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Social Advocacy and Politics: For Local Governments, Social Media Cuts Both Ways

In his classic 1998 book, The Transparent Society, David Brin counseled us that if we're going to demand that our governments be transparent, then we in the private sector must also be. His prescience is now manifesting in the way local governments are using, and being used by, social media. Specifically with respect to local police and fire departments, the value of social media to those services has been incredible. But in the process, social media has laid bare both citizen and public servant, alike.

Though not as intentional as Brin predicted, many local police and fire departments are using social media to monitor what's happening in their locales. In some cases, local police are posting pictures of criminal suspects on their social media channels in order to turn citizens who see the pictures into the eyes of the police.

But just as Brin talked about the two-way transparency between the public and private sectors, social media is also exposing the seedy underbelly of local police and fire departments. Efforts by NYC to promote improvements in the NYPD backfired with its #MyNYPD hashtag campaign. That campaign spread to cities across the country shining a light on police abuse, and we're all familiar with the role social media has played in exposing police brutality in the subsequent high-profile cases like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner (#ICantBreathe) in Staten Island and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. These tragedies gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

This exposure evolved from systemic observations of abuse to specific cases, and now we're seeing that these problems are manifesting themselves at the very top of police and fire departments. Recent cases of police and fire chiefs behaving badly on social media remind us that the eyes of the public are as much on our safety services as their social media eyes are upon us.

In Jacksonville, FL, the local police chief is in trouble for Facebook posts calling residents who reported concerns with Jacksonville’s See Click Fix App as “retards” and “dummies”. And though the post appeared on his personal profile - which is his prerogative to use as he chooses - he's learned the lesson that on social media all of your posts reflect on all aspects of your life, personal AND professional.

In Fairfax County, VA, a fire chief is dealing with a suicide of one of his female firefighters who was the victim of cyber-bullying. Part of the problem is that the bullying was both going on for some time and was apparently not the first case, yet nothing seemed to have been done to deal with this problem, with the issues only coming to light after the fact.

On the positive side, in Ft. McMurray, the Canadian town devastated recently by a wildfire, the fire chief has become something of a hero, in part owing to his positive, respectfully light-hearted presence on social media since the fire.

What these and other stories reveal is that social media is creating two-way transparency between the public and private sectors, whether we want it or not. Camera phones and instant access to social media via mobile gives new meaning to the phrase “you're being watched”. We're all, potentially, being watched. And sooner or later it will affect how we behave… but for the better?

If we're to worry about government surveillance, how are we to react to private surveillance - not just by cameras and other tactics used by corporations, but by our neighbors and strangers on the street? Michel Foucault explained in Discipline and Punish that the people subjected to panoptic surveillance begin to police themselves - but this doesn't necessarily mean they police themselves in a constructive way. People under surveillance seek to avoid getting into trouble, and that may lead them to refrain from taking action to right a wrong (to avoid being punished as the “good Samaritan”).

Where all of this public scrutiny of our seemingly every utterance will lead remains unclear. Where, at times, it may help us catch bad guys, at other times it may make timid an otherwise hero.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do see the transparent society unfolding regardless of our ability to handle it maturely. 


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