By Ireen Manyuha
The emergence of social media has changed the way in which people interact and communicate.
Nowadays, more and more people are using social media to search for information on government programmes and services.
For example, the South African government gained thousands of new followers on their Twitter account since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, this is an indication that many people are turning to social media to access government information.
Statistics on the use of social media indicate that the number of social media users is increasing at an exponential rate.
The latest data released last month by the Global Web Index indicate that 57.6% of the world’s eligible population uses social media.
According to Kepios analysis, the number of social media users have increased exponentially in the last 12 months, with over 400 million new users gained in the year 2021.
Social media offers a unique opportunity for governments to directly interact with the public.
The time has come for governments to seize the opportunity to enhance citizen engagement through social media.
The adoption of social media for government communication has many positive benefits if used effectively.
Platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook are useful tools to actively engage with the public, gather research, and scan the media environment to understand the concerns of the public.
Despite the many advantages of social media for government communication, many communicators still use social media platforms for the sole purpose of one-way information dissemination which often leads to lack of responsiveness and that can deepen trust deficit between government and citizens.
Online public participation cannot be achieved solely through the dissemination of information.
It is important for communicators to understand that social media is collaborative and participatory by nature, it can empower users to share their ideas, opinions, and exchange information in real-time.
Social media has the power to enable two-way communication in ways never imagined before.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the omnipresent nature of social media in the communication sphere.
Amongst the many lessons learned from the pandemic on government and citizen engagement is that; government communicators in all spheres should not use social media as an optional tool to spread messages.
Case studies on government communication during periods of disaster management, indicate that social media can be a strategic tool to communicate with citizens and provide updates in real time.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, social media platforms are of utmost importance because they allow for dissemination of the latest information and enable conversations that allow for rapid exchange of information with citizens.
For instance, the Department of Health used WhatsApp to provide accurate and updated information on Covid-19 to South African citizens.
The WhatsApp initiative was great in a sense that it addressed the issue of misinformation and fake news that proved to be a challenge in the early stages of the pandemic.
Even though social media is a platform that can give government communication direct citizen engagement, there are some potential challenges that may hinder its effectiveness.
The regulation of social media in countries like South Africa takes into consideration that there must be provision for protection of human rights and freedom of expression.
However, there should be a full understanding that citizens can use social media to pursue their negative agenda and spread ambiguous information which could ultimately mislead the public and affect the image of government.
As a PR practitioner, my mother who is based in the rural areas of Limpopo is not on any social media platform but she was calling me several times to verify fake news relating to coronavirus and often when I checked the source, it was social media.
This means that anyone who uses social media can post information that could go viral and potentially impact a mass audience.
A recent case in point is an emergence of social media accounts fuelling or inciting violence that occurred post the July unrest in various parts of South Africa.
The social media space is an information vacuum which must not be left unattended.
Therefore, the adoption of social media is an opportunity to take the power away from those who provide ambiguous information to the public.
The lack of a comprehensive social media strategy to guide the implementation or use of various platforms is also a challenge, without a strategy in place social media would be used sporadically and it would make it impossible to foster effective citizen engagement.
In terms of capacity to deliver on the social media strategy, every government department should have a dedicated person to manage all social media accounts, share public information and monitor interactions and instantly respond to queries or any misleading comments or inaccurate information.
The time has come for government communicators to embrace the power of social media as a two-way communication tool to enhance public engagement, improve service delivery, and build trust and confidence in the government.
* Ireen Manyuha is a Public Relations Specialist, and she writes in her personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.