They say the line between love and hate is a thin one. Social media, and the way it is used, can create a similar predicament. When used in a country where voices are ignored in everywhere but the virtual realm, political unrest is only a click away; when used in an open environment, it can build understanding and provide governments with a more efficient and innovative way to serve their citizens.
Regardless of which way the tide turns, social media has become an essential tool in bringing people together. Recognizing and implementing the use of social media tools in an open and engaging environment is important to the future of the Canadian public service.
In early 2011, the Egyptian government recognized the power of social media. Social media, however, was not working in its favour. In an effort to stop major protests, on January 25 and 26, the country blocked Twitter, and later Facebook. By January 27, there were various reports that Internet in all of Egypt had been cut off by shutting down the country’s Domain Name System (DNS).
While social media allowed the citizens to initially coordinate peaceful protests, the rest of the world quickly tuned into this issue as growing unrest on social media platforms allowed activists and onlookers to communicate and document the events. In an environment where the country was in a state of emergency, citizens were still able to self-organize through social media. But with a government that was not open to listening to its people, the online tools facilitated political unrest.
The viral nature of social media has also provided the rest of the world with an opportunity to observe and react to these events. In China, in an attempt to pre-empt citizens from taking notes from the Egyptian people, the word “Egypt” was banned from searches. In Canada, solidarity protests were organized through social media to support Egyptians. While the rest of the story has yet to unfold, social media has undoubtedly played a large role in all of this.
Canadians have been fortunate to live in an environment where the use of social media is encouraged, even in the public service. The Clerk of the Privy Council’s Seventeenth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada listed “Renewing the Workplace” as one of the five 2010-11 priorities. This section acknowledged that “Canadians also expect the Public Service to take advantage of new technologies to help meet their needs in new and better ways.”
Furthermore, a survey conducted by Agriculture Canada in 2007 showed that 87 percent of Canadians wanted the government to use Web 2.0 to communicate with them.
During the H1N1 pandemic, information and misinformation was available on the Internet. The Public Health Agency of Canada, recognizing that 47 percent of Canadians were on Twitter, set up a Twitter account that was used to keep Canadians informed. Canadians also self-organized with an #H1N1 “hashtag,” a mechanism used to track similar tweets, to share information about the flu. However, it was PHAC’s official presence on Twitter that allowed a more unified message to be shared with the Canadian public.
Since then, Health Canada has also launched a variety of social media initiatives to promote health and safety. In the summer of 2010, a DrugsNot4Me youth drug prevention campaign was promoted through Facebook as a way to reach youth ages 13-15. It has attracted more than 30,000 fans and the number is expected to grow as the information is continually updated.
In a country where positive relationships can be fostered between the government and the people, social media is a tool that allows citizens to be engaged and empowered through knowledge and conversation. When used openly, it can successfully build bridges between a government and its citizens. An environment that supports social media will not only connect citizens, but will also provide functional tools necessary for cooperation.
Laureen Tang is chair of the New Professional Committee for IPAC’s Vancouver chapter. She is currently on secondment with Health Canada as a Risk Communications & Public Involvement Officer.