the websites is around US$32 million (just over a dollar a year per US citizen) - representing 0.09% of the US budget and only 7.7% of the US government's Freedom of Information Act costs. Some commentators have pointed out that other methods of releasing government data are far more expensive and less inclusive or effective.

    With parts of the Government 2.0 program (particularly the IT Dashboard and TechStat process) credited with saving the US Government billions in IT costs, the cuts of US transparency initiatives may cost the US enormously.

    The proposed cuts raise several very important questions.

    How much are nations - and citizens - prepared to pay for government transparency?
    And how much transparency are we prepared to trade off for short-term tax saving?

    How should the value of transparency be measured?
    By the number of people accessing government data, or by the flow-through impact on harder to measure government cost savings and economic benefits?

    How can transparency become embedded in government for the long-term?
    Particularly when it may be elements of the political or administrative system who wish to constrain transparency for various legitimate, or otherwise, reasons.

    It will be a fascinating, and perhaps deeply troubling, process to see how the US answers these questions - and how Australia answers them as well.

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    Tuesday, April 05, 2011

    Ignorance (of social media) is risk

    I still encounter a large number of public servants - from a variety of agencies and at a range of government levels (local to federal) - whose experience of social media is limited to Facebook and Twitter - or less.

    Most appear to be unaware of the steps the Government has taken to integrate social media into business practices - mentioning the Gov 2.0 Taskforce and Declaration of Open Government provoke blank looks. Few have heard of the many civic tools and government initiatives that have taken place online - and even fewer appear to actually participate.

    Some of these people are senior decision makers. Others provide advice and operational leadership in support of senior decision makers.

    I find this a very disturbing situation for the public service and government in Australia. To me the largest and most damaging risk facing any activity is ignorance. When you don't know what you don't know there is rich ground for poor decisions, human error and missteps.

    The situation provides opportunity for 'snake oil' salespeople - sometimes masquerading as well-paid consultants - to provide dangerous advice and poorly considered ideas about the use of social media which cannot be accurately assessed and considered where staff experience is lacking. These ideas have the potential to seriously damage reputations in the public service, agencies and governments.

    Social media has been immensely popular in the community for at least five years and some government departments have supported internal collaboration through forums for at least twenty years.

    Surely there has been enough time to expect more active learning by people who seek operational and strategic leadership roles.

    There are a plethora of seminars on social media, volumes of information online and excellent case studies of Australian and international best practice.

    Understanding where social media fits into the media mix for communication, engagement, collaboration and productivity improvements needs to stop being the preserve of a relatively few specialists and become a core capability, skill and toolset for many public servants.

    Perhaps that is what is needed - to make an understanding of the strategic use of social media communications and engagement channels a core part of public service capabilities.

    It certainly touches on a range of capabilities we already expect public servants in the Australian Public Service to master in the Integrated Leadership System. For example, at the EL2 level, looking at only the 'Shapes strategic thinking' capability, there are a multitude of ways in which social media enables and extends the ability of a public servant to perform their duties:
    • Encourages others to provide input and comment on the strategic direction of the business unit.
      (social media channels may be an effective means for supporting provision of this input)
    • Communicates with others regarding the purpose of their work and the relationship between work unit objectives and organisational goals.
      (social media channels may be an effective method of supporting this communication)
    • Considers a wide range of issues and their implications for the business unit.
      (to consider any issues presented by social media you must have a good understand of social media channels)
    • Identifies critical information gaps and asks a range of questions to uncover valuable information.
      (as a major channel for engagement and communication, public servants without a working understanding of social media have critical information gaps)
    • Sources information on best practice approaches adopted in both the public and private sectors.
      (there are many examples available of best practice social media use to address a wide range of business needs in both public and private industry)
    • Scans the internal and external environment for new trends and recent developments that are likely to affect own business area.
      (how can you effectively scan the environment today without monitoring social media channels and online peer groups)
    • Gathers and investigates information and alternate viewpoints from a variety of sources through formal and informal means; explores new ideas with an open mind.
      (social media leverages the capability to gather and investigate information and viewpoints - both formally and informally. The use of social media in any initiative must be considered with an open mind, based on best practice examples, rather than media spin)
    • Draws accurate conclusions and presents logical arguments that address key issues.
      (drawing accurate conclusions and presenting logical arguments involves understanding the underlying material. Public servants need a working understanding of social media in order to do this for initiatives which could be supported by its use)
    • Explores various possibilities and generates innovative alternatives.
      (social media is a key tool for exploration and the discovery and support of innovative alternatives)
    Whatever system is used in your public service, there will be key ways in which social media knowledge and capability will empower and support staff to perform their roles effectively.

