Technology

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credit/Copyright Attribution: chanpipat/Shutterstock

The dynamic evolution of technology has far-reaching applications to governing and dramatically impacts the role of the public in decision-making. The Senate Presidents’ Forum has gained expert insight into changing technologies since 1999, when then-Governor Michael Leavitt of Utah warned that Internet sales would significantly impact state tax revenues.

The Winter 2014 Forum focused on the impact of social media, which have become an invisible but growing force in government affairs. Harvard University Kennedy School of Government Professor Nicco Mele, author of The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath (2013), and Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global lead for politics and government engagement, considered the implications of social media for state legislators. They examined how issues are reported in social media, how the public uses social media to get their news, and how legislators can use social media in the best interests of the community.

The Forum evaluated how social media characteristics, such as end‐user participation in the creation and evaluation of content and collaborative problem-solving through networking activities and content sharing, can enhance transparency, participation, and collaboration in government.

Professor Nicco Mele of Harvard University Kennedy School of Government noted that “Social media have become an invisible but growing force in current government affairs.” He explored the implications of social media for government, examining how the public uses social media to get their news and how legislators can adopt social media in the best interests of the community.

“The United States government functions just as it did 300 years ago; it is hierarchical and comprised of big bureaucracies. Today, technology is pushing power to the individual,” according to Mr. Mele, who teaches about the Internet and politics. “This creates opportunities but also challenges, as it undermines established authorities and allows power to flow from institutions to nonaccredited individuals.”

He described the rapid development of technology, equating the power of the room-sized Cray computer of 1975 with today’s 1 billion smartphones. This revolution in the distribution of power affects policymaking, political campaigns, the government, and corporations, Mr. Mele observed.

One area of exponential growth and increasing influence remains mysterious for many policymakers: social media. As webmaster for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, Mr. Mele popularized the use of social media to reshape American politics.

With the advent of social media, business as usual is no longer tenable, he said. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook amplify messages through connecting communication channels, giving significant power to individuals. In fact, no institutions or brands appear in the top 1,000 users of Facebook and Twitter. Brands struggle for purchase in social media.

Social-media communications are individual, such as news that is significant to self-selected groups; it is intimate, such as reporting births and deaths; and it is intentional, that is, used by individuals with a plan or a need. Furthermore, there is a significant gap between the government and the people, Mr. Mele continued, and the power is moving to the people.

“In the next 20 years, neighborhoods will ‘crowd source’ solutions to local political issues, creating and funding their own public works policies,” the professor predicted. The problem is that individuals are not necessarily informed or competent to wield the influence provided through social media. Social media and Internet fundraising are empowering small interest groups to challenge the establishment. But if they win, technology is not helpful for actual governing and policymaking, he noted.

Social media dramatically affects governance and policymaking, Mr. Mele observed, and requires new strategies for engaging with constituencies. These strategies include:

1. Re-imagine your relationship with your constituents. They used to be your audience, and now they have more power to tell you what they think.

2. Provide channels for people’s energies and interests. Policies must give people something effective to do with the power they have. The role of the institutions is to bring integrity and competence to the policies that grow out of people’s interests.

3. Go local. The distance between the people and their leaders is not acceptable, Mr. Mele observed. People do not believe that their leaders care about the issues that are important to them. Leaders must find ways to create connections and overcome this distance. Social media are vehicles for hearing local input and harnessing local interests. Always respond appropriately to concerns raised in social media. Suggest a face-to-face meeting to address issues rather than engaging online.

4. Demand technology literacy from your leaders and staff. Recruit people who understand technology and hold them accountable. Avoid “nerd disease” by requiring understandable explanations from technical advisers.

5. Combine top-down leadership with distributed power. The professor  cited the example of President Barack Obama’s election campaign, which gave volunteers substantial authority and responsibility, but closely monitored and managed them online. The campaign channeled the volunteers’ energies in effective ways.

6. Demand accountability from the corporations that control the Internet and affect our lives. They have a responsibility to direct the flow. For example, during the Boston Marathon bombings, they could direct readers to “Follow the Boston police Twitter feed,” and thus avoid inaccurate information taking flight through social media.

