Governing With Social Media

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GOVERNING WITH SOCIAL MEDIA:
HOW THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION IS USING SOCIAL MEDIA TO CONNECT WITH
THE COUNTRY
Aaron Thuringer
Arizona State University

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1933 the
country was in shambles. He took office in the middle of the Great Depression, unemployment
was at a record high, people were living in shanty towns and the previous administration's efforts
for economic recovery had met failure. The American people were unsure if they could trust
their government to lead them to the light at the end of the tunnel. Roosevelt knew he had to
sooth the concerns of his citizens and elected to do so through the newest medium available at
the time, radio. During his administration, Roosevelt gave 30 evening speeches over the radio.
These radio addresses soothed the nation, became extremely popular and reflected well on the
president himself. They were known as the “Fireside Chats” and became an intricate part of the
Roosevelt legacy. As we turn to present day politics, the current President, Barack Obama, has a
chance to have the same affect on the nation. Obama has taken office during an economic crisis
that is second to only the Great Depression. He takes office at a time where the average citizen
is distrustful of the government and the mass media is slanted. Much like the radio, Obama has a
new medium to transmit his message through as well: social media. Obama has already had
success with this medium, his campaign has widely been considered one of the first, mainstream,
social media success stories. Now the challenge becomes governance with social media. The
Obama Administration can use social media to improve transparency, collaboration,
communication and trust with the American people.
In order for Barack Obama to successfully incorporate social media into governance the
question must be asked: is it possible? In the United States, 12 million people are accessing
news content every second in today's digital age (Hartley). During Obama's inauguration, over
40,000 photos were uploaded to photo-sharing site Flickr and the micro-blogging service Twitter

saw five times the average number of messages posted every second. (Hartley) Clearly, there is
an audience for social media in this country. One governing through this new media is a lot
different than one marketing themselves through it. Obama has the tools at his disposal. His
Facebook presence is unparalleled – he has the #1 fans of any Facebook fan page. (Parr) His
Twitter profile ranks among the most popular in the service. Online news aggergators, websites
such as Digg and Reddit that allow users to vote on their favorite news stories, are almost
exclusively pro-Obama. Obama has a highly skilled team proficient in the Web 2.0 world, they
are the reason he has such a digital presence. Transforming his marketing presence into a
governing presence is now the priority.
When the Internet first became mainstream in the mid 1990s there was a common
stereotype that was associated with its users. The typical Internet user was seen as on the fringe
of society, someone who was socially awkward and turned to the Internet for the anonymity it
provided to escape the challenges of the “real world” - introvert personalities. (Correa, 7)
Computers were expensive, hard to use and not mobile. Interacting with late 20th century
operating systems, MS DOS and early forms of Windows, were not tasks that came easy to the
general public. One who was versed in the ways of the computer usually had to have a high
level of technical skill. At the time the Internet was commercially accessible through LAN lines,
referred to as “dial-up,” which provided lengthy connection times and slow browsing speeds,
leaving its popularity stagnant. It was when broadband Internet was introduced in the early
2000s that the Internet sped up and started to become more popular. (A Nation Online) People
with these higher speed broadband connections were able to engage in a greater degree of online
activities. (A Nation Online) Instead of a rather small, tech-savvy group of users frequenting the
Internet, a more mainstream user-base was growing. In 2001, a national survey showed that the

more time Internet users spent on-line, the more likely they were to belong to off-line religious,
leisure, and community organizations, compared to nonusers. (Bargh, 412) The stereotype of the
introverted Internet user was dying. The Internet was attracting a new type of user, but one still
had to be tech-savvy to create the portals of information that existed in cyberspace. The typical
user did not know how to make a website. Most users spent their time in chat rooms, instant
messaging, on message boards and reading their favorite websites.
As more users went online, cyberspace became more social. Jerry Kang, in his paper
“Cyber-Race,” stated:
Cyberspace makes talking with strangers easier. The fundamental point of many cyber-
realms, such as chat rooms, is to make new acquaintances. By contrast, in most urban
settings, few environments encourage us to walk up to strangers and start chatting. In
many cities, doing so would amount to a physical threat.” (Kang, 1161)
Well connections made via the Internet may have been scrutinized at first, it was becoming clear
that they had value. Research has shown that relationships developed over the Internet are
highly-similar to those developed in person, and are long lasting. People are more able to
express their “true” self. (Bargh, 581) When blogging became popular in the early 21st century,
Internet users had a new medium to express themselves. No longer did one have to know how to
make a website, all they had to do was sign up with a blogging service like Blogger or Live
Journal and they could share their thoughts with the world for free. These blogging services did
the heavily lifting when it came to website maintenance, meaning all the user had to do was type
out their thoughts. The power of blogging came to the Nation's attention during the 2004
presidential campaign, when the relatively unknown Howard Dean became the Democratic
party's hottest name and leading fund raiser out of the gate. (Bacon) Shortly after the blogging

