Social Media Playing an Increasingly Important Role in U.S. Government Affairs

While technology comes with threats of hackers, malware and cyberattacks, it serves multiple purposes -- and government needs to catch up as society transitions into an all-digital age.

by Andrea Salazar, McClatchy News Service / April 7, 2014
Almost 9,000 miles from College Station, Texas, Zimbabwean blogger Sir Nigel followed the George H.W. Bush anniversary celebration through a Twitter hashtag.

He knew within seconds of it happening that Macon Phillips, coordinator of the Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs, had introduced him to a crowd as an example of the impact and power of social media during a panel discussion about government in the digital age.

Sir Nigel uses social media to start conversations about issues affecting Zimbabwe. He's one man with 11,500 Twitter followers.

While technology comes with threats of hackers, malware and cyberattacks, it serves multiple purposes, the panelists said.

"Technology for technology's sake is useless," Phillips said. "Ultimately it's how we decide to use it that matters."

Joining Phillips during the second afternoon panel on Saturday were Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon, commander of U.S. Army Cyber Command; Scott Carpenter, deputy director of Google Ideas; and moderator Joe Trippi, who served as campaign manager for Howard Dean's presidential bid.

In celebrating the Bush presidency, the panelists looked to the future and focused on the scope of social media, the power it provides individuals and the work government needs to do to catch up as society transitions into an all-digital age.

"Even as we think deeply about the challenges that face us, this is an exciting time where human potential is perhaps going to be unleashed in a way that exceeds even that of the Gutenberg press in a much more dramatic way," Carpenter said. "What we need to not fear is that our institutions are going to change ... they have to adapt."

Getting government to adapt is a focus of Lorelei Kelly's, who directs several projects working to modernize Congress as part of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

"In some ways, Congress is better prepared today to fight Napoleon and Prussia than fighting any number of complex interdependent global threats that we're facing," she said.

Among the necessary changes the panelists touched on were updates to laws such as the Privacy Act for a world that voluntarily shares information on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as a push for moving the process of legislation from paper to a digital format.

Joining Kelly on the earlier panel discussing new media on a domestic scale were Seamus Kraft, co-founder of OpenGov Foundation, an organization working to open government by making it easier for people to access government information, and Matt Lira, deputy executive director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and former director of new media for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Yahoo News chief Washington correspondent Olivier Knox moderated.

"It's important to recognize that we've been through these kinds of transformations before, that the way in which people communicated has changed once every few generations throughout our nation's history," Lira said, pointing to the early days of still photography, radio and television. "The Constitution has survived and thrived and our democracy has gotten stronger over that time. I believe that as we go through this transformation that trend will only continue to exist."

©2014 The Eagle (Bryan, Texas)