How Social Media is Being Used by the Government

How Social Media is Being Used by the Government

April 20, 2007 – U.S. senator Barack Obama sends his first tweet: “Thinking we’re only one signature away from ending the war in Iraq”

  • A little premature and optimistic, but government leaders and agencies are increasingly harnessing the powers of social media to both connect with the public and extract information.

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Defusing riots:1

  • The U.K. police set up a dedicated social media task force to ensure the safety of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
  • Using information that was publicly accessible, they followed known rabble-rousers on Twitter, setting up streams to monitor conversations about the games and planned protests.
  • Authorities were able to dialogue with antagonists in real time and, in some cases, pinpoint the exact location of troublemakers using geolocation features.

Forecasting Elections:1

  • • During the 2012 U.S. presidential election, Twitter developed a brand new political analysis tool called the Twindex, which gauged online conversations and sentiment around Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
  • • As Election Day approached — and most traditional polls had Romney pulling ahead — the Twindex showed Obama trending sharply upward in all 12 swing-states.

Disaster Preparedness:1

  • • Preparing for the zombie apocalypse: The Centers for Disease Control recently terrified readers with a blog post titled Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. “[Where] do zombies come from, and why do they love eating brains so much?” the author asks, before listing ways to prepare for the inevitable.
  • • The post, which also explained how to get ready for real emergencies, attracted more than 1,200 comments, with a lively debate ensuing between readers on the finer points of zombie culture and emergency preparedness.

Earthquake Detection and Notification:1

  • • When a 5.9-magnitude earthquake shook the Northeast in 2011, many New Yorkers learned about it on Twitter — seconds before the shaking actually started.
  • • Tweets from people at the epicenter near Washington, D.C., outpaced the quake itself, providing a unique early warning system. (Conventional alerts, by contrast, can take two to 20 minutes to be issued.)
  • • Seeking to take advantage of these crowdsourced warnings, the U.S. Geological Survey is hard at work on TED, short for Twitter Earthquake Dispatch.

Creating a Social City:

  • • New York City created 280 social profiles to become one of the most connected cities worldwide – connecting citizens to the people who run their subways, fix their potholes, and shield their health and property.

Emergency Response:2

  • • Hurricane Sandy – Morris County, New Jersey used social media to disseminate information and respond to citizen questions when phone services was down due to the storm.
  • • The top status update on Facebook for morning of October 30th was “we are ok” – people informing family and friends how they weathered the storm

Trash Pick-up:2

  • • City of Vancouver uses Twitter to notify residents the night before garbage and recycling collection to address the problem of a confusing schedule.


  • • Federal government offers a service to verify if a social media account is authentic and an officially managed account of the US Government.
  • • They can verify accounts such as Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Scribd, Slideshare, Storify, Tumbler, Twitter, Ustream, Vimeo, Youtube, and others.


  • • Real-time, two-way conversations between Government and the Public
  • • Giving everyone a voice – until recently, communication with any government body was limited to phone, mail, or in person and none guaranteed a response.
  • • Transparency – quick responses to issues, problems, and public questions
  • • Efficiency – getting the word out on important programs and policies quickly and effectively


  • • Stands for: Panning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management
  • • A data tool designed to collect and process foreign intelligence that passes through American servers
  • • Government claims that PRISM is authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978

Phone records:4
• Information about every domestic phone call made by every Verizon Customer in the US collected by the National Security Administration (NSA)– Information collected includes:

  • o Phone number dialed
  • o Time and duration of the call
  • o Information about the cell phone tower used to make each call – this allows location tracking
  • o Likely that other major telecommunications providers participate in the program – not just Verizon
  • o Info is collected in a vast database where access is strictly limited – 22 Obama administration officials have the authority to authorize searches of the database and about 200 Americans have had their phone numbers queried

• Legality?4

  • o Section 215 of the Patriot Act – gives the government the power to obtain any “tangible thing” from third parties relevant to a terrorist investigation
  • o Many argue that the intended use of Section 215 Orders is for information relevant to specific investigations.

• Constitutionality?4

  • o The Fourth Amendment requires search warrants to be specific about who is to be searched and what information is to be seized.
  • o There’s nothing specific about the Verizon order. However, the government is likely to cite a 1979 Supreme Court ruling holding that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply when the government seeks calling records.
  • o The Verizon order was good for three months, so presumably the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reviews the orders periodically. Order is broad – it doesn’t contain the kind of details that would allow the courts to find specific abuses.

Fiber Optic Eavesdropping4

  • • Alleged optical splitters were being used to copy data flowing through AT&T’s network and sending it to a secret room NSA-controlled room in a San Francisco AT&T facility.
  • • It is not known which cables the NSA has tapped
  • • Even if every fiber optic cable in the world was tapped it would not be able to read encrypted data – the most popular Internet services (including most webmail providers) are increasingly using encryption.