Building on the prior discussion of the characteristics of TPA and the dilemma of the separation of politics and administration, this part of the series continues the analysis by highlighting the role of social media in promoting public accountability and establishing a linkage with other types of accountability. In doing so, this part relates social media, web 2.0 to the previous discussion of various types of accountability exercised on public officials internally and externally in TPA systems, and critically analyses these concepts in relevance to the Egyptian case.
Social Media, Web 2.0 and public accountability
The Web 2.0 refers to the new online platforms created for people to interact with information presented on the web through a multi to multi communication system. Social media is one type of platforms that uses web 2.0 technologies. These platforms had a staggering amount of users and reach to different citizens across the globe regardless of their class, gender, ethnicity or location. They give the chance for everyone to express their own opinion, interact with existing information, mobilize others and gain support for their causes and initiatives (Kietzmann et al., 2011, p. 241). This ability of mobilization had an effect on politics as well as accountability and resulted in various political movements across the globe including the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Although a TPA system ideally exhibits a separation between politics and administration in terms of accountability, citizens on social media had interfered with the process of administration in Egypt in various cases. According to Mulgan (p. 559), public officials in TPA are only accountable to their managers and external professional institutions, while politicians are the ones accountable to public. However, some professionals are often questioned by the public, pressured and held accountable for their actions through social media. One example for this is the recent bribery incident with a police officer where a citizen was able to film the officer through his cell phone while receiving the bribe and uploading this video on Social Media (MBC, 2015). The video soon went viral and the public started questioning the values of the police institution and the way they handle their operations. This has led to massive political pressure that resulted in penalising this officer and implementing new policies for fighting corruption (ONA, 2015). Moreover, social media has not only made public able to question the professionalism of TPA officials but also their personal values and belief system, which often relied on their conscience. Recently, the Minister of Justice in Egypt has been forced to resign after a public outrage through social media that came as a result of his social classist remarks in one of his interviews where he mentioned that “the sons of rubbish collectors should not become judges” (BBC, 2015). Such pressure was always believed to be impractical in TPA systems where accountability is vertical and follows the government and politicians are the only public officials subjected to sanctions and questioning by external organisations and can be held accountable through direct elections.
Dialogue is a major channel of public accountability; this dialogue is often conducted through debates of criticism for the government actions. Dialogue is becoming more effective with the spread of media and new technologies that facilitated public debates and created a space where citizens can share their agreement or criticism for government policies and actions, question officials, and request justifications for their actions. In the modern times, officials often have their own twitter and Facebook accounts where they deal directly with the public and answer to their questions. This has surpassed the regular mediatory channels that have always existed between the public and civil servants such as media, ombudsman and the parliament. However, these virtual channels have not been treated similarly by all officials and there is still a lot of improvement to be made in this regard to provide more space for people to interact. The responsiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood government to the public questioning was at a higher rate than the current military government who deals with social media as a one-way communication platform where they can spread their justification for various actions but uphold any questioning process that may occur. During the ex-president Morsi’s ruling, many activists and social media pressure was directed towards the politically elected officials. MorsiMeter (2012) was one of the online projects that was established during the first 100 days of Morsi’s ruling by activists. This initiative is classified as a fact-checking online platform. These types of platforms initially started in the United States to reduce the level of deception and confusion in politics through providing the public with accurate information that emerges from the crowd (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2015). Morsimeter initiative aimed at tracking the promises of the president provided in his political campaign. According to the creators of the initiative, the presidential office had often communicated with them directly on the cyber space to highlight progress related to the promises and get involved in public dialogue about them. The failure of administration to achieve Morsi’s promises has been accounted for Morsi’s failure and not the administration’s. Such online initiatives have led to public outrage and massive petitions to organise early presidential elections.
Civil servants who are supposed to work on the implementation of such promises have shared in signing those petitions and participated in the distribution (Alsharif & Saleh, 2013). Later on, the government had sensed the outrage and in response they used social media to re-gain public support and open a space of public dialogue on their first year’s progress by launching an interactive website called Morsi First Year (2013).
However, responsiveness of the government came quite late as the public outrage had already boomed and massive public demonstrations were organised to overthrow the regime three days after this new website was released. Thus, social media provides a space for dialogue between government and citizens and required higher pace of responsiveness of the government towards public interest and the failure to do so, can result in public outrage.
Public accountability is not often perceived by public across social media platforms in the same way. Politicians can be questioned and held accountable for their actions only when citizens do not fear the consequences of criticising them on the virtual space. Although the government has less control over social media, some activists have been tracked down through these platforms and prosecuted for questioning military leaders or current political leaders.