Social Media and Citizen Engagement

Katie Harbath, the global lead for politics and government engagement at Facebook, addressed the Forum on issues related to social media. Prior to joining Facebook, Ms. Harbath led digital strategy for the National and Senatorial Committees of the Republican Party.

Facebook has profoundly altered the political landscape all over the world, Ms. Harbath said, citing the example of India’s first opposition party, which used Facebook to target young voters and won elections over the established two parties. She reported the evolution of Facebook: in the 1990s, people browsed content; in the 2000s, they became more intentionally “search” focused; and today Facebook is used for social discovery as well as exploring new ideas, people, and new thinking.

Ms. Harbath reported statistics that indicate constituencies are debating issues online and  giving social media the power to propel politics. More than 179 million people use Facebook every month in the United States, with the fastest-growing segment among people aged 50 and older, reflecting the demographics of the US population. More than 30% of Americans get their news from Facebook; 34% of adults recently contacted a government official or spoke out in a public forum via online methods; more than 30% have promoted or reposted content related to political or social issues; 43% have decided to learn more about a political or social issue because of something they read on social media. Clearly, social media have the power to express or influence public opinion.

Having convinced the Forum of the importance of social media, Ms. Harbath then provided practical, tactical guidance about effective use of social media, emphasizing the importance of timely, succinct, regularly refreshed content enlivened by photos and video, and designed to be mobile-friendly. She illustrated the use of real-time social media feeds, such as members tweeting updates on chamber votes in real time.

More than 179 million Americans use Facebook every month, with many people getting their news feeds, espousing political positions, or engaging with legislators through Facebook.

Ways to use real-time social media feeds effectively:

1. Keep the prompt simple and authentic. For example, “I’ll be taking your questions for the next 15 minutes. What do you want to know?” Share real-life images of a “Day in your life,” your view from the stage of an event, or an important personal event to form a “personal” connection with online participants.

2. Include the time of the Q&A in the post-prompt. This way users who see it in their feed will know that it’s happening precisely when they see it and not something they missed.

3. Specify how long the Q&A will last.

4. Share photos of the speakers behind a computer looking at their Facebook page to show it’s authentic and not prerecorded.

5. When the Q&A is over, thank people for participating and keep them engaged by linking to a new Facebook post based on the Q&A.

Ms. Harbath reviewed the basics of Facebook literacy, noting that campaign pages must be kept separate from official pages. She differentiated Facebook pages from profiles and suggested that users can turn on subscriptions at facebook.com to allow more than 5,000 “friends” to get updates.

Ms. Harbath described the sophisticated targeting capabilities made possible by online utilities. Users can target content for a custom audience on Facebook using e-mail, phone, or user IDs to create unique targeting groups, or generate larger lists by selecting from among hundreds of parameters to identify specific audiences. She observed that these parameters are anonymous categories not linked to an individual’s identity as Facebook is scrupulous in protecting individual privacy. In addition to targeting audiences, Facebook provides utilities to analyze and develop insights into the characteristics of “fans,” for example, how many likes or unlikes were received to a new post, dates, times, and duration of visits to your page and the average reach and engagement of different posts. The demographics of “fans” are reported, including age, gender, geography, and language.

Social media analytics provide robust data about constituents’ interests, concerns, and behavioral patterns. These insights can help inform policy and politics by keeping legislators knowledgeable about their constituents’ political positions and concerns.

Ms. Harbath pointed out that most social-media users are online from 9-10 PM, getting news feeds. She recommended making posts during this time, especially when the news is covering an issue that concerns you or your constituents.

As Ms. Harbath completed her presentation, Senator Peter Courtney (OR) admitted to being in “technical overwhelm. Should I learn to use social media or just hire a techie to take care of it?” he asked. Ms. Harbath observed that social media require incremental learning and advised a slow, step-by-step beginning with the help of experts such as the Facebook team. But she reiterated the importance of getting personally involved and not leaving social media in the hands of the IT team.

Discussion

Sen. M. Teresa Paiva Weed (RI): Social media can be a powerful force for engaging new people to participate in government and the political process.

Sen. James Clayborne (IL): Social media provide opportunities for outreach and communication. We can channel people’s energies and concerns into positive action.

