I disagree with the Government of Canada on many things. So many I couldn’t begin to list them here.
So it’s with some surprise that I find myself… defending at least one of their actions.
A flurry of attention got given in my FB and other circles to this story recently:
“OTTAWA (NEWS1130) – The Harper government has been monitoring political messages online, and even correcting what it considers misinformation. One local expert says the government is taking things too far.
Under the pilot program the Harper government paid a media company $75,000 to monitor and respond to online postings about the east coast seal hunt.
UBC Computer Science professor and President of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Richard Rosenberg, says it seems unnecessary for the government to be going this far. “The government has a lot of power, that it feels the need to monitor public bulletin boards, or places where people express views and then to respond to that, seems to me going beyond a reasonable action the government should be taking.”
Rosenberg says knowing that the government is monitoring certain topics online could result in people being more careful with their identities when they’re posting about political issues on the internet.
He says it’s the first time he’s heard of this happening in Canada.”
There are 20 pages of comments on the story. Most are along the lines of this:
|Democracy dying a quicker death in Canada!
I guess the right to free speech, freedom of the press, the right to strike, belong to a union, belong to a professional group, a society, freedom to associate and every other right or freedom we have under our Constitution or the Charter of rights and freedoms will slowly be eroded by this government! Two generations of mine fought in two world wars to defeat tyrants and dictators, their legacy for us does not leave room for the same politics happening here. I work with people from all around the world and many have asked how Canadians can allow this to happen in our country. Some left their homelands to escape dictatorships and tyrrany but see it happening here. Something is dreadfully wrong here. This is no longer the Canada I grew up in, these are not the politicians my parents and grandparents would have supported.
It would be REALLY easy for me to write a post critical of the federal government’s actions. I’m not much of a fan of our current government. Except… isn’t this exactly what we tell organizations to DO?
One quick example: Radian6 has a book out called Nine Rules of Social Media. Chapter two is the rules of listening:
- Refine, refine, refine.
- Process what you hear.
- Don’t ever stop listening.
Later, they talk about “the rules of engagement”:
- You don’t have to talk directly to people to be engaged.
- Social media engagement policies and guidelines are a must.
- Be kind, be social, and be consistent.
I don’t think anyone involved with social media would find much to argue with with those rules, in principle.
Another example is the now ubiquitous US Air Force Blog Assessment Chart, made popular by Jeremiah Owyang.
And if I was being asked for advice from a client on a controversial file, I would think the fairly standard fare would include:
“Listen where people are talking about you. If you see plainly wrong information, consider whether and how to correct it. And engage in the conversation if you feel it will further your case.”
So if we social media folk tell our clients to listen all the time and engage when appropriate, why would we not want our government to do the same?
And if we want a responsive, attentive government, are they not supposed to know what people are saying in public forums and on public websites?
Whether or not we are in support of a government or a political party, surely we must be able to agree that it’s in our — and their — best interest to listen to and understand what discussions are being had in the online public square, and to understand what this means to the government’s policies and programs.
Where the government seems to me to be falling down is in explaining what it did and why. After a week (admittedly a week including a long weekend and a very difficult period of preparing to lay off thousands of employees) I received an e-mailed response from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s media office.
Here’s what I asked:
I’m a communications blogger interested in learning more about the program of monitoring and engagement DFAIT coordinated concerning the seal hunt. (see this story:
national/article/58287–or http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/ harper-government-monitoring- online-chats-about-politics Canada/20091222/seal_) monitoring_091222/
I would appreciate the opportunity to learn what tools were used, what criteria were used to gauge success or failure of the initiative, and whether it was judged successful or not. I would also appreciate seeing some examples of how and when the government engaged in discussions to correct misinformation.
Here’s what they told me:
This pilot provided a tremendous opportunity for the Government of Canada to test new media monitoring and communication tools as a way to be better informed about what Canadians are saying about important public policy issues.
There were two objectives to this pilot: to correct misinformation about Canada’s seal harvest, and to train Government of Canada employees to detect and correct misinformation about this industry. Both objectives were met.
Topics for monitoring and correction covered the two main myths regarding the seal harvest: the myth that the harvest is inhumane, and that it is unsustainable.
Not much detail there. So I guess if there’s a lesson to be had, it’s that doing good work (at least one can assume it was good work) deserves a good story to be told.