PA Times article on the use of social media during the 2012 election

I wrote up a short piece about the impact of social media in the 2012 election. It will come out in print this month and I wanted to share it here as well.

The social media dance around the VP pick

On Friday night the news broke, that the Romney campaign was planning to reveal the vice-president in a live TV covered event at 9:05am the next day. Within a few hours however, all major news-outlets stated “Mitt Romney picks Paul Ryan”. There was no question mark, no speculation. Only these plain statements – quoting sources close to the campaign.

Online, there was however very little indication on 8/9/12 that the information was leaked: The USA Today/Twitter Election meter showed negative sentiments towards both candidates at an all time low (since #Twindex data was revealed to the public): Obama 20; Romney 12. This number was stable until late Saturday evening when the Twitter index was finally updated – which seems to happen only once per day: Obama 32; Romney 39.

As a result, people were buying shares for their favorite veep pick, Paul Ryan on the Intrade prediction market. Ryan was favorited by 95% of the buyers:

On Saturday morning social media came into play. Romney’s Twitter account officially confirmed his pick – even before he went on stage in Norfolk, VA:

An hour later, Paul Ryan’s newly established Twitter account confirmed the news as well:

The account name “@PaulRyanVP” was initially not verified by Twitter and it took the company a few hours to add the blue checkmark to the account. As a result the followers jumped up from a handful to several thousands. Controversy around the account’s name eluded people to the fact that Paul Ryan already labels himself (or let’s say his campaign team labels him) VP = Vice-president. People are asking legitimate questions, as the following tweet by Chris Geidner shows:

Romney campaign aide Beth Myers confirmed in a statement to the press, that Romney had already made his pick earlier in August, after he returned from his first visit abroad. She presented the campaign’s strategy on how they kept the decision under wraps right after the announcement to the press.

@140Elect reports that the @PaulRyanVP Twitter account was created on August 2, 2012 which confirms that the VP decision has already been made weeks ago. It is unclear however why the campaign chose to reveal the candidate two weeks later, on a war ship at a time when only half of the country can watch the news at 9:00am on a Saturday morning.

During the exciting events of the day, other social media tools were ignored by the campaign.  As an example, the iPhone app “America’s Comeback Team” did not inform its users as advertised. Instead, the screen stayed blank even after the world heard the announcement, as this screenshot from Anthony De Rosa shows:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twitter was also the first place where the campaign’s logo was revealed – on @PaulRyanVP’s account:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Romney campaign clearly had their sight set on Twitter and ignored Facebook – the Paul Ryan Vice-President Facebook account was established just an hour before the official announcement.

At the end of the day, the futures markets weren’t impressed by the Vice-President pick. As an example, the Iowa Electronic Market for the 2012 US Presidential Election Vote Share Market still lists a win by the democratic candidate at 60%:

Obama campaign’s “Holy Grail”: Dashboard

A recent article in the Guardian pointed to the Obama campaign’s “Holy Grail” of campaign technology: the so-called “Dashboard“. The “data acquired by volunteers from voters canvassing in Ohio will immediately be synced with that gathered by those running phonebanks in New Hampshire and with the outreach efforts of volunteers at myBarackObama.com, giving campaign bosses a real-time master view of the president’s re-election efforts throughout the country.” According to the article, “more than 100 statisticians, predictive modellers, data mining experts, mathematicians, software engineers, bloggers, internet advertising experts and online organizers” are still working on verifying that the tool is working according to plan before more details are released.

The idea is to provide local campaigners a tool that allows them to tap into their own local social networks and collaboratively conduct all the tasks online. The article talks about a collaborative building experience similar to Zynga’s Farmville, where players are using the support of their online social

Right now there is not much to see – only a sign up screen, but in the following YouTube video, Jeremy Bird –  Obama’s director of field organizing – explains the idea behind the dashboard:

Jeremy Bird defines the Dashboard in the video as :

  • the organizing network working to reelect President Obama,
  • an online nation-wide field office,
  • connecting supporters and bringing them the best tools to build the campaign in their community;
  • after signing up, supporters are connected to the grassroots network;
  • stay up to date on upcoming local events;
  • join a neighborhood team to register, persuade voters (a group of local volunteers);
  • build relationships with volunteers in the neighborhood;
  • Dashboard helps local volunteers to bring the national campaign office to their own desktop;
  • Call voters, report progress, see photos, updates from local team members, helps to organize day-to-day tasks

Presidential Memo: Managing online records beyond paper and filing cabinets

Today, President Obama published a new presidential memo building on the efforts of the Open Government Directive he encourages departments and agencies to save money by providing government records in digital format – instead of “paper and filing cabinets”.

