You have failed us big time Mr Kejriwal, for your petty political gains you can become headlines for Pakistani press,” read a tweet on October 5 from @IndiaPostOffice, the official twitter handle of the Indian postal service.
It was a reference to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal urging the Prime Minister to counter Pakistan’s propaganda over surgical strikes.
Within hours, India Post tweeted an apology saying that the account was hacked.
This is the latest in a series of opinions and statements posted from official twitter handles of government departments and bodies. Of late, the Twitter handles meant to broadcast information related to government programmes have appeared like personal accounts tweeting slander and criticism.
Last month, the Twitter handle of Digital India tweeted a poem in Hindi calling on the Indian Army to persistently fire at protesters in Kashmir.
In August, the Twitter handle of Startup India retweeted a post suggesting that the Indian Army should ‘take care’ of #Presstitutes, a reference to sections of Indian media critical of the government.
The tweets expose loopholes in the government’s social media policy and raise questions about the norms followed in the recruitment of social media professionals for ministries and government institutions.
WORK IN PROGRESS
The process of adopting new tools is work in progress. While the government agencies are trying to leverage social media to enhance citizen engagement, for the vast majority of government bodies, it is unexplored territory. Babus who have traditionally been dealing in paperwork and file notings are overwhelmed to see hash tags and trends. With a tech- savvy Prime Minister at the helm, every government department is trying to increase its digital footprint. At the same time, they face the challenge of reinterpreting existing work ethics and codes of conduct and applying them to the use of social media. Ministries such as the Ministry of External Affairs, Information & Broadcasting and the Prime Minister’s Office which have cohesive programmes and big mandate, have separate social media wings of their own with well- defined protocols. But these are exceptions.
Overall, the government bodies lack social media guidelines for their own efforts or which others can learn from. According to Chinmayi Arun, executive director, Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi, mistakes are bound to happen given that everyone is new to social media. But it should be non-negotiable that when anything is said using an official governmental handle, the government should take more responsibility than just saying ‘oops’. “One of course is a clear and unequivocal statement apologising and taking back whatever was said. However, it should take pro-active measures to train and test people who handle its public-facing accounts and publish a clear monitoring and accountability mechanism by which they can be called to account. It should not be open to anyone to misuse the government’s official handles in this manner,” said Arun.
One of the areas where the lack of sensitisation is apparent is the usage of the same mobile device for multiple twitter handles – the most common reason for such goof-ups cited by social media consultants attached to various government departments. “I believe these were inadvertently posted by people handling these accounts. It may neither have been their mandate nor their intention. It happens when the person has configured multiple twitter handles from the same device and ends up posting from the wrong account,” said Amit Malviya, BJP’s National Convener, IT.
The majority of ministries and government departments do not give phones to members of the social media teams. It is up to the individual to use his personal device or get an additional one to manage the professional handle (s). A mistake will happen if a comment which was to be posted from the personal handle is posted from the official handle.
“Because of the personalised and individual nature of social media, it is easy to forget that they are representing an institution and not themselves when using these handles. This also suggests the lack of public usage training in these organisations, and the need to educate our public actors in using social media with more responsibility as office bearers of an institution rather than a personal expression or an opinion,” said Nishant Shah, co-founder of the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore.
Another issue is that access to the account is given to multiple people. “Each one of them brings their individual personality and politics to their operation of the handle,” said Shah.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that there is no standard protocol on who can access the twitter handle of Indian government bodies and how this person or team is hired.
A few ministries (example: the ministry of railways) have a team comprising of government employees and staff of private agencies handling their account. Others have outsourced the job to agencies.
During the campaigning for the 2009 election, political parties got outside expertise to mark their presence online. The selection parameters of social media consultants – established public relations firms in some cases and individuals in others – was not uniform.
Unlike the traditional public relations officers who are from the Indian Information Services cadre, the social media consultants were selected based on their expertise in the field, political affiliation, and proximity to a party or leader.
Those who started handling social media accounts of political parties and leaders included trolls and social media influencers. “Parties got youngsters who were politically motivated and willing to work for political parties. They became cheaper alternatives for social media experts,” said Ishan Russel, political communication consultant.
After the NDA came to power, almost every ministry outsourced its digital expertise to agencies. Many individuals who were earlier directly working with leaders and parties got back with them via agencies. “If an agency is looking for people to handle the twitter account or Facebook page of a certain ministry in the BJP government, then those who are politically inclined towards the BJP will apply for the vacancies and their chances of getting hired are also much higher than someone who is neutral or known to be an AAP sympathiser,” said Vikas Pandey, 32-year-old software engineer, who headed the “I Support Namo” campaign on Facebook and Twitter, as a volunteer for the BJP.
Last year, the Prime Minister felicitated more than a dozen social media enthusiasts, including Vikas. The move raised eyebrows because many felt that the government was encouraging trolls. “It illuminates the fact that trolls have found gainful employment in the Government of India. Also that the entire edifice of the centre is being taken over by woefully undereducated bigots,” said Swati Chaturvedi, senior journalist and author.
AGENCY, THE SOFT TARGET
Till the time the government staff is well versed with social media tools, attributing the mistakes to an ‘outside agency’ appears to be the norm.
In the case of the twitter goof-up involving Startup India, Commerce and Industry minister Nirmala Sitharaman blamed a private agency that was managing the account of Startup India. “The retweets were done by an employee of the agency hired by the department of industrial policy and promotion. The person assigned by the agency for this particular job is not decided by the department and is the sole prerogative of the agency,” she said.
S Radha Chauhan, CEO of National e-Governance Division, attributed the controversial post from Digital India’s twitter handle to an agency called Trivone. “The person responsible had mistakenly tweeted from the official handle what he wanted to tweet from his personal account,” said Chauhan.
Those familiar with the functioning of the government’s social media verticals say that agencies are mentioned to cover up for mistakes often committed by someone from the government staff. “When in crisis, blame the agency, is the thumbrule the government follows. The fact is that each twitter post is approved by the client before it is posted,” said a senior executive with a digital marketing firm attached to a ministry which has recently earned lot of praise for its social media initiatives.
Nishtha Arora, social media and digital consultant in a reputed ad agency, was handling a political account till very recently. She said that the client required her to just randomly tweet or RT to be heard by the followers of a tech-savvy minister and be his digital mouthpiece. “I often had to draft tweets which looked like press releases,” she said.
“Digital faux pas is blamed on to someone who might be an expert in the field but yet has to bow down to the client pressure so that their agenda for the day is met and the said government body or ministry remains in the news,” she added.