The impact of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and the subsequent exodus of staff from layoffs and resignations continues to ripple outwards today. While the platform remains online today, every person or institution that uses it should be preparing for downtime and continuing changes to the policies on Twitter, along with the diminished capacity of its remaining staff to fix technical issues or mitigate the range of governance crises associated with running one of the world’s most prominent social media companies.
Government agencies have special considerations, however, and can’t afford to fiddle around while Twitter’s servers burn. Putting aside the prospect of regulatory action by the Federal Trade Commission or European data protection agencies, there’s some basic block and tackling that leaders need to moeg on, now. Lindsey Crudele reached out with questions about what that might look like this past week and published a useful article on what government agencies should do. I’ve published the answers I sent her in full, with an addendum to the last.
Why does Twitter matter to government agencies in 2022? Examples of usage you’d consider notable)?
This is such a huge question! It brought me back to 2011, when I was writing and thinking about how government should use social media all the time, as opposed to a lot of it. Just about all of this holds up, from use cases to why social media platforms and listening matters.
Social media has been where publics have been online in increasing majorities across nations since the dominant platforms of today launched in the 2000s: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – along with hundreds of social media startups that died, or faded, like Tumblr or Flickr or Delicious, though many still have millions of active users. MySpace still exists!
More seriously, while Twitter is much smaller than other global social platforms, in terms of daily active users and time spent, it has developed disproportionate influence and impact because of who those users are: world leaders, journalists, politicians, and thousands of institutions, from governments to universities to corporations.
Former President Trump’s use and abuse of Twitter made it even more of a central clearinghouse for US politics and US government policy. While banning him significantly reduced the amount of misinformation and lies on the platform, the Biden administration and other governments haven’t retreated from using Twitter to make announcements, break news, push back on misleading narratives, or engage publics.
If Twitter went away tomorrow, that broadcasting activity would likely be distributed across other services, from Facebook to Mastodon. What would be missing is the (mostly) open platform to listen in natural disasters or crises that Twitter provided and the default backchannel for many public conversations across industries and culture.
Given staffing cuts and leadership changes, what does platform and policy instability mean for government agencies on Twitter?
It means they should be making a plan for Twitter to go down, due to infrastructure issues, or for the integrity of the platform to decrease as content moderation capacity, support, and security are degraded, the level of misinformation and disinformation surges, and people leave the platform. (This is the same disaster recovery and business continuity plan that agencies should have had in case Twitter was taken offline by a hostile nation state around election day.)
It’s critical for governments to go where people and press are online to listen and engage, but never to become dependent on any company. No one — government, politicians, media, academia, nonprofits, private corporations, activists, foundations, or scientists — should allow a third party company, much less one owned by a capricious billionaire who espouses anti-government and anti-democratic views, to own their relationships with communities, clients, or constituents. It’s crucial for the stewards of public institutions and the services and information they provide to avoid any single point of failure so as to avoid a singular crisis.
What is your advice for agencies who use Twitter at this time in light of the changes?
As I said elsewhere, the first step is not to panic. Keep calm and tweet on. Let the constituents, residents, citizens, and communities who depend on you know that you will keep listening and link to your website and other channels to request help or get information
Second, turn on multi-factor authentication now. (Use an app, not SMS.) Disconnect third party apps.
The next step is to make sure agencies are ready for Twitter to go down, cease to be useful, or put their accounts behind a paywall, which may limit its utility as a public engagement channel – parallel to op-eds placed behind newspaper paywalls or interviews on subscription-based streaming services. If there’s a large enough engaged group of constituents and residents on a given platform, it makes sense for government agencies to at least be listening there.
The fourth step is to download agency social media archives, to ensure all public records are properly memorialized, and proactively disclose them on agency websites.
The fifth step is to secure all institutional social media accounts (not just Twitter) and connected email accounts – all of which should be connected to a .gov email! – with two-factor authentication.
The sixth step is to think bigger. Agency leadership should think about how all public communications and civic engagement efforts are working together in a holistic way, including email, texting, websites, social media, PR, direct mail, print/radio/digital ads, and press relations.
Finally, explore an institutional presence on Mastodon, in coordination with local, state, and federal leadership: it may make sense for one agency to create an instance to host accounts on, like the German government and MIT has stood up.
In the USA, President Biden should direct U.S. Digital Service and 18F to pilot a U.S. government instance on Mastodon, in collaboration with the Library of Congress and U.S. National Archives, and request Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young to issue guidance to all federal agencies on Twitter to download an archive of our public records from all official accounts. Imagine something like mastodon.usa.gov with agency accounts on it, for example, or mastodon.congress.gov with all official Congressional accounts.
(And as always, remember your towels.)
P.S. Over on Twitter, consultant and CTO Shannon Clarke suggested that “potentially specific agencies might want their own instance of Mastodon (or similar ActivityPub platform) so like email all users/accounts there would be clear which agency so perhaps name at agency.social dot is .gov or similar.”
That may make sense across local, state, and federal agencies – particularly for those with tens of thousands of staff. It might not be the right fit for tiny state or local agencies, though running a open, federal social system as a part of a polity’s websites may become table stakes for webmasters & IT staff. It’s certainly possible to imagine schools and libraries creating instances for students as alternatives to commercial social media, but that would be predicated on internal capacity, the ability to pay vendors, or the presence of state or local digital services that can delivery or maintain those systems.
I expect we’re going to see a riotous combination of approaches if there isn’t clear leadership. Clarke further posited that “there will be a reasonably good business (or service of an agency) in managing hosted instances of ActivityPub servers perhaps with government specific additional features (like formal, permanent archives; integration to identity management systems etc).”
I suspect he’s right and that will bear out over time in parallel ways to how Drupal and WordPress have been adopted and maintained by agencies – but
P.P.S. Also on Twitter, technologist Bob Wyman made an important point about how a “federal fediverse” should be configured: “If government uses Mastodon, or some other software, its public addresses or names should not include the software’s name. Government names should be generic. They should refer either to protocol (i.e. http://activitypub.gov), or to function (e.g. http://announce.gov).”
This makes sense to me, in terms of how domain names interact with the underlying technologies and protocols. Imagine social.usa.gov as a entry point for all executive branch .gov social media accounts or social.congress.gov.