India's Leaders Start Tweeting, but Will Anyone Follow Them?

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Vijay Singh checks his Facebook account at an Internet café in Mumbai on Aug. 3, 2011. According to one report, membership to social-media sites in India is growing by 100% per year

When governments start talking about the importance of social media, they often sound like out-of-touch parents trying to use slang to relate to their teenagers — a bit awkward, a bit behind the times. So when the Indian government recently took the dive into the world of Facebook and Twitter by drafting a new manual entitled Social Media Framework & Guidelines for Government Organizations, those well practiced in friend requests and likes probably didn't see much new in it. A sample passage shows just how clueless India's bureaucrats are: "Given its characteristics to potentially give 'voice to all,' immediate outreach and literally 24*7 engagement, Social Media offers a unique opportunity to governments to engage with all their stakeholders, especially citizens in real time to make policy making citizen centric." Try fitting that into a 140-character tweet.

In a country like India, however, which has a sprawling, historically standoffish government, the official recognition that such technology exists and that bureaucrats need to get in the game is startling enough. Professor S. Sadagopan, director of the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore, says that when electronic media took off in a big way, most members of the government thought they were going to get bashed by critics and constituents alike. "But then they became smart, and now see that they could be able to swing it to their advantage," he adds.

Although the numbers of Indians using social-networking sites is still small in relative terms — about 30 million, or 2.5% of the total population — their ranks are growing rapidly. According to a Nielsen report in May, membership to social-media sites in India is growing by 100% per year, and Facebook membership alone is doubling every six months. And there have been glimpses of how social media can alter the relationship between government and everyday Indians too. Last year, for instance, the New Delhi traffic police started a Facebook page on which motorists can post pictures and details of drivers who break traffic laws so the police can issue tickets by mail. The program has been expanded since then; citizens can now also report officers who demand bribes at traffic stops. A former civil servant has taken the idea a step further by starting a website, on which people can report corrupt officials and the bribes demanded of them. Since it was launched last year, more than 14,300 reports have been filed from some 450 cities across the country.

Indian political parties and individual politicians have also started to embrace social media and blogs. L.K. Advani, a Prime Minister candidate in 2009, blogged — somewhat dryly — about his policy ideas from the campaign trail. Members of Parliament, always kept on a short leash by their party leaders, have used Twitter to voice their opinions, as have a few government figures, with varying degrees of success. When Deputy Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor, for instance, tweeted in September 2009 about how he had to fly "cattle class in solidarity with all our holy cows" during his party's self-imposed austerity drive, he got rapped on the knuckles by party leaders. Six months later, he lost his post after a businessman tweeted about his then girlfriend's controversial stake in a deal to buy a cricket team.

Most segments of government, however, have been slower to catch on to the craze. The recent hunger strike by anticorruption activist Anna Hazare, for example, created such a sensation online — there were more than 150 Facebook pages related to Hazare or his movement, India Against Corruption, and his advisers' tweets were instantly picked up by the local media — the government's well-rehearsed press conferences and deliberative Parliament speeches looked agonizingly slow by comparison, forcing leaders to strike a deal.

Things might be changing, if the recent guidelines are anything to go by. "The idea was that we must create a mechanism so we can talk with citizens," says Shankar Aggarwal, a top leader in India's Department of Information Technology. "We were not very sure how to use social media in the government structure. So we thought to make a framework so that all officers are sure of the dos and don'ts." The guidelines are kind of like Facebook for Dummies, offering sober advice on everything from how to log into a site to online etiquette. "Not all posts/comments need to be responded to immediately and individually," the manual reads. "Also, wherever a response is required, all posts should be kept short and to the point." Aggarwal says he expects most officials to at least become more social-media savvy, though each department will decide on its own how best to use the technology.

Not everyone is impressed by the government's attempts to crawl out of the dark ages, though. Increasing the amount of information provided to citizens and promoting a give-and-take with leaders is important, but improving how the government delivers basic services should be its top priority, says Yamini Aiyar, director of the Accountability Initiative, a think tank in New Delhi. "The downside of all of this is in many ways the problem of the bureaucracy or poor service delivery; lack of accountability and corruption cannot be resolved only through technological solutions. They are facilitators, not the answer themselves," she says.

Whether the government's social-media presence will be effective, or just a showpiece, depends on how much officials are willing to let go, Aiyar adds. "It's one thing for a bureaucrat to be using Facebook and Twitter in a personal capacity, but the minute they do it in a professional capacity they're bound by rules, so they're not really able to do or say anything that will be of that much value." A quick look at some of the top Twitter trends in India last year — Justin Bieber, Harry Potter, the iPad — doesn't bode well for high-minded debate. So the question remains: Even if all Indian leaders start tweeting tomorrow, will anyone follow them?