From the White House blog:

The new effort calls for reports, by each agency head, describing their current plans for improving records management programs; outlining current obstacles to sound, cost-effective records management policies;and cataloging potential reforms and improvements. The agency reports will inform, and be followed, by a Records Management Directive, to be issued by the Director of OMB and the National Archivist. The Directive will focus on maintaining accountability to the American public through documenting agency actions; increasing efficiency (and thus reducing costs); and switching, where feasible, from paper-based records to electronic records. In addition, all statutes, regulations, and policies must be reviewed to improve government-wide practices in records management.

Full memorandum is available here and on Scribd via Fedscoop:

Presidential Twitter Townhall @townhall

Yesterday, President Obama sent out his first publicly observable tweet starting off a new form of online Town Hall meeting, a Twitter town hall:

The Twitter Town Hall meeting was the second large-scale social media event sponsored by one of the most influential social media companies in the U.S.: About three months ago, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook.com, has sponsored and moderated a Facebook Town Hall meeting live. This time the online Town Hall meeting was sponsored and moderated by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey:

[picture linked from The Guardian]

The most tweeted question was similar to what we have seen during the Open For Questions event: The most tweeted question – retweeted here as an example – with close to 5,000 retweets was:

The tweet was not answered by the President, even though it seems very different to the pro-marihuana agenda many people were pushing during the Open For Questions event. This one seems to be intelligent, with implications for overcrowded prisons and a sense that the consequences of legalizing marihuana might actually have a positive long-lasting impact on the legal system in the U.S. and could save government a lot of money.

The President also addressed a question posted by the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, giving the Republican party a minute in the limelight as well:

You can watch the whole event on the White House YouTube channel:

According to the graphic below, the submitted questions to the hashtag #askobama slowly picked up during the days leading up to the Twitter Town Hall, but then rapidly increased on the day before the actual event. The following statistics were published on http://obama.twitsprout.com/ and linked here:

TooManyWebsites.gov

This week the White House blog posted a message from Macon Phillips, the White House Director of New Media, titled “TooManyWebsites.gov”. This initiate is part of the Campaign to Cut Waste that the White House launched this week, quoting the President: “As President Obama has said, we can’t win the future with a government of the past.” Phillips estimates that as part of the over 2,000 top level domain sites, more than 24,000 subsites were developed over the last years to display government content.

In order to stop the “confusion and inefficiency” and make access easier for citizens, government received the mandate to avoid duplicates: “So the federal government will do more with less, improving how it delivers information and services to the public by reducing the number of websites it maintains. To help drive this change we’ve set a specific goal that over the next year, we’ll get rid of at least half of them.

As part of this effort, all new .gov names are stopped and need to be directly approved by the federal CIO, who will first map out the existing landscape to see if a new site is necessary. Within a year the plan is to cut half of the federal websites.

While I salute the White House for recognizing this seemingly unnecessary growth of websites, it sounds like a massive effort to me. My hope is that similar to the Open Government plans, the agencies themselves will have control over what of their content is important, what can be consolidated and what they would like to cut. This will avoid the impression of “big government” and will leave the responsibility to actual content providers instead of too much micro- and top-down management. The ‘drawing the landscape idea’ seems to be a helpful first step, although I wish the White House would also look at the actual user statistics. Which websites are frequented by citizens and therefore indicate a real need for information that is displayed on them or transactions that are facilitated? Moreover, going beyond the mere numbers: What are the websites that need to stay because they are catering to a small niche audience that would otherwise not get the information? Here, government needs to make use of the lift of the cookie policy to understand who their audience members are. With over 24,000 websites in place, I am worried that only those make the cut that come in above a certain number of hits per month.

This mandate has also sparked other concerns for me: What about agencies starting blogs or adding social media accounts to their online presence? Many of the third party social networking services providers are creating new URLs for a social media account. Do these URLs count toward the cut? Do the SNS need to find a way to allow for folding account URLs into the existing .gov domain names? Does this mean that the agencies and departments are no longer allowed to create new accounts and with that new URLs? Or are external URLs excluded from this effort?

Watch the update on the Accountability Government Initiative here:

White House crowdsourcing effort to understand their audiences’ social media needs

The White House has recently asked its Facebook fans and Twitter followers to provide feedback on their social media activities. As an example, Twitter users were asked to fill out a short survey (see article in InformationWeek).

