4 Tips for Using Social Media to Address Social Division and Civil Unrest

Preparation and trust are key to positive outcomes around civil unrest. A new report out of the Ohio State University's Divided Community Project offers insights into how governments at all levels can prepare for and manage civil unrest through social media channels.

A recently released report out of the Ohio State University’s Divided Community Project (DCP) offers new insights as to how government at all levels could be addressing social division and civil unrest through social modern communications tools.

During the 2017 Government Social Media Conference held April 11-13 in Dallas, Texas, DCP Executive Director Grande Lum and Associate Director William Froehlich discussed the vital and expanding role social media plays in not only informing the public, but building consensus between misaligned factions.

The report, released April 11, is meant to serve as an “off-the-shelf guidebook” for community leaders and coordinators in the event civil unrest breaks out in their backyards. The document is the result of roughly a year of input gathering from social media coordinators, civic leaders and remediators to take a deeper dive into anticipating and addressing unrest.

The pair suggested the use of social media platforms to lay the foundation for more solid relationships throughout the community. 

1. Have an Advance Plan and Be Prepared

Rather than waiting for crisis to erupt, Lum and Froehlich advocate for establishing the lines of communication well in advance. 

Once a crisis situation breaks out, the duo said already being a trusted source of information can make the difference between communicating effectively versus not at all. One of the cornerstones of success in getting information to the public in a timely manner is publicizing social channels well in advance of a situation.

During the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, the authorities did a very good job of getting information out to the public right away. 

“Everybody knew what was going on, and so that made a difference. Again, they closed down the city…” he said. “What they did to that city was astounding at the time, yet with fairly high resident support.”

Froehlich also advocates for account verification, which helps establish official channels and builds trust in the public eye. “Getting that blue checkmark means something to a lot of people,” he said. “A lot about trusted online information sources is about creating unifying messaging.”

2. Be Authentic and Responsive in Your Communications

When it comes to using an authentic voice on social media, Lum points to the 2016 exchange between the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) account manager and the public around train delays. In several tweets, the BART employee began responding to the pointed criticisms more frankly than anyone had expected. 

Rather than making the situation more combative, the honest appraisal of the aging transportation system seemed to pacify criticisms of the agency that was struggling to meet increased demands without the benefits of updated infrastructure.

@tquad64 Planners in 1996 had no way of predicting the tech boom - track redundancy, new tunnels & transbay tubes are decades-long projects. — SFBART (@SFBART) March 17, 2016
In the same way that being honest and responsive helps to illicit support and trust, Froehlich said framing the message to encapsulate positivity in a situation can make a significant difference.

In situations where a small number of looters might be disrupting a peaceful protest, he urged public information officers to focus on the positive and unifying aspects of the message. This helps to open the lines of communication by showing the voices of the peaceful protesters are being heard, he said.

By leveraging respected voices, like local celebrities or personalities, Froehlich said government representatives can boost the signal of the message they are trying to communicate. “It might also be more effective to use faith groups, nonprofit leaders and advocacy leaders in the same way.”

3. Take the Conversation Offline When Possible

Another suggestion from Lum and Froehlich was taking the conversation away from cyberspace whenever possible. Rather than letting the conversation fester online, they suggest establishing in-person meetings to work through big issues.

“There is significant research that illustrates that in-person conversations are less negative, and people come to in-person conversations with a more open mind and listen more effectively,” Froehlich said. “There are problems created by online forums and social media. It’s dehumanizing and it’s easier to demonize one another online and on social media. But we can leverage social media as a tool to bring people together.”

4. Use Social Data, but Use It Carefully

While many in the government sphere have the opportunity to use social media data to dive deeper into the issues that divide their communities, the ability to leverage that data comes with risks. 

Froehlich cautions that government representatives should be aware when using this information and should consider whether they are responding to concerns or predicting concerns; tracking trends or tracking individuals; or looking for information or trying to negatively impact First Amendment rights.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.