Communication
July 3, 2013

Communicating in 140 characters

Quote of the week

“Increasing numbers of people are on Twitter … and to be part of that conversation is vital for any government department.”

— Anthony Simon, head of digital communications, U.K. PM’s office

Editor’s Corner

It should matter to citizens that governments in office continue to explore how to use social media such as Twitter. As, by the way, are the media. It should matter because social media can remove the so-called gatekeeper function played by both senior officials (in government) and editors (in news organizations), and thus have an impact on how information gets delivered and spread.

Social media makes it easier for governments to focus on speed and politics rather than substance when communicating to journalists and the public. How much substance can anyone get into 140 characters or a Facebook ‘Like’?

Social media is convenient for journalists who want to know when news is breaking. It also means that their capacity to deal with content dwindles as multiple (online) deadlines get added to their substantive ones.

Governments know they need to reach out better to their citizens. A U.K. government report notes that 77 percent of Britons have a social media account of some sort, so the route is obvious.

In London, the coalition government has responded by announcing it will offer “Twitter exclusives” to journalists. Is this just a legitimate attempt to use new tools to reach journalists or, as one critic noted, an effort to prevent the spread of negative stories and bypass Parliament?

The link to journalism? Well, one apparent outcome of the increasing use of social media by governments is the creation of what is being called the “endless campaign,” a state of affairs where the elected government of the day uses the voracious appetite of social media platforms like Twitter to pound out endless streams of information, some political, some more service oriented.

And this has an impact on how stories are reported.

An article by Christopher Waddell in the magazine LRC notes that in the 2004 federal election campaign, there was a rise in the use of BlackBerries by political parties as tools to reach journalists. As a result, the “media focused relatively little time and attention on policies.” The campaign coverage focused almost exclusively on “leaders, strategy and tactics.”

This challenge is carrying over to the daily work of journalists everywhere: the temptation to focus on the social media volume, speed and flavour of a story rather than its substance.

For government officials, social media can make it hard to separate the government message from the political one. And journalists are not much help as they get focused on how a story plays out in terms of noise on the platform, rather than on whether it is accurate or matters to Canadians.

The long-term challenge of the use of social media by government is that while Canadians may think it’s great that bureaucracies and media organizations no longer “vet” the story, it leaves the door open for information being driven not by substance, but by the noise of the Twitterverse.

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