Week 9: Social Media Technology and Government

Each week a question is asked to the students of Digital Media in Practice – A course in the Ryerson MBA program.  The question relates to assigned readings and focuses on different aspects of digital media.

This week we reviewed Citizen Involvement in the Digital Age and Q&A with Rory Sutherland: An advertarian’s take on the world.
Are social technologies creating a shift towards a better functioning model of democratic involvement? Or is this just an illusion?

This is a wonderfully optimistic idea, but technology alone will not shift democratic involvement. Governments need to have an online arena to interact with constituents, but expecting technology to solve community involvement is unrealistic. While there are obvious benefits to using digital media in government, there are two major areas that I have concerns with.

1. Exclusion of Certain Groups
Moving online to interact with the general population is meant to widen the audience and have meaningful conversation with a variety of citizens. If relied on too heavily however, the exact opposite can happen. An online web forum, or public profile on social media are great tools for citizens who already use those tools, but totally shuns the individuals who are not in those spaces. Quite often the people who are most likely to interact online are not representative of the entire population. This can become dangerous especially when a specific political issue could benefit from consulting a group who is not involved in that online space. For example, it would be a poor decision to use Facebook to consult the public on pension reform.

2. Unbalanced Voices
The other danger about online public consultation is ensuring that the voices are actually representative of the larger group. Online it is easy to make it seem that your opinion is shared by hundreds or thousands of other people just by screaming loud enough. (I know lobbyists have been doing this since the beginning of time, but it is even more pronnounced online).

According to the articles, how can governments best leverage web 2.0 technologies to meet the needs of their communities?

The main concept that I took from
Citizen Involvement in the Digital Age by Dan Bevarly and Jeffery G. Ulm is that it is important to build public dialouge in any way possible – and online is a great way of doing that. The web allows a large part of the population (but not everyone) to contribute to public debate in a way that is not ownerous – at least when compared to attending a town hall meeting.

Rory Sutherland spoke about how online interactions can bring out the honesty in people because of their anonimity. This stood out for me and I think this concept could be very useful when governments are looking for honest, clear feedback about programs or initiatives.

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