boom came a rise in social networking. Sites such as Meetup, Facebook, Myspace, Bebo and
Friendster allowed people to connect with each other in totally unique ways. These social
networks allowed users to create their own virtual space (or home page), on which they post
pictures, write blogs, share ideas and link to other Web locations which they find interesting.
(Lai, 390) This removed the aura of anonymity from the Internet and made it a more social
platform. In these social networks one can and actually trust their group members and even
acquaintances with expertise, identity, personal information, and the like. (Lai, 397) A clear shift
was taking place within cyberspace. More people were collaborating in a more mainstream
setting. No longer was it a breeding ground for introverted personalities hiding behind the
curtain of anonymity, the Internet had become social.
With a social Internet, people started to share information in a different way. Mass media
gave way to social media and suddenly the world had entered a digital enlightenment. People
could easily share photos (Flickr), broadcast their own videos (YouTube), distribute audio
(podcasting), keep tabs on their social network (Facebook), publish (blogging) and easily access
content they were interested in (RSS feeds).1 The new way of interacting with the Internet was
dubbed “Web 2.0.” The common characteristics of Web 2.0 are:
• User-created content (self publishing)
• The ability to tap into the collective intelligence of users. The more users contribute the
more popular and valuable a Web 2.0 site becomes.
• Unique communication and collaborative environment.
• Making data available in new or never-intended ways. Web 2.0 data can be remixed or
“mashed up,” often through Web-Service interfaces, much the way dance-club DJ mixes
music.
1 Websites referenced are the most popular, but there are numerous websites that offer the same services.

• The presence of lightweight programming techniques and tools let nearly anyone act as a
developer (e.g., wikis, blogs, RSS, and podcasting).
• The virtual elimination of software-upgrade cycles makes everything a perpetual beta or
work in progress, and allows rapid prototyping using the Web as a platform.
• Unique sharing of content or all media.
• Networks as platforms, delivering and allowing users to use applications entirely through
a browser. (Lai, 388)
When Twitter became mainstream in 2008, there was another shift in the way the Internet was
working. Users were receiving content from their social network just as much as they were
receiving it from major media outlets. In the past major media outlets would push their
information to the consumer, but in Web 2.0 the consumer is pulling their information from a
variety of sources they choose. Information was pulled mostly from friend recommendations,
which was a more trustworthy than advertising. Users no longer had to search for information, it
found them. Social media promises a kind of Socratic knowledge: it tells users things they did
not even think to ask. (Sacks)
Social networking and media is extremely popular. 47% of online adults belong to a
social networking site, 73% of wired teenagers use social networking websites. (Pew) This new
medium is ripe for political involvement. We live in an age where 60 percent of Americans
routinely assume that every politician is lying to them. (Trippi, 234) Democracy is at its best
when government is responsive to citizen interests and improving citizens' quality of life, and
good democracy demands equal consideration of the interests of each citizen. (Ronan, 6) Web
2.0 makes interactions between citizens and government much easier. In the past there has been
a filtering of information that comes from the government, this filter is known as the mass media.

Mass media outlets report the news to the citizens, but they can have biases and slanted
viewpoints. One can tune into MSNBC or pick up the Wall Street Journal and get the news, but
those reporting could be trying to inject their opinion into the news – it is getting harder and
harder to tell. With social media, government can get their message directly to their constituents,
making them feel more involved in the political processes. Some scholars hail the Internet as a
possible route for reinvigorating the democratic process and encouraging citizens to become
more involved. (Hoffman, 1) Many believe that organizations that understand these new
applications and technologies receive better collaboration with their customer base. (Lai, 388-
389) Since so many Americans have become disenchanted with the political process, it seems
only natural that government would turn to Web 2.0 technologies to reconnect.
One of the greatest strengths of Web 2.0 is the ability to spread mobilizing information.
Mobilizing information is information that will get people to take action. Political mobilizing
information comes in three forms:
• Locational- Information is provided about the time and place of an activity.
• Identificational- Names and contact information for people or groups is provided.
• Tactical- Explicit and implicit instructions for certain behaviors. (Hoffman, 3)
An example of mobilizing information at work is a flash mob. A flash mob is a group that
engages in seemingly spontaneous but actually synchronized behavior. (Shirky, 165).
Information will be posted somewhere on the Internet that will cause people to mobilize in real
life, usually for a cause. A political example of a flash mob came during the 2004 election, when
the Howard Dean campaign proposed a flash mob in Seattle that became a quasi-rally. (Shirky,
165) Mobilizing information is not an Internet invention, it has been around for a long time. A
flier on a community bulletin board is an example. Volunteers canvassing for a candidate is a

