Gov 2.0: Social Media in Fits and Starts

WASHINGTON — The signs of social media creeping into government are everywhere.

Members of Congress famously Twittered during President Obama’s address to the country in February. Tonight, he’s to give what many are calling the most important speech of his young presidency, addressing both chambers of Congress about the lightning-rod issue of health care, and it seems eminently reasonable that the legislative tweets will again be coming fast and furious.

Social media tools are now in frequent use in the military, intelligence and diplomatic communities.

At least 23 agencies have profile pages on Facebook, and earlier today, the company launched a dedicated government section of its site to give the feds an official imprimatur on the world’s largest social network, said Tim Sparapani, Facebook’s director of public policy.

Sparapini was addressing attendees of the Gov 2.0 Summit, an event co-hosted by O’Reilly Media and TechWeb that focuses on the intersection of technology and government.

For new-media enthusiasts like Rep. John Culberson, the Texas Republican introduced this morning as the most prolific Twitterer in Congress, the more information that’s out there on the Web, the better governance citizens can expect.

“Once we the people can actually see and hear what our elected officials are doing in real time, we won’t put up with it,” Culberson said. “A pickpocket can only get away with it if they do it in secret.”

Culberson framed his comments around the issue of the day, declaring that a truly two-way Internet would be the death of bills like the “garbage” health care legislation the Democratic leadership is backing. Invoking the old chestnut about sunlight being the best disinfectant, Culberson argued that the Internet would facilitate a crowd-sourced scrutiny that would prevent the congressional majorities from ramming through 1,000-plus-page bills, with the minority forced to cast votes just hours after receiving copies of the legislation.

Social media, Culberson said, is best used in government “to strike fear in the heart of every elected official.”

He cited the recent coordinated demonstrations at town hall meetings and the tea party protests held around tax time as examples of the democratizing and empowering facility of the Web. In those cases, the Internet, with all its social bells and whistles, served as an organizing agent.

But in the polarizing debate over health care, both sides are accusing their political opponents of spreading rampant misinformation. The notion of “death panels,” a criticism of some strains of the health-care reform debate that has persisted despite thorough debunking, has hung around in part because of comments former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on her Facebook page. Asked about how to ensure that politicians use online social tools in good faith, rather than to propagate politically advantageous misinformation, Culberson expressed an essential faith in the medium.

“The Internet is the most powerful truth engine ever created,” Culberson said, arguing that the crowd-sourced model of information has proven remarkably effective at exposing lies and spin, again recalling the line about sunlight and disinfectant.

“Despite the best efforts of the leadership,” he continued, the social Web is “reaching a point where we will have virtual real-time democracy.”

Culberson’s remarks, flush with invective about the Democratic leadership and the health-care debate, made it plain that he is currently involved in a bitter political fight. But he also appealed to a more fundamental shift that social media could bring to government, a view echoed by some of the pioneers in the field who appeared on stage for a panel discussion later in the day.

“As the government participates in technologies like this, it really blurs the line between public and private,” said Twitter Chairman Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of the popular microblogging service. “It makes the public sphere more approachable.”

Culberson said he relishes the chance to interact with his constituents through Twitter and other social media channels.

But as government officials and agencies seek out new tech-savvy channels to communicate with the public, they can encounter a thicket of rules and policies that inhibit their use of new media. Lawyers at the agencies have thrown up roadblocks when new-media types have tried to set up channels on YouTube, for instance.

In Congress, lawmakers still feel constrained to some extent by the franking rules.

“I’ve always been very careful to follow the rules, but to push the edge of the envelope,” Culberson said of his purported tweeting from the House floor.

“This is brand new,” he said. “We’re blazing a new trail here.”

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