Governments & Social Media Monitoring: Spying or Learning?

Ever since the Snowden affair on the NSA and the subsequent revelations, there has been a lot of questions raised on how much spying is too much. But the elephant in the communications closet or a gorilla in the WiFi router if you will, is government monitoring and analysis of social media for purposes other than espionage. And I believe there’s a lot of benefit to be gained. What do you think?

Remember, It’s Public Information
When a government department monitors social media and other online channels around a specific issue or to ask certain questions it is only public data they’re accessing. I’ve worked with enough government departments in Canada, America and Britain among a few other democratic countries to know privacy concerns are topmost on their minds. When people openly share on Twitter, there is no “auto exclusions”, same with a blog post or Google+ post, unless you as a user specifically lock them down.

The Benefits of Social Media Monitoring & Analysis by Government
There are a number of ways and areas that monitoring, researching and analysing social media can help all levels of government. In all, the overarching benefit is that a government (democratic) is there to serve the people. For many decades, governments have conducted polls, surveys and street surveys to evaluate programme and policy effectiveness and planning. Social Media analysis and research simply adds a new layer; when only public information is accessed. Following are some benefits of researching and analysing social media for public digital diplomacy;

  • Research in developing and planning new policies
  • Evaluation and monitoring of government programmes
  • Analysis of foreign citizens views on bilateral and multilateral trade issues
  • Identify emerging citizen concerns
  • Research for planning stakeholder relations communications

Stale Methodologies With All The Usual Suspects
In many areas of state, provincial and federal departments when it comes to planning or even evaluations, they reach out to the same old network of contacts and organisations as they have for decades. The relationships and positioning are always essentially, the same. Reaching out to citizens through the usual forums and focus groups brings little fresh ideas and again often deals with the usual suspects. By listening to citizens and groups concerns via social media and other online channels, government departments, IGO’s and IFC’s among others, gain more ground-level, fresh insights and understanding.

How To Understand A Changing World Faster
Many in government departments at all levels, realise that the world is shifting and changing. They complain about keeping up and understanding these shifts. There is still significant empirical value to traditional surveys and research and there always will be. By adding the layer of social media research and analysis however, they can get more grassroots and civil society group insights faster, since such analysis can take less than half the time of traditional approaches.

This approach requires a significant shift in thinking for many in government and an understanding of how to implement such new methodologies. And they should be well thought out and designed to compliment and support traditional programs of research, analysis, monitoring and evaluation. Nor is it as simple as accessing a social media monitoring program; those software products are designed for marketing of products to consumers and tracking consumer sentiment…not issues of civil society.

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