Government agencies are increasingly using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to engage the public, but they will also need to establish a clear, well-defined social media strategy to prevent potential backlash, according to industry watchers.
Lawrence Goh, partner of technology architecture at Accenture Southeast Asia, Australia and South Korea, noted that while such social media platforms are a good way of reaching out to the public, governments and civil servants need to exercise caution to ensure the "overall communications strategy and messages" are aligned.
"There is a need to define a social media strategy as it is not only about putting information out there but also about how the public is going to react to it," Goh said in an e-mail to ZDNet Asia.
He added that not having clear rules of engagement could lead to such initiatives backfiring on governments.
Another industry watcher said these social networking sites are, in some instances, replacing people-to-people interactions and could lead to the creation of an "avatar effect", in which the lines that demarcate home and work environments are blurred.
Steve Durbin, vice president for worldwide sales and marketing at Information Security Forum (ISF), said in his e-mail: "A social media user will, over time and with regular social network interaction, forget where official business ends and pure social interaction begins." This scenario, he cautioned, could potentially lead to sensitive information being leaked by government officials.
And that was exactly what happened in the United States after two State Department officials, Alec Ross and Jared Cohen, tweeted about a trip in which they led a trade delegation of Silicon Valley executives to Syria.
Their Twitter messages "raised hackles" in the U.S. House of Congress and embarrassed the State Department, which normally conducts its dealings with Syria--a country still classified by the Americans as a "state sponsor for terrorism"--behind a veil of polite diplomacy, according to a New York Times article. The two officials had tweeted about, among others, how they challenged a Syrian communications minister to a cake-eating contest.
Control not the answer
Durbin noted that while governments "adore" the power that can be harnessed via social networking sites, there is yet to be one that has managed to master these mediums of communication in the way that traditional communication channels are currently controlled.
"Frankly, anyone who sees social media as a controllable technology and tries to impose solely technical controls over its use is creating a strategy for failure. [This is] an unattainable nirvana," he observed.
That said, Accenture's Goh said some form of boundaries need to be established. Beyond the standard employee contractual agreements, he added that civil servants providing input on these platforms--under the auspices of a government body--should have a "clear understanding of the policies and direction on which they are commenting".
He also called for these civil servants to receive the appropriate training and guidance on effective communication skills to increase awareness.
As for blogs or forums hosted on government Web sites, he said it is "critical" that some form of editorial control or moderation be established.
"This control should not extend into undermining the public's right to challenge the information and policies, but should seek to ensure that legal obligations with regard to profanity, religious freedoms and libel, etc, are upheld," Goh explained.
Governments' use of social media
In Singapore, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) has taken the lead in determining the policies and rules of engagement for state bodies to adhere to with regard to social media, according to the ministry's spokesperson.
He said local agencies have been increasingly using platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for various types of public communications including "public education, community outreach and marketing purposes".
For such platforms, the MICA spokesperson pointed out that guidelines given to civil servants are: "Civil servants are allowed to participate in any media to share personal experiences on their hobbies, etc, that are not related to work if they do so responsibly in their own time and personal capacity.
"Civil servants who wish to give their personal views on their work, organization, the government or matters relating to government policies, need to seek their Permanent Secretary's permission before offering their views."
Hong Kong's Office of the Government CIO (OGCIO) also highlights accountability as a key feature of its social media guidelines.
According to a OGCIO spokesperson, the names of government officials who use blogs and social media are listed on a public directory hosted on the government portal, www.gov.hk, and visitors to the site can access these blogs and social media platforms via the hyperlinks provided.
Furthermore, Hong Kong civil servants are not encouraged to use Internet services extensively for "private or personal communication or activities" except for operational needs, the spokesperson noted in his e-mail. They are also instructed to adhere to the government's security regulations when transmitting sensitive information, he added.
Elsewhere, the U.S. State Department and Defense Department reportedly allow greater use of social networking sites Facebook and Twitter on workstations but employees have to stick to stipulated guidelines. These include not disclosing classified information, maintaining a distinction between official and personal accounts and being alert to potential activities that target users for intelligence-gathering purposes.
Ultimately, ISF's Durbin said, all governments and agencies need to realize that regardless of the policies in place, social media use will never be completely safe.
He noted that guidelines to raise awareness, ongoing training and reinforcement of internal guidelines around the use of social media can help, but none are perfect.
"All that organizations can hope to do is limit the amount of information that may be leaked and have sound plans in place for the management of such leaks," he added.