After reviewing the feedback, the White House published what they extracted from their fans and followers in a blog post. The GSA New Media Twitter account states that the most surprising finding was that half of the White House followers on Twitter are +50 years old (although the number does not indicate the follower age group, but reflects the age of the respondents only):

Here are the main findings:


Here are a few interesting things we’ve learned:

* 50% of Facebook survey respondents were over the age of 50, with another 35% between 35 and 49. Our Twitter audience is younger, with only 32% of respondents over the age of 50. A combined 62% are over the age of 35.

* 62% reported visiting our Facebook page at least once a week. However, 93% say they read tweets from us at least once a week.

* A much larger percentage of our Twitter survey respondents are active on Facebook (80% of Twitter followers use Facebook weekly) than our Facebook respondents reported being active on Twitter (30% of Facebook fans use Twitter weekly).

* Over 50% of respondents from both surveys reported never using Flickr, LinkedIn and social bookmarking sites (such as Digg, Reddit, and Delicious).

* 64% said that the frequency of our Facebook posts is “About Right,” with 31% wanting more, and only 5% saying that it’s “Too Much.”

* 61% of the Twitter survey respondents report that the frequency of posting is “About Right,” with an additional 35% saying it’s “Not Enough,” and only 4% saying that it’s “Too Much.”

* Over 56% share White House Facebook posts on a monthly basis and 78% have shared at least once. However, only 35% of responders report retweeting @Whitehouse on at least a monthly basis, with only 58% having retweeted us at least once.

* The top requested content includes news-oriented posts (Breaking News, the latest news from the Administration), interactive posts (ways to engage with Administration officials, announcement of live streams, quotes from major speeches as they happen) and the Photo of the Day.

White House Facebook page
White House Twitter account

Data.gov in the classroom: Government 2.0 syllabus

Data.gov in the classroom features resources for K-12, Universities, and Education in the World. Among them is Karim Lakhani’s Data.gov case study developed at Harvard Business School, Beth Noveck’s Democracy Design Workshop Do Tank, and now also my Government 2.0 syllabus.

I have been teaching this class for the last three years and the online syllabus shows a combination of resources I use for a semester-long course. As one of the motivations why my MPA students might find it valuable to participate, I use President Obama’s Open Government and Transparency memo, that asks the executive departments and agencies to be more participatory, transparent and collaborative. Especially in the class on Transparency, I refer to data.gov and the students have to think about ways to motive (local) government to provide datasets, make those datasets machine readable and how citizens can use the data provided.

PA Times: Government 2.0 revisited – Social Media Strategies in the Public Sector

The ASPA PA Times Summer Issue just came out with a special issue on social media and Web 2.0. Here is the text I originally submitted to the editors. It is printed on p. 7 & 10:

Government 2.0 revisited – Social Media Strategies in the Public Sector

Government 2.0 – or the use of social media in the public sector – has become a hot topic. Agencies and departments on all levels of government are adding Facebook, Twitter or YouTube buttons to their otherwise static – infrequently updated – websites. It is still not clear how successful and useful social media is in the public sector and how agencies can design their own social media strategies.
The term Government 2.0 was coined by Eggers in 2005 as the way that “Unhyped and therefore unnoticed, technology is altering the behavior and mission of city halls, statehouses, schools, and federal agencies across America.”, and he goes on describing Government 2.0 as “A form of digital revolution that transforms government.” Only with the successful Internet campaign and use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter of the then presidential candidate Obama the term was picked up again and is now widely used to describe the use of new forms of technology such as free and open social networking services in government (sometimes called social media or new media).

President Obama’s so-called Open Government memo from January 21, 2009 called for a more transparent, participatory and collaborative government and directed “Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.“ Today, Government 2.0 is the “hyped” form of the use of social media in government and by its diverse stakeholders that transforms the way that government interacts with citizens in a participatory, transparent and collaborative way. The use of social media and the actual participation of all federal departments and agencies were reinforced by the Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orzag’s executive directive giving agencies a 60-day deadline to publish their open government plans and upload their first datasets to a dedicated website called data.gov. In April 2010, Cass Sunstein, Whitehouse advisor, published a memo that specified the use of social media in government advising the heads of the federal agencies and departments on how to handle content published and public feedback posted on social media sites under the Paperwork Reduction Act. While agencies were hesitant at the beginning, the GSA’s “Terms of Service Process for Free Social Media Products” with no-cost social media providers made it easier for agencies and departments to pick and chose the applications they found useful to promote a greater openness.
What we can now observe is a surge to use social networking services in government: almost every federal agency and department has at least one Facebook organizational page and at least one official Twitter account – many even have a dedicated social media site which aggregates all their different accounts (see for example cdc.gov/socialmedia). Although for many agencies it has become mainstream practice to use social media applications and “be where our audiences are”, it is clear that not every agency has the same goal or a dedicated social media strategy. Some start by setting up blogs, Facebook fanpages, several Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, etc., but the actual use and outreach proves to be very diverse.