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    Friday, April 01, 2011

    'Keeping the bastards honest' - government's new role in combatting mainstream media mistakes

    Traditionally one of the roles of the 'free press' is to keep governments honest, to shine a light on inappropriate conduct, poor decisions and uncover corruption, falsehoods and backroom deals.

    With the advent of social media I've been watching this role slowly twist into new forms and relationships.

    One of the more interesting developments has been the take-up of social media by government to correct media mistakes.

    Last century, when the 'big three' traditional media were the primary conduit of information to the public, often it was hard for government to challenge incorrect statements in the press. Politicians and agencies had to rely on 'friendly' media to carry the facts, and sometimes their voices were drowned out by commentators repeating a mistaken line.

    With the growth of social media channels into highly effective news collection and distribution platforms, there is now a more even playing field.

    Traditional media outlets can trumpet their view of the news and facts, just as they have for the last century or so. However government is also able to build and mobilise its own media distribution networks - at low cost and with massive reach.

    This has led to a sea-change in the relationship between media and government which is still being worked through by all of the players involved.

    Possibly the first strategic use of social media channels to correct media reports was by the US White House's Press Office several years ago. The Press Office naturally began to follow journalists via Twitter, 'listening' to their public messages as they discussed breaking stories, formulating their angles and swapping information.

    However the Press Office did more than listen, President Obama's Press Secretary also engaged directly with journalists, correcting mistakes they tweeted and offering new information where warranted and appropriate.

    Suddenly the US government was able to respond to news reports before they were reported, influencing and shaping stories through injecting facts and correcting misinterpretations.

    Why did they do this? Correcting a journalist's facts before they publish is much more efficient then attempting to correct the facts in the public's eye after a journalist has published. You only need to influence a few people, rather than influence an entire nation.

    Note that this approach wasn't effective for closing down legitimate stories (or even illegitimate ones), and the White House's Press Office did not use it in this way. The approach did, however, reduce the number of errors in stories, allowed better media preparation ahead of time (therefore allowing the government to research and provide more complete answers) and it saved public time and money - more efficient for citizens.

    However this process only really targeted journalists. After a little longer, government organisations, again led by the US Press Office, began to also use social media to directly address misinformation and myths put about by media outlets.

    In Australia this was seen most prominently recently in the Queensland floods, where the Queensland Police Service released a series of 'mythbuster' tweets and Facebook posts to counter misinformation being published in traditional media.

    For example:

    The same approach is now being undertaken by Sandi Logan, who tweets for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

    The same approach is being used widely overseas during crisis or when particular topics are being discussed - or ignored - by the media.

    I see this as a lasting change in the balance of power between media and government.

    Media still has an important and significant role to report, analyse and dissect the events and issues of the day. It is still critical for investigating matters which organisations or individuals are sometimes reluctant to bring into the public eye.

    However government now has a new and even more important role, keeping the media honest - ensuring that citizens are able to access factually accurate information that, sometimes, the media overlooks, gets wrong or even suppresses in order to create a sensational, controversial and, most importantly, commercial story.

    Agencies resisting the use of social media channels may be doing themselves, the public and their Ministers, a disservice. By waiting passively for media to contact them, or reacting to media reports rather than proactively listening to journalists and communicating the facts, they may be allowing the level of misinformation in the community to spread unnecessarily.

    This makes it harder and more expensive to correct mistaken impressions - particularly in emergencies - and increases the reputational risk for agencies and their Ministers.

    Openness and transparency in government fostering accuracy in the media. Who would have thought?

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