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Post-Twitter, Government Social Media Remains Up in the Air

Facebook. TikTok. X. In a year that saw major upheaval across popular social platforms, are these sites still viable options for delivering vital public information?

People looking down at smartphones in their hands
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Early on Friday, April 21, at least 158,000 people saw a tweet from the Chicago Department of Transportation reporting the city would close a major thoroughfare, Lake Shore Drive, to all private vehicles as part of the mayor’s “decarbonization plan.”

The post was fake, and Chicago’s communications team worked quickly to rectify the misinformation. But it was a telling moment in a year that saw major upheaval of the social media platforms that governments have come to rely on to spread everything from feel-good stories to critical emergency alerts.

While fake government social accounts are nothing new, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter in fall of last year was only the start of issues for individual and organizational accounts as staff there whose jobs had focused on privacy and security stepped away from their posts. Musk’s elimination of the blue check verification program this spring only exacerbated the problem, inviting more jokesters to pose as anyone they wanted to be. Alongside a new paid system for blue (individuals) and gold (businesses) checks, governments were eligible for a free gray check, but the application process proved cumbersome for many.

Amid the Twitter chaos, public agencies at all levels began to wonder: When do we call it quits?

And if governments left Twitter, where would they go? Mastodon and Threads, a platform from Meta that’s linked to Instagram, seemed to be the leading alternatives. When Threads launched on July 5, GovTech found that at least 250 government agencies — mostly cities, but also school districts and police departments, as well as state and federal groups — had already signed up. But by the time Twitter rebranded to X later that month, aiming to become “a jack of all trades” for everything from social posting to online banking, many public agencies remained on the platform, citing established followings and the need to keep residents apprised of important information. That was true even after X began requiring a login for anyone wanting to view posts, essentially gatekeeping potentially vital government messaging.

“With all the followers we have across Twitter, to simply stop using that platform just isn’t realistic and there is no good alternative,” said Mike Allende, interactive engagement manager at the Washington State Department of Transportation. “For smaller agencies, it might be easier to pick up and leave, but for us, it’s simply unfathomable.”

Of course, X wasn’t the only social site making headlines in 2023. In August, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Facebook of putting profits over public safety when the social site made good on its promise to block news coming from Canada after the country passed a law requiring tech firms like Meta to pay publishers for posting their content online. The move meant Canadian Facebook users weren’t seeing critical evacuation updates during a devastating wildfire. Meta stood by the decision.

For TikTok, a wave of states began banning the video-sharing service on government-owned devices in 2022, citing cybersecurity risks. But some agencies, like the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said there was still a case to be made for staying on these platforms that reach constituents, particularly a younger and more diverse demographic than those typically engaged with public agencies.

In Oklahoma, Department of Wildlife Conservation Social Media Specialist Sarah Southerland found a workaround, getting approval to install TikTok on a smartphone that didn’t belong to the state. But she said that even if the app ends up being outlawed nationally or she otherwise can’t maintain the account, there will always be another new platform to move to.

“If it does get banned, we’ve learned how to develop short-form messaging in a video context to a targeted audience, that’s the takeaway from us and a huge win,” she said.

And it’s true: There will likely always be entrepreneurs looking to build the next Twitter or X or Facebook or TikTok. But in the meantime, public agencies seem largely to be staying put on their existing platforms with their solid followings, waiting for the next curve ball from the next big startup that might prove to unsettle the establishment once again.

At the Government Social Media conference in May, Allende perhaps put it best: “There’s a lot of ‘who knows?’ with this.”

Click here to read the rest of our 2023 Year in Review coverage.

This story originally appeared in the December issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.


Social Media
Lauren Kinkade is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.