Sen. Donna Kim (HI): When people have a way to communicate with legislators, they are more encouraged to participate. We have to let them know that they are being heard.

Sen. Troy Fraser (TX): People want to communicate with us, but they can also use social media to be disruptive. A few people with an agenda can mount a campaign. We have to be able to assess the views of the whole community and what is best for the whole community, and not be driven by a vocal minority. We saw the risks of online media in Texas. An online campaign advocating civil disobedience riled up a fringe group of people who took over the capitol. They created a riot in the legislature in the middle of a vote, so we could not conduct business. When free speech means civil disobedience, we need to be aware of it and understand how to channel that energy.

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia (PR): Do you foresee changes in democracy as a result of social media? We are supposed to represent the voice of the people, but if they have their own voices online, do they need us? Are we moving toward government by referendum?

Mr. Mele: Democracy charts a path between monarchy and anarchy. The role of government is channeling the voice of the people.

Hon. Tom Finneran (Moderator): Legislators deliberate and debate in a slow, systematic process to find the best path. This conflicts with the online public’s appetite for an immediate response.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (AR): Social media are good for the big picture, big ideas, and building relationships, but not for policy or discussion. My concern is that the people engaged in social media are not knowledgeable about policy. A few people can drive the conversation on policy, even if they are not informed.

Mr. Mele: Online deliberation does not exist. It requires a slow, iterative process. This is new technology, so people are still figuring out the paradigm. Elected officials have to channel the people’s energies and move them into appropriate forums where deliberation can take place with integrity. You have to make time for social media. It is profoundly dangerous not to engage with these media. You do not have to do so yourself, but you do have to understand social media in your bones.

Speaker Biographies

Katie Harbath

Katie Harbath is the global lead for politics and government engagement at Facebook, where she focuses on political outreach. Prior to Facebook, Katie was the Chief Digital Strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. She previously led digital strategy in positions at DCI Group, the Rudy Giuliani for President campaign and the Republican National Committee. In 2009, she was named a Rising Star by Campaigns and Elections magazine. Katie holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nicco Mele

Nicco Mele is an entrepreneur, angel investor, and consultant to Fortune 1000 companies. He served as webmaster for Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid and popularized the use of technology and social media that revolutionized political fundraising and reshaped American politics. Subsequently, he co-founded EchoDitto, a leading internet strategy and consulting firm. Nicco is also on the faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School where he teaches graduate-level classes on the Internet and politics. His book, The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath, explores the consequences of living in a socially connected society, drawing upon his years of experience as an innovator in politics and technology.

 

 

New Media & Government

 

The dynamic evolution of technology has far-reaching applications to governing and dramatically impacts the role of the public in decision-making.

 

Social media can enhance transparency, participation, and collaboration in government.

Nicco Mele

 

Social media such as Twitter and Facebook amplify messages through connecting communication channels, giving significant power to individuals.

 

Social media strategies:

1. Re-imagine your relationship with your constituents

2. Provide channels for people’s energies and interests

3. Go local

4. Demand technology literacy from your leaders and staff

5. Combine top-down leadership with distributed power

6. Demand accountability from the corporations that control the Internet and affect our lives

Katie Harbath

 

More than 179 million Americans use Facebook every month, with many people getting their news feeds, espousing political positions, or engaging with legislators through Facebook.

 

Real-time media strategies:

1. Keep the prompt simple and authentic

2. Include the time of the Q&A in the post-prompt

3. Specify how long the Q&A will last

4. Share photos of the speakers behind a computer

 5. When the Q&A is over, thank people for participating

 

Social media analytics provide robust data about constituents’ interests, concerns, and behavioral patterns. These insights can help inform policy and politics by keeping legislators knowledgeable about their constituents’ political positions and concerns.

Sen. M. Teresa
Paiva Weed

Sen. James Clayborne

Sen. Donna Kim

Sen. Troy Fraser

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia

Sen. Jonathan Dismang

Katie Harbath

Nicco Mele

Senate Presidents’ Forum

Phone: 914.693.1818

The Senate Presidents’ Forum is a nonpartisan, nonprofit
educational organization for State Senate leaders.

Copyright © 2017 Senate Presidents' Forum. All rights reserved.