Social media, relatively young participants in the fast growing technological boom based on the Internet, have started to make their mark on how governments and individuals interact. The announcement earlier this month by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III that his government would use Facebook and Twitter to enlist public cooperation for government campaigns, such as crackdowns on tax evaders and smugglers, is significant, especially for the developing world. Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama in a memorandum to departmental heads, listed transparency, participation, and collaboration as three priority areas for open governance and wanted government agencies to harness new technologies for realising those objectives. In India, where the digital divide is far more pronounced than in the wired west, government agencies (India Post, for example) have taken advantage of the technological advances to strike a blow for improved governance. What gives a revolutionary edge to these new and evolving media tools is their potential to replace the old mould of unilateral communication — from the state to individuals — with a vibrant two-way communication between the government and the governed.

Social media networks are starting to emerge as game-changers in the manner in which information is disseminated and administrations reach out to the people. Under this mode, networked individuals can have an impact on governance through the use of the Internet. For this global resource to be harnessed effectively, two ingredients are essential. A two-way flow of timely and credible information is one. Equally important is a response mechanism from government agencies. These media tools give governments the added advantage of continuously engaging citizens. This can help foster mutual trust and bring governance closer to the people, particularly given the personal nature of interaction in the social media environment. There are examples of heads of state taking to the social media, not just before elections but also after. In addition, the ‘Fifth Estate,' as sociologist William H. Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute calls the social media, can make meaningful interventions in shaping public policy. This can be particularly important in speedily communicating disasters and epidemics, including early warning signals. India's governmental agencies, particularly those that have a direct bearing on employment, poverty reduction, and health care must wholeheartedly and intelligently adopt the new media.


Getting socialOctober 5, 2010

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