Alaa AbdelFattah is an example of these activists. He was sentenced for five years in prison due to his calls on social media to protest against a clause in the new constitution that permits military trials for civilians (Associated Press, 2015). In fears of being prosecuted or detained, many citizens on social media have blamed administrative officials instead of political leaders on the failures in the government. Thus, the perception of public accountability, whether it is towards politicians or administrative officials in the age of social media depends mainly on where power is concentrated and what degree of freedom is given to the public to express their concerns, question government actions and mobilize pressure groups.
Besides presenting themselves as a new channel for public accountability, social media have become a platform that promotes other channels of accountability. It enhances access to information and eases the process of reporting concerns to the official online accounts of organisations such as the Ombudsman, the administrative tribunal, non-governmental organisations that in their turn can hold politicians accountable for their actions. Since transparency is a cornerstone of accountability, social media has contributed to accountability through disseminating important information by politicians through its platforms.
It offered a space for officials to interact with citizens through their official online accounts. All presidents who ruled Egypt post revolution had official Facebook and twitter accounts that interacted with citizens on daily bases, responded to their concerns and disseminated important information. In addition, some organisations find it easier to avoid sanctions on their operations as a result of disseminating printed information on public officials’ performance by offering the same information online, where the government has less control on shared data. Moreover, individuals contribute to the shared information online regarding actions of civil servants or elected officials. They share photos and streams of videos that are often used by control organisations to pressure, question politicians or hold them accountable in court.
In spite that some control organisations such as the opposition political parties or NGOs have been banned under the current ruling regime, they have transformed their mode of operation into a virtual existence that often takes place on Social Media. For example, currently both the Freedom and Justice Party and Al Wasat Party have a strong presence on social media despite their dissimilation. They organise demonstrations, promote their ideas and question the government’s actions on their social media accounts. Even media organisations have started to become present only in the virtual spaces such as Rasd News Network who have assembled online to avoid government hegemony and use crowdsourcing to generate news that originates from the public and which hold government accountable (R.N.N., 2011).
Discussion and Conclusion
To conclude, various channels and types of accountability persist in our modern times in TPA systems through social media in interconnected ways. Internal and external accountability had become interwoven through social media platforms where values and professional standards of civil servants have been questioned through public dialogue and regular external accountability channels that are fostered by social media. The new era of Social media has brought public accountability into a new level by fostering pressure on public officials. The separation of politics from administration in accountability has become difficult in the online arena with the increase of public awareness created through transparency and sharing of knowledge about government actions and formulated policies.
In addition, traditional media started to retreat in influencing public accountability since information has found its way through social media to propagate from public officials and directly to citizens. Different individual interpretations for government actions on social media have led to both mobilization of pressure groups and diffusion of public accountability in separate occasions.
Looking forward, social media may become a pertinent tool to promote different channels of public accountability if the government understands the underlying concepts of dialogue offered on its platforms and used them to become more responsive to public interest. In addition, social media can become a good tool for transparency and dialogue between citizens and the government, where mediatory channels disappear and public accountability is fostered.
In Egypt, the role played recently by public officials on social media can facilitate responsiveness of officials to public interest and can help them understand the dynamics of social change if they used it as a two-way communication system. Finally, social media can facilitate the interaction among citizens to create uncontrolled public opinion and organise pressure groups that results in pressure on policy makers and civil servants.
Petition tools and visualisation of information on social media alongside the powerful and fast tools that are used to spread information online can help reduce time, effort and resources used in mobilizing pressure groups to exercise control, which is an important aspect of public and external accountability. Visualisation of complex data through infographics (transformation of data and numbers into graphics) and pictures has made it easier for public to comprehend and increased public awareness that results in more accountability (Bekkers & Moody, 2014, p. 155).
In addition, social media can overcome the state’s hegemony in constraining external control channels that are often used by the public to hold politicians accountable such as courts or ombudsman. Therefore, the public can use it in reaching out to politicians and civil servants without state’s control of their criticism.
Haytham Atef is currently a postgraduate student at the Willy Brandt School – University of Erfurt. He graduated in 2014 with an MA in Global Citizenship, Identities and Human Rights from the University of Nottingham in the UK. Formerly, he worked as a researcher in the cabinet of the ministry of planning and international cooperation in Egypt, Haytham Mones has been working on developing strategies for transparency and access to information in the ministry.
Through his 12 years of involvement with civil society in Egypt, working on various projects and initiatives, Haytham has cofounded Qestas NGO for peace, development and Human Rights in Egypt. He has also co-founded other initiatives, such as Sinai Development Project and Nation without Borders and currently RefUlink in Germany. He also worked as the deputy director of Tahrir Lounge project at the Goethe Institut and the Program Coordinator of Lazord Academy at the American University in Cairo.
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Cover Image: Anna Lena Schiller under a CC BY-NC 2.0 creative commons license