Posted by: fastforward on May 10, 2011
Twitter has become a force to be reckoned with when it comes to distributing and sharing news. Trending topics often function as news aggregators, containing everything from breaking news and celebrity gossip to TV spoilers and mentions of current events. I heard about the tsunami in Japan, the death of Osama bin Laden and Elizabeth Tyler, as well as Coldplay’s plans to tour South Africa in October on Twitter. And that is the nature of the medium – you can tweet about whatever you’d like; from news and politics to what you had for breakfast.
What about using Twitter to talk to your government? Could we be using Twitter in the future to chat to the president about service delivery and use the medium to hold politicians accountable and encourage more active participation in democracy?
Twitter has already illustrated its potential as a public service tool. President Obama used Twitter during his election campaign and the White House twitter account has been an important source of news about the recent death of Osama bin Laden. Twitter also helped American politicians like Cory Booker to converse easily with their constituency. The Mayor of New Jersey earned followers and support from voters when he used Twitter to communicate with his citizens during a snowstorm. Residents trapped by snow or in need of supplies tweeted Booker and he responded, sending aid and snow ploughs and often personally helping to shovel snow and dig out cars trapped in the storm.
If something similar was implemented by a few brave government officials in South Africa, can you imagine the positive impact it may have in communities (and in public support for the politicians)?
There are already signs that South African politicians are seeing the value in Twitter. The president’s office has its own Twitter page, which is used to update its followers about Zuma and Motlanthe’s international visits and what is being discussed at various conferences, as well as to share links to transcripts of speeches by the presidency. It was also used during the run-up to Zuma’s most recent state of the nation address, as users were invited to contribute items for discussion by tweeting using the hashtag #SONA. Unfortunately, the page reads like it is managed by a PR staff member and doesn’t often reply to tweets by users or even feature tweets written by Zuma himself. ANCYL president Julius Malema is not so shy; he tweets about everything from the proper context to use the word ‘darkie’ to current election campaign details.
Both the ANC and DA have hosted question and answer sessions on twitter during the run-up to the municipal election. The ANC responded to questions from Twitter users and the DA ran a similar program asking users to tweet questions using the tag #DAQA. DA leader Helen Zille maintains an active Twitter account which has been chronicling her journey around the country before the elections, and which she uses to reply to questions and share links and photos.
Clearly then, many politicians see the value of Twitter as a way to communicate with their citizens and potential voters. However, will they continue to use the service as frequently in between elections? Can embrace the system and actively participate with their followers in real life, like Mayor Booker did?
As Twitter gains popularity in South Africa (it’s currently the eight most visited website in the country with over a million users), it is possible that in the future, politicians may use tweets as a way to gather an understanding about citizens and their needs rather than as a simple marketing tool.