Are SA government communicators actively engaging citizens on social media?

World Social Media Day was celebrated on 30 June to recognise the impact of social media on global communication. A quick google search shows that the first social media day was celebrated in 2010 by ‘Mashable’, a news website, to focus on the impact of social media and its role in global communication. There’s no doubt that through the years, social media has redefined how people interact, communicate, and share information with friends and family.

Written by Maxwell Maseko

Source: Photo by Tracy Le Blanc from Pexels

In South Africa, the event was marked with the launch of the first-ever Social Media Summit for Government under the theme ‘Reimagining the Future of Civic Engagement’. Hosted jointly by Decode Communications and the University of Johannesburg (UJ), the summit had three main objectives, firstly, to bring together communication leaders in the public sector to reflecton the impact of social media on citizen engagement, secondly, bringing together experts who will offer actionable insights and know-how of emerging tools, trends, and best practices, thirdly, creating a dialogue and networking platform between various stakeholders and value chain partners that are willing to help improve service delivery challenges in South Africa. The event was well attended and included speakers from various government departments, state-owned agencies, academics, and other stakeholders.

The summit comes as South Africa is experiencing an Internet boom and increased social media usage in the public sphere. The latest statistics show that as of January 2022, there were 41.19 million active Internet users in South Africa, and of this number, 28 million people used social media, representing around 46 percent of the total population. With these statistics in mind, it would be unwise for government communicators not to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital technology, particularly social media, to promote civic engagement and political participation. Digital transformation as some experts suggest is not simply a way to automate processes but it also opens new ways of doing things. In this case, gathering information quickly and remotely from citizens.

In a recent online interview, CEO of Decode Communications Lorato Tshenkeng said, ‘There have been a lot of conversations across various social media platforms regarding whether the government uses these platforms efficiently and effectively, particularly in relation to service delivery and exploiting the means of communication offered’. In setting the tone for the summit, University of KwaZulu-Natal Professor Mosa Moshabela, emphasized the need for communication with purpose, understanding your audience, and having trust and credibility as a government communicator. Moshabela also highlighted the importance of citizens using their voices in a digital age. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp have become major channels of online interactive participation. They are increasingly used by governments and planning professionals to gain public opinions, distribute information, and support participation in planning practices.

Speaking at the same event, Deputy Director General of the National School of Government Lakela Kaunda said the school was developing a curriculum on social media. She also emphasized the need for government departments to employ full-time officials to manage social media functions and for government communicators to use their platforms well and add ‘depth’ to their tweets. ‘Social media is (a) powerful (tool) and must be used. Use it with empathy’, added Kaunda. Fellow speakers expressed concern about the continued exclusion of citizens in rural areas in civic engagement due to several factors including high data costs. They also urged government communicators to be honest and truthful, communicate messages relevant to their target audiences, and more importantly listen to the voices of the people. In his 2023 national budget speech, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said an additional R3 billion would be used to purchase capital equipment and new fibre infrastructure, also benefitting rural and underserviced areas. The Communications Department also announced a multi-billion-rand rollout of a broadband project to provide Wi-Fi to South Africans across the country.      

Given the participatory nature of the event, a group of young people wanted to know what was being done to protect the safety of their personal information online if they engaged with government communicators. Some audience members also wanted some clarity on how citizen engagement online embraces South Africa’s language diversity. Their message was clear that government communicators needed to interact with citizens to promote engagement. A call was also made for online messages to be packaged using the art of storytelling rather than simply using social media as an information dissemination tool. UJ Media Professor Admire Mare also remarked that citizens were not passive recipients of communication, they are co-creators and need engagement.

The road ahead

As social media has evolved and grown in popularity, so has the scrutiny of its various platforms. Apart from privacy issues, their ability to spread hate speech, fake news (including misinformation and disinformation), and impact on mental health means stringent controls are needed. Social media is no doubt a fast and effective way to get information and government communicators can do much more to involve citizens in their engagement.

*The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the CTIN. 

Dr Maxwell Maseko is a postdoc research fellow at the Tayarisha Centre – Wits School of Governance

Also read The Role of Digital Technologies in African Elections

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