Government-by-Facebook may be causing public confusion

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Facebook logo displayed on smartphone. Source: Pixabay

Politicians' use of social media and in particular Facebook to make important announcements has been blamed for causing public confusion, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.

While the practice has been in place for several years, the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying restrictions have heightened the sense of urgency of posts, but also blurred the edges between important public information which affects most of the population, and a desire for political reasons to be the first to make an announcement – even ahead of the restrictions in question being agreed and on at least one occasion causing erroneous information to be made public.

Further criticisms include fears that individual users' Facebook algorithms will cause important posts to appear in their newsfeed at different time-scales from other users (of course daily use of social media varies hugely as well - ed.).

This "government by Facebook" allows politicians of all hues to be first in line to be quoted about an impending restrictions change, ERR reports, with the latest round appearing on Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' (Reform) Facebook "wall", along with that of education minister Liina Kersna (Reform), ahead of the information's appearance elsewhere.

Official government press releases confirming developments only follow the social media posts.

Facebook had long been in use by politicians

The previous Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition, in office under Jüri Ratas (Center) when the pandemic began just over a year ago, also leaned heavily on social media, though the most important posts, such as the announcement of the declaration of an emergency situation, which ran mid-March to mid-May last eyar, were issued under the official Stenbock House account.

The Stenbock House in Tallinn is the seat of the government.

The current Center/Reform coalition led by Kaja Kallas (reform) has, however, been known to issue important posts under individual government ministers' registered accounts.

Recent screenshot of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' (Reform) Facebook page. Source: Social Media

Communications experts have, ERR reports, said that the current prime minister does not seem to have recognized the change in status from opposition leader, as she had been until late January, to that of prime minister, and the implications for social media use that has entailed.

When he was prime minister, Jüri Ratas, or his office, operated an official Facebook account separate from his own personal page.

Typical public questions on new restrictions: What are they and exactly when do they come into effect?

Meanwhile, Estonia's coronavirus rate has soared to reportedly the highest rate per 100,000 people worldwide, despite three separate rounds of restrictions issued in the month of March.

The latest rounds, since they were close together, provoked plenty of inquiries and other remarks on when the restrictions might take effect.

Proposed restrictions have to be discussed at cabinet level, agreed and then signed into effect, typically late on in the week for an in-force date of that weekend or the beginning of the following week.

Social media posts ahead of this procedure, announcing the restrictions, and the dissemination of these announcements both by the public, the media, and the Riigikogu, have served to heighten this sense of cognitive dissonance, however.

This is made even worse if the desire to be the first to announce something on Facebook gets the better of a politician and causes them to post information that turns out to be inaccurate.

A concrete example was a post from Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who announced schools going on remote learning with an in-force date one day earlier than what turned out to be the case, leading to confusion in schools and with families and others, ERR reports.

Inaccuracies can naturally get duplicated in the ensuing media reports.

The previous administration was not above doing the same, ERR reports, with last year's emergency situation and other restrictions being announced via official press release and on the Stenbock House Facebook page, but both then-prime minister Ratas, and then-foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) independently making announcements on Facebook – presumably with the view to being the first-quoted politician in the media.

Reinsalu, while no longer foreign minister, posted Monday a photo of an official letter from his Israeli opposite number, Gabi Ashkenazi, in which the latter thanked the former for recognizing while in office all aspects of Lebanon-based, Shia Muslim paramilitary group Hezbollah as a terrorist organization (see below).

In addition to announcements on restrictions affecting schools, those affecting businesses – including restaurants, bars, cafes and nightclubs – as well as theaters, cinemas etc. have also seen criticism over a lack of clarity.

Announcements also concern vaccination rates and availability and travel restrictions; there is also crossover between the government, its ministries, and state agencies such as the Health Board here; the latter has been issuing daily coronavirus figures throughout the pandemic.

Distinction between official government/minister accounts and politicians' own accounts

Head of News and Sport at ERR, Anvar Samost, says that a distinction between an individual politician and their role in the cabinet should also be drawn

Samost said: "Politicians can do whatever they want to in their political communication. The other consideration concerns official public communication. This should take place via a channel which is clearly under the control of the source and which is equally and equally accessible to all, ensuring that communication is clear and uniformity."

However, in the case of Facebook, posts do not reach their potential consumers in such a linear fashion, and are subject to the social media giant's own algorithms.

Samost noted that if Facebook decides not to make posted comment available in a news feed, for instance, then that post and its accompanying message is likely not to be seen.

"This is neither sensible nor expedient in communicating with the public," Samost added, noting that it can also give the impression a politician wants to cut out the middle man (ie. the media) and set themselves up as creator, announcer and messenger boy all in one.

"This is neither wise nor comprehensible, because it can give the impression that the audience is getting, or may be getting, manipulated," he added, recommending that the tried-and-tested traditional methods, such as press releases, should be stuck to.

Government communications chief: Politicians' social media here to stay, should be subordinate to official channels

Back-bench MPs and local politicians are also using Facebook more and more.

Eero Raun, head of the government's communications office, says that the sheer ubiquity of Facebook has made politicians as accustomed to it as everyone else.

Raun said: "It is only logical that they want to use it as members of the government as well," adding that this in and of itself is not problematic.

The issue can also cause a problem for journalists, however, forcing them into a "race" to keep up with the latest social media posts, while press releases on the same topic arrive in email inboxes often hours later, by which time the news is old (English- and Russian-language news sources in Estonia have the added stage of translation lag too – ed.).

Eero Raun said no major changes in communications strategies were imminent, though solutions were also being sought to the issue, which he says is a moving target in any case.

"There is no absolute truth here, things can change over time," Raun told ERR.

One possibility might be for ministers to share proposals for new restrictions and other decisions, rather than presenting these as the final product – even ahead of their being discussed at cabinet level, something he said Kaja Kallas has also done.

"Stenbock [House] also maintains its own Facebook page, we also want to keep the good old press release," Raun said, noting that since the presidency of Donald Trump in particular, social media communication was a new norm.

In the meantime, Facebook is going nowhere, and is also encouraging other ministers who previously used more traditional channels – ERR cited the case of finance minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus here, who announced the details of the recent supplementary budget via her Facebook account.

Expert: Social media key way for politicians to craft image

The interactive nature of social media also helps politicians in crafting an image of being one of the people, one expert says.

Tiina Hiob, lecturer in advertising theory at Tallinn University, told ERR that direct communication via social media can have the effect of boosting the credibility of politicians, leaving the public with a positive emotion by being able to react directly to the message.

Ultimately, a "like" or comment could translate into a vote on election day.

"A politician still wants to intuit where an individual is located. If a potential voter is using social media, then the politician is there," she said.

This would also pass on the responsibility to the press pack to highlight in a manner audiences can understand that the posts concern preliminary suggestions, he added, though official channels, both in social and other media, should remain key.

"Classical media as a mediator tends to be cut out," Hiob added, agreeing that politicians want to be the first to make a significant announcement.

At the same time, social media sets up an echo chamber in that opposition politicians may not be present to give an alternative view, Hiob said, again giving the impression that the politician's view was gospel, rather than one among many.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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