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How institutions can effectively use social media?

Published on 23 March 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

The destiny of ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is an example of the limits of traditional diplomacy and the potentials of e-participation in political life.

This shift in the way policy is made was confirmed by Maroš Šefčovič, EU Commission Vice-president: ‘We saw how our absence in the world of social media on this particular topic caused us a lot of troubles. I think this is a lesson for all of us that we have to be much more active and in a much more communicative mood when it comes to such sensitive topics in the future.’[i]

Anti-ACTA protests were triggered by initial secretive ACTA negotiations. After starting off on the wrong foot, subsequent efforts to make negotiations more open did not work. Even the watered-down final text could not save ACTA.[ii]

What can the EU, and other governments, do in order to adjust their ways of working to the requirements of our time?

As Šefčovič said, politicians must start listening and, in particular, e-listening, more than ever before. The voices of people worldwide are getting louder, more coherent, and more strident via the Internet. They need to be heard and engaged in global negotiations. As The Economist wrote in its comment on ACTA: ‘Internet activists used to be dismissed as a bunch of hairy mouse-clickers with little clout. Not anymore.’

As Šefčovič said, the EU should increase its presence in social media. However, this is not easy to achieve. While we can learn how to use Twitter or Facebook in one day, we need at least one month to start using them in a reasonably effective way (learn to listen and follow, acquire culture, start developing a voice). Even more time, at least one year, is needed for an institution, such as the EU, to effectively integrate social media into its operations.[iii]  Directives and orders cannot help. It is difficult to ‘order’ staff to be creative and engaging. The quantitative requirement to have a certain number of blog posts or tweets does not help. Social media is about quality. One insightful post or tweet can be more valuable than hundreds of bland ones. Yet, consistency and regularity in tweeting and blogging are essential for their success.

If traditional organisational mechanisms cannot help, what can? Institutions can create a framework for social media. They should increase error-tolerance, which is counter-intuitive for many governmental elaborate mechanisms to avoid errors. Whatever can lead towards errors, including innovation and initiative, is usually avoided. Staff should be allowed to experiment and not be punished for possible ‘mistakes’. Institutions can provide basic guidelines, start collecting good examples, and offer training for staff. The key is to inspire staff and engage them through nudging until they internalise these new ways and start using social media as they use e-mail or the telephone.

Social media requires a change of habits in communication and an organised daily routine, which like any change of habit, requires time and patience. This slow way of integrating social media does not correspond to the perception of immediacy that surrounds social media and the Internet world. 


4 replies
  1. Karen
    Karen says:

    There is a need for a change
    There is a need for a change of culture in some institutions and departments more than a “framework”. We don’t need more rules, but less and the ones we have should be simple. But social media need to be incorporated into the overall communication strategies that are being made.

    • Jovan Kurbalija
      Jovan Kurbalija says:

      A change of culture will take
      A change of culture will take time. Social media cannot be introduced top-down as a new policy/strategy. It needs a lot of “smart policy” with more carrots than sticks.

  2. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    Social media have indeed
    Social media have indeed changed the name of the game. But I think in a more fundamental way than you suggest. I don’t think a change in skills and habit within the European Commission will be enough. The top down intensely legalistic culture within the EC will prevent any successful moves. Social media is about a two-way (or multi-way) conversation; it is not simply another one way communication channel. Trust in traditional politicians and political structures and processes are continuing to decline. Todays social media savvy are looking far more for engagement and influence and not simply waiting to be told what their “betters” have decided for them. ACTA is a good case. Quite simply what was good for big business (and hence with the support of the poltiical classes) was not seen as good for society and individuals. Policy formulation will need to change to include far greater acceptance. The Occupy movements, the Arab Spring revolutions, the anti-austerity campaigners have all shown the sharp end of a greater individualistic engagement with decisions.. rather than the expert led top down approach. In effect post Lisbon the EC now has the four way power split: EC, Council, Parliament and activist online public. Tjose member states who are top down, elitist and secretive in their own workings wil have significant difficulties adapting.

    • Jovan Kurbalija
      Jovan Kurbalija says:

      Steve, I had mixed experience
      Steve, I have a mixed experience with the EC. Apart from the communication style you described, I have had some more positive experiences. The Internet governance team (DG INFO) is quite engaged in offline/online discussion. During the EuroDIG Belgrade in may 2011, the DG INFO representative engaged in discussion with people from the Pirate Party in the plenary session attended by more than 500 people. It was almost unthinkable a few years ago to have EU’s official doing anything beyond reading prepared text “on behalf of member states”, etc. You can also follow DG INFO people on social media. They are “early birds”. Let us hope that they will survive against institutional inertia and “status quo” instinct of bureaucratic machinery. Otherwise “Sir Humphrey” will become immortal.


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