The world is changing rapidly. These changes are happening in part due to the exponential growth in global communication networks, particularly the Internet, which has seen the application and diffusion of new digital technologies in both developed and developing economies.
One of the most popular changes is social media. It refers to online platforms and applications that enable users to interact through the generation and sharing of content glued together by group dynamics. It is important to note that social networking dates back to the creation of the world.
Therefore social media can be seen to be empowering users to expand an age old activity in a profound manner. Currently, social media applications are seen in all aspects of human undertakings.
There are a thousand and one social media tools in use around the world with Facebook( 1,100,000,000), Twitter (310,000,000), LinkedIn (255,000,000), Pinterest (250,000,000) and Google Plus+ 120,000,000 commanding the top five positions in that order based on Estimated Unique Monthly Visitors according to http://www.ebizmba.com/ as of February 1, 2016 .
Social Media is Powerful
There are divergent views on just how 'powerful' social media is. Some say it is not as influential as it is being made to be because there is relatively a limited number of social media users across the globe. This argument does not hold much water considering the pace with which it is dominating communication and social networking. Also, social media currently has constant interaction with traditional media such as newspapers, radio, and television stations who are now increasingly sourcing content from social media and amplifying these on their news platforms. For example, a story: "NDC's Fritz Baffour slams gov't over Gitmo saga", which ended up on a number of radio stations was sourced from Mr Baffour's Facebook entry (http://www.myjoyonline.com/politics/2016/January-15th/ndcs-fritz-baffour-condemns-decision-to-accept-gitmo-two.php). This practice ensures that social media content spreads faster than bush fire in a harmattan season, crossing over into traditional media forms and thereby reaching persons without access to digital tools.
Individuals can consider developing a policy which will guide their behaviour on social media. Some individuals choose to make their whole life visible on social media, sharing very personal information online while others decide to maintain a low profile by only providing the barest minimum of personal information as they interact on social media.
The lack of policy guidelines on social media usage at the national level is contributing to a lot of misinformation and often, false information sharing on social media platforms. A recent case in point is the distribution of a list of ministerial reshuffle on social media which was subsequently picked by some journalists and aired on some radio and TV stations. This phantom list later proved to be a figment of someone's imagination. Though policies cannot curb all challenges with information flow on social media, it can provide a mechanism to test the efficacy of government information distributed on such platforms.
Currently, the Government of Ghana is mainly using social media as a tool for one way communication, although there is a wealth of opportunities to be derived from using social media to effectively engage citizens. Apart from a few government ministries, departments and agencies who are making limited use of social media, majority of them have not woken up to take advantage of its power.
The Government of Ghana can help by developing policy directives to ensure greater control and usage by its institutions. Beyond policy options, some have argued for controls or laws to regulate the use of social media. This argument is problematic because the animal of social media cannot be easily tamed. With exception to countries such as China with its great Firewall, which gives them absolute control over social media, and the United States of America with its capacity to monitor all electronic communication including social media; it is fairly complex, expensive and difficult to invest resources in controlling social media. Nigeria is attempting to introduce a social media law and only time will tell whether this legislative instrument will be passed at all and how successful it will be when it is indeed passed.
Judicial and legislative arms of governments are also making slow progress in terms of leveraging social media. Overall, the media in Ghana is leading the pack in the utilisation of social media not only in news generation but distribution and audience engagement. However, most media houses again do not have social media policies nor written strategies to ensure its effective utilisation.
Some businesses in Ghana, especially the multinationals, do not only have a policy but a plan and budget to ensure they can use social media for competitive advantage. In this direction, there are specialised agencies that are providing services to such businesses. The public sector can learn from this example.
On the other hand, some NGOs, religious organisations, societies, clubs have climbed on the social media bandwagon. Although most of them do not have any strategies, plan or policy to guide their usage.
How should a social media policy look like?
Social media policy, plan or strategy, code of conduct or rules of engagement preferably should be written. However, it should not be an overly complex and long document. Also, it is important to make it a living document so that it can be adapted to changes in recognition of how fluid the social media space is.
Although it will be difficult to provide universal guidelines on the use of social media due to peculiar requirements of different organisations, a good policy should have some of these characteristics:
• encouraging of the use of social media,
• dealing with conflict of interests
• ensuring personal social media accounts do not compromise the institution, difference between speaking 'on behalf of' institution and speaking 'about' institution,
• duty of care of not misleading audiences or revealing confidential information,
• how to be mindful and act in the best interests of institution and respect privacy,
• providing clear path of authority, regulations and processes,
• separating facts from opinions,
• proper communication with children or young persons ,
• how to understand potential grey situations,
• how to use social media in crisis situation or natural disaster,
• ground for dismissal in not following guidelines
In sum, social media is here to stay; no one can escape its impact. In the next couple of years as social media evolves, its power and range will impact every Ghanaian directly. Individuals, all arms of governments, media, non- profit organisations, businesses and other institutions need to invest in understanding how they can harness its power, mitigate the risks that come with its usage and develop strategies to maximise the numerous opportunities it can offer.