“We have to be where the people are!”

From my interactions with new media directors in the federal agencies and departments, I differentiate between three different types of social media use to promote transparency, participation and collaboration:
The first strategy can be called “Push” strategy: The new medium is used as an extension of the existing (usually relatively static) Internet presence and is used as an additional communication channel “to get the message out”. This results in un-moderated Twitter updates that are mainly used to publish press releases or appearances of the secretaries, unmanned Facebook walls that are blocked for public comments and sparsely populated YouTube channels.
The second strategy can be called “Pull” strategy: Social media applications are used to bring audiences back to an organization’s website, where the news is aggregated (to avoid losing control of what happens with the information). Pull strategies are actively involving audiences using some degree of interaction that result in a few comments from on Facebook walls and a few retweets (reuses of messages by other Twitter users) or answers to comments on responses from Twitter followers. Examples include the CDC’s use of social media tools to alert and inform the public about peanut salmonella outbreak or its H1N1 flu campaign.
The third strategy – and at the same time the least observable – can be called “Networking” strategy. The use of social media tools is highly interactive with a lot of back and forward between the agency and its diverse constituencies. The new media directors usually have a sense of who is following them and who they want to reach. They are using Facebook, Twitter, etc, very strategically not only to control and direct messages to their audiences, but also to have their ears and eyes on the channels where the actual issues are being discussed that might be of relevance to their agency’s or department’s mission. Social media tools are not only used for mere publishing purposes and are not viewed as a time sink of the already overworked IT staff, but as a strategic information sharing and knowledge creation tool involving social media champions from different content areas.
One agency that stands out is GSA that used an informal social networking site called GovLoop.com to create a group and discuss their “Acquisition 2.0” strategy. The discussions of a diverse audience of government employees has led to the creation of the Better Buy wiki project (see betterbuy.fas.gsa.gov) that truly transforms the acquisition process of GSA multibillion dollar budget: Tenders are now “crowdsourced” – meaning that vendors and agencies are asked to submit their revisions to the final document before it is officially released for solicitation.

How to design your social media strategy

The question now is: What does a successful social media strategy look like? On the federal level very few departments and agencies have made their social media strategies or policies publicly available, but from interviews with the current new media directors I derived a few general observations:

• It is necessary to get people on board and don’t put the use and content creation on the shoulders of the one-person IT shop, instead understand the need to socialize your strategy and find champions who are interested in experimenting with new media and include them in early efforts.
• Social media does not replace the existing traditional channels of communication with government’s stakeholders, instead it provides a test bed for new ways of interactions with citizens and public.
• Design your social media strategy around the mission and the audiences you are trying to reach and not the necessity to be out there and part of the movement. Make a conscious decision what your expectations are and if you have the manpower to actually interact and network with your audiences.
• Reach has not yet proven its value and measurement of the outcome is difficult. The pure number of Twitter followers or Facebook fans does not indicate the actual impact. It is more important to understand who follows your Twitter or Facebook profile; what do your followers do with the content and who is in the network of each of these followers: Social networks have the ability to distribute information from friends to friends and their friends and can therefore reach many more than just the few directly following your updates.
• While a lot of rumors circulate about generational differences and that the main audience are young citizens, it has become clear that social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook have the highest increase rates in the age group of +35 year olds. Moreover, the Facebook newsfeed has the potential to become an important information mechanism that aggregates traditional media sources with information spreading through the trusted friendship network people are paying attention to.

Over a year into the Government 2.0 movement it is clear that social media is here to stay and not a fleeting fad. Although there is a surge to jump on the bandwagon, deciding how the different social media channels fit into an agency’s mission is a crucial step that should involve top management but also all departments that might populate the social media channels with content.

Author bio:
Ines Mergel is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Campbell Public Affairs Institute, Syracuse University. eMail: iamergel@maxwell.syr.edu