Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Appropriate Social Media Use by Public Functionaries

Social media will become the primary communication medium of the future, the main advantage being the ability of the users or consumers of information to interact directly and instantaneously with the providers.

Governments around the world are taking the cue from corporations and nonprofits and moving beyond static web pages to the more interactive domain of social media. Social media enables government officials to interact with citizens,  provide information,  receive immediate feedback and give continuous updates. Social media therefore provides enormous opportunity for governments around the world to engage their citizens and test the short term popularity of programs and policies.
President Joyce Banda

An African leader who has become adept at the use of Social Media to engage the citizens of her country is President Joyce Banda of Malawi, the country's fourth president and first female leader. Mrs Banda  was Vice President in 2012 when she replaced President Bingu wa Mutharika, upon the sudden death of the latter on April 5, 2012, in the face of considerable opposition in the largely patriarchal society. President Banda is breaking new grounds in Malawi and proving to be one of the humblest and most engaging Presidents in Africa, a rare commodity in a continent dominated by undemocratic demagogues and arrogant dictators. She is a pure breath of fresh air and regarded as on of the most transparent leaders anywhere in the world. She is also an avid user of social media.

Joyce Banda holds a BA degree in early childhood education from Columbus University and another Bachelors degree in Gender studies from Atlantic International University. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in leadership from Royal Roads University in Canada and was given a honorary doctorate degree from Jeonju University in South Korea. She was recently ranked as the 71st most powerful woman in the world.  She entered politics in 1999 in the male dominated country as a parliamentarian.
Late President Bingu wa Mutharika

In 2009 President Banda ran as a vice presidential candidate alongside President Mutharika as candidates of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Immediately after winning and becoming vice president, her troubles started. The DPP fired her as party vice president in 2010 on bogus charges of anti-party activities.  In order to undermine her further so that an opportunity could be given to his brother to succeed him as president, President Mutharika gave a lot of the Vice President's duties to his wife Callista Mutharika, who was both First Lady and a member of the cabinet. President Mutharika also attempted to fire Vice President Banda as VP, but the courts refused to allow this as hers was a constitutional position and was voted for directly by the people of Malawi, just like in our own country Sierra Leone. 

In order to humiliate Joyce Banda further, President Banda attempted to seize her government vehicle and also stopped her from registering a new party when she got fed up with the humiliation. The DPP party spokesman even urged the Vice President to resign.

President Mutharika unexpectedly suffered a massive heart attack on April 5 2012 and was flown to South Africa because of blackouts in the Malawi Capital Lilongwe. The president in reality was already dead, but his wife and cabinet ministers, not wanting their avowed political enemy to succeed, announced that Mutharika's condition was critical.  They then posted 15 army officers to surround the Vice President's residence and deployed police throughout the capital. The Vice President announced that she wished the president a speedy recovery.
Ex-First Lady Callista Mutharika

On April 7th, the death of the president was finally announced.  Members of the president's cabinet wanted to prevent Joyce Banda from becoming President, claiming that she was disqualified because of her attempt to form another political party. However, the former Malawian President Bakili Muluzi came out stating that the constitution was very clear that when a President died he was to be succeeded by the Vice President. The Malawi Law Society also confirmed  former President Muluzi's position and the Vice President was sworn in on April 7th as President Joyce Banda. 

After she was sworn in President Joyce Banda called for national unity and appealed for new a relationship with the international community.  Before the death of President Mutharika aid to Malawi had been suspended by the EU, USA, the African Development Bank, and the World Bank because of the erratic policies of Mutharika and his growing democratic intolerance.  He had responded by telling all the donors to "go to hell"

Aid was soon resumed after Mutharika's death as the international community became increasingly impressed with Banda's style of leadership.

President Banda uses social media extensively,  especially Facebook.  She gives updates of her activities,  asks about the safety of her people and even asks about what they had to eat. She regularly inspires them and is a real breath of fresh air. She engages productively with the citizens and uses the medium as an infomal way to reach her people and her many admirers around the world. Her posts are meaningful, insightful, caring and appropriate and represents a great example of how to appropriately use social media as a politician.

The government of SierraLeone is also increasingly using social media to engage with the citizenry. The reviews of the effort has been mixed. Members of the State House Communication Unit are very courteous, respectful and engaging in the use of social Media, most particularly Facebook. John Baimba Sesay, the Press Attache to China uses social media very constructively to report what they are doing in the communist country. However, other members of the government provide excellent examples of how not to use social media.
S.O. Blyden

Sylvia Blyden, the Special Executive Assistant to President Koroma is a great example of a very bad representation of government on Social Media. A former journlist who prides herself in the use of abrasive language, her main use of social media is to insult and disrespect her government colleagues, threaten the country's journalists and create tension between government party supporters and members of the opposition. In a typical exchange in recent weeks, she labeled one of the contry's ministers Sheka Tarawallie a dwarf on Facebook , because of his dimunitive size and the Minister said he wanted to eat SEA food for dinner, a not too subtle use of the position of the caustic Special Assistant. The Special Assistant tells her Facebook audience that she is senior to deputy ministers because the president has told her that she was of a cabinet rank, even though the constitution of Sierra Leone is very clear about positons in government are of Cabinet rank. The president's special assistant has occasionally been so rude to members of some forum groups that they have had to kick her out of the largest Sierra Leone forums on Facebook.

Some other Sierra Leone government officials, use social media to spread information that is poorly researched and lacking in any solid factual basis, subjecting themselves to ridicule and the government by extension. 

What government officials should realize is that social media represents an environment where everybody engages on a more or less equal basis. You may be in State House where the common man may be unable to talk to you, but on Facebook even the small boy in his village with a cellphone can reply to your staement. So if you are not respectful, respect will not be earned or given in return as the forum provides a level playing field for all.

So even though social media is a great way for governments to engage and interact with the general public, it is not an ideal place for those who lack official etiquette or who still possess vestiges of rebel mentality. Governments wating to use social media should be careful what they say, as the medium has a worldwide and democratic audience.

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