Social media and governance: Redefining relationship between citizens and government

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Social media has, for the last decade, transformed our lives, particularly the way we communicate. Meredith Gould in “The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Gospel in New Ways” observes that social media has forever redefined what it means to “participate”. She defines social media as “digital platforms used for content delivery”.

If this transformation were to be quantified, the count for Facebook is more than one billion users; Twitter has more than 260 million monthly active users worldwide, who can communicate instantly with one another about anything, at any time (according to Centre for Technology Innovation). Social media innovations have changed political communication, interactions between governments and citizens, and revolutionised modern-day governance, such that citizens, businesses, journalists, and government officials use social media to praise or voice concern about their governments, break and spread news, engender action, as well as demand accountability.

Social media give people an avenue to receive and relay information and ideas in easier, faster and impactful ways unimagined before. Before the advent of social media, citizens’ voices were primarily heard through their elected representatives and, in some cases, through leaders in appointive positions, as well as traditional media. Whether or not these representatives advance agenda that resonate with the views of their constituencies remains a subject of debate. It has, in fact, been regularly asserted by scholars such as Peter Scott, Mike Jacka that before the introduction of social media, organisations and traditional media controlled the message.

People no longer have to wait for their leaders to speak for them, and citizens are no longer at the mercy of their representatives because they have the tools to create and disseminate their messages. Social media has provided a range of alternatives through which people channel their opinions on various matters, or simply ventilate.

Social media provides critical tools for citizens to debate, expose ills in government and demand accountability from duty bearers, as well as express solidarity. On the other hand, it provides a medium for duty bearers to build consensus and seek buy-in for various positions and policies. Through Facebook and Twitter, for instance – the most influential mediums – there has been an emergence of alternative voices that have enriched public discourse. Some strands of ideas that have stemmed from these platforms have been pursued by mainstream media or have informed research. Social media has, therefore, opened up space to various stakeholders to deliberate issues of governance. An article that would, ordinarily get published in mainstream media such as newspapers or magazines, or a video clip that wouldn’t be run on TV, because of their controversial content, can now be published in blogs or posted on YouTube.

The world is beyond the social media explosion; we are have social media as a tool, as a way of life, and as a culture. The new tools of social media have made communication between the people and their (political) leaders more open and simplified. With the ever increasing data subscribers in Kenya and over 80 per cent mobile penetration (according to the Communication Authority of Kenya there are over 35 million subscribers to social media sites, representing an 80.5 per cent penetration rate). The potential of social media to alter the status of governance is the new standard.

The Social Capital Theory, variously originated by Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman, Mark Granovetter and Robert Putnam identifies the trust, norms and collective cultures, as well as networks created through associations as the social capital that enables successful public participation in social and public affairs, and lend credence to ideas that would otherwise not get audience if they were advanced by individuals.

Chris Toulouse, ‎Timothy Luke in “The Politics of Cyberspace” posit that one of the key concepts of the Social Capital theory is that the relationship between the relationship between social capital and information technology is seen as bidirectional, where high social capital is a success factor establishment of electronic-based networks. At the same time, the spread of information technology creates networking infrastructure which encourages the formation of social capital.

The Social Network Theory (SNT) has been used to study the structure of relationships between individuals and groups, and to describe their interactions. SNT focuses on how social networks facilitate or hinder the flow of information and resources between various actors, and therefore cognitions, opportunities and behaviours. The theory is embedded in the notion that the social environment is critical to understanding the interactions between individuals. Lucas and Mayne in “A Literature Review for the EVALOC Project: Social Network Theory and Analysis” find this important because social networks have also become closely related to the idea of social capital, which Putnam describes as social networks, norms and trust – the interactions that enable people to create and maintain relationships.

Locally, this phenomenon has been manifest in the many and varied instances where Kenyans have used social media to demand better services, criticise bad decisions, expose corrupt officials, and demand and perpetuate good governance. At the centre of Kenya’s quest for good governance through social media is the group Kenyans on Twitter, popularly known as KOT, whose influence in the country, region and on the continent has grown from robust to incredible.

KOT is behind influential hash tags that not only demand and attain accountability but also enforce principles of governance in a fresh new way. But, beyond it capacity to influence action and accountability, social media have redefined the relationship between citizens and governments. In another time – one before the era of social media – it would have been evidently difficult to expose maladministration and graft, and demand accountability in the manner that online citizenry does now. For a long time, the relationship between these two institutions was one where citizens depended on speculation, on the basis of which not much could be accomplished, implored leaders to walk the narrow and straight path, and hoped traditional media platforms could provide further information through their bulletins and editorials.

This has changed to a situation where those in positions of leadership are finding it increasingly difficult to hide their indiscretions, and are being held to account by the public. Incidentally, Kenyan law is lenient enough such that evidence gathered using unorthodox means such as recording a secret conversation can be admitted and relied upon in a court process.

The question, at this point, is, to what extent are there opportunities and challenges for government? Research has established that a government’s willingness to embrace social mediums for governance is pegged on what its experience with social media is, and how much it is willing to learn. In other words, a government that has been kept on its toes – read embarrassed – through these mediums is unlikely to be persuaded to adopt them.

Social media is not going anywhere; it is bound to grow bigger, get stronger, and become bolder and more powerful. Government ought not to see social media as an obstacle to be tolerated; rather, social media platforms can be tools for gathering information, prioritising alternative policies and acquiring feedback to be used to improve service delivery. Used well by both government and citizens, it has tremendous potential to align public service delivery, for improved net social services.^

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