Governments suck at social media, but you deserve some blame

Officials are failing to reach citizens on social media, says a new report, and that's fueling distrust in governments.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read

Governments are struggling to deal with people on social media.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images

Social media is becoming a problem for governments.

And it's not just the inevitable hate tweet the White House account receives, or China's beef with Donald Trump's "Twitter foreign policy."

Government officials have learned not to feed the trolls, but they're having a hard time getting important information to citizens, according to a WPP report released Tuesday.

Before Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, reaching out to the masses was simple for governments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt talked the nation through the Great Depression and World War II with his fireside chats over the radio. Televised press conferences held sway for decades.

In 2016, more than half of US adults got their news on social media.

The Leaders' Report, published by advertising and consulting firm WPP, looks at how government agencies across 40 countries reach out to their citizens. WPP spoke with communications leaders from 20 governments, along with five leaders of multilateral organizations.

The report's conclusion: The majority of countries have been failing on social media.

With multiple sources for news online, some of them fake, governments find it challenging to get through to their citizens. It means everyone is hearing a different message through a different filter. Imagine a game of telephone, but people are only listening to the players who repeat what they want to hear.

"We can no longer send a uniform message to the entire public. It's not possible. It doesn't work anymore," a communication leader in Western Europe told WPP.

WPP diagnosed this as the "Amazon Syndrome," in reference to the online retailer giant's personalized, on-demand services. People are getting their news immediately and tailored to their own beliefs, cutting down on any say the government has.

That's led to a jump in distrust and anger toward governments. In 2014, a study showed that only 40 percent of citizens trusted their government. The internet has given a platform to fringe groups and conspiracy theorists, deepening the distrust, according to the survey.

"They can criticize and campaign faster than the speed at which governments can respond," the report said.

Get with the times

It doesn't help that fewer than one-third of the survey's respondents see talking to citizens as a government priority. The majority of national governments are taking a similar approach to that of FDR: broadcast it and just assume everyone is listening.

That might have worked in the 20th century, but people want to hear back from their government officials on social media now. They want a government's communications leaders to, you know, actually communicate.

Research has shown that governments that prioritize citizen engagement maintain higher public trust.

But it's not as easy as running a social media account for brands. One responder to the survey said he needed clearance from three levels before he could send a tweet out. Half of the government communication leaders interviewed in the survey said they don't understand social media.

WPP recommends that government agencies start responding to citizens directly on social media, with direct channels to talk to people.

"The proof of the absolute stupidity of [our] government," a communications official in Western Europe told the WPP, "is that there is no communications training."

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