political example. These more traditional examples of mobilizing information are not very far
reaching. Unless that flier is posted to numerous community bulletin boards or volunteers are
walking all over a city canvassing, the information is not going to spread at a rapid pace.
Mobilizing information has become more effective due to the ease and speed of sharing on the
Internet.
Since its mainstream induction in the 1990s, we have seen some incredible changes to the
Internet. What started as a community for primarily tech savvy introverts has become dominated
by social savvy extroverts, more outgoing personalities. Today, the Internet does more than just
store an astonishing amount of information – it is a great connector. It has become fully social,
engaging people from all over the world through its advancing technology. There is no road map
on how to embrace social media, no definitive case study and no real way to quantify its results.
Web 2.0 is very much a trail-and-error entity right now. Still, it is important to use these new
avenues of media. During his inauguration President Obama promised:
“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in
government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of
transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our
democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.” (Open
Government)
The question becomes: How, exactly, does he plan to do it?
After the inauguration Obama instantly went to work reorganizing the way the
government interacts with its citizens, using social media as one of the primary vehicles. On his
first day in office, Obama signed an Executive Order to establish the system of transparency,
public participation and collaboration." The Obama Administration developed transparency with

the public by setting up numerous websites that would share as much information as possible
with Americans. These websites include:

Data.gov- Makes available countless amounts of data in the forms of studies, metrics
and reports to increase public access to high value, readable datasets.

Recovery.org- Documents and illustrates how federal stimulus dollars are being spent
all over the country.

Usaspending.gov- Documents general government expenditures, allowing a citizen to
track exactly where government money is and is not going.

Entrepreneurship.gov- Organizes, collaborates and shares ideas on operating a business
venture, creating wealth, and employing people.

Business.gov- Works with small business, helping them locate government services and
understand legal requirements.
These five websites have opened up government information to the country, allowing the public
to keep tabs on exactly what the government is doing, what the government is spending and what
the government can do for them.
With this high level of transparency, the administration hopes to promote participation
and collaboration. The administration believes participation shapes public policy (Open
Government) and they have various tools to foster citizen participation with the government.
The White House and most departments of the government are active in blogging, have Twitter
accounts, social networking profiles and are constantly updating and connecting with citizens. In
March of 2009 the “Open for Questions” program was introduced, allowing citizens to submit
and vote on questions for the President on the White House's official website. In less than 48
hours the administration received over 100,000 questions and 3.6 million votes. (Open for

Questions) Obama responded to these questions directly via You Tube. Obama and his aides
also conduct online question-and-answer sessions and post video-interviews using YouTube.
Following Obama's lead, 25 government agencies now have YouTube channels. (Scherer) The
administration uses its Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep the public informed on
government activities and spread the news of the day. These two profiles inform their followers,
which number close to 10 million, the most important news of the day via videos, audio, blog
posts, press releases and pictures. Obama's Flickr account constantly posts behind-the-scenes
photos, giving the viewer a look at what everyday life is like within the administration.
While the administration does give citizens the chance to participate, it is important that
they draw upon them for collaboration. If the administration did not listen to their fans of social
media, their presence would not nearly be as effective. The outbreak of the H1N1 (Swine) Flu in
the summer of 2009 caused hysteria around the country and the administration used social media
to preach their message to the country and curtail the fear that was fast spreading. In July, the
Department of Health and Human Services tapped American creativity to address the difficult
problem of reaching those most vulnerable to H1N1 flu—teens and young adults—with the
message about washing hands and getting a flu shot. (Open Government, 6) What followed was
“H1N1 Rap by Dr. Clarke” a H1N1 PSA video that became viral on YouTube. The Department
of Labor started the “Tools for America's Job Seekers Challenge,” which challenged
entrepreneurs and tech firms to showcase their online job search and career advancement tools,
which will help the country identify the most compelling online tools to set job seekers on the
shortest path to success. (Open Government, 7) Perhaps the largest act of collaboration came
during the presidential transition between Obama and George W. Bush in the form of the
Citizen's Briefing Book. During the transition citizens were allowed to submit their ideas to