Fake Twitter accounts show just how ‘well’ SA government understands communication

Phone Jacob Zuma

Perhaps the announcement that the (former) Department of Communications, responsible for the broadcasting and telecoms sectors in South Africa, would be renamed to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services tells us all we need to know?

With the flashback to the 1990s, it’s almost as if ICT never converged.

Both Nigeria (which overtook South Africa as the continent’s bigger economy earlier this year) and Kenya have ministries focused on ICT; the former, the Federal Ministry of Communication Technology, the latter, the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology. (Nigeria has a propaganda ministry too, called simply the Federal Ministry of Information). But I digress.

The storm on Twitter over the past 48 hours with a number of Twitter accounts purporting to be new ministers/departments is instructive. Less than an hour after the announcement of the new Cabinet, @NhlanhlaNeneZA popped up with a tweet thanking the president for the appointment. Since then, we’ve had 21 tweets, and until Monday, most of them seemed legitimate. There was nothing to suggest that this was a fake. (As of Tuesday morning, the account still exists.)

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The interest this one account (with nearly 4000 followers) managed to generate in the Twitter echo-chamber (along with frequent mentions on talk radio) forced National Treasury into issuing a statement on Monday morning, “The Ministry of Finance would like to warn the public that the twitter account with a handle @NhlanhlaNeneZA is counterfeit. Minister Nene does not have a twitter account.” If there’s one thing you need to know about Treasury, they don’t issue statements unless they absolutely have to (and generally, they’re about policy changes or discussion papers).

Since that announcement, the tweets from the fake Nene account have become more and more ludicrous and there is now little doubt to its authenticity. (There is also a Ministry of ‘Communications’ account that’s pretty entertaining.)

The GCIS (Government Communication and Information System, which is the heart of the new communications ministry) published a flurry of tweets on Monday afternoon lamenting the fake accounts.

Apparently, “official Twitter and Facebook accounts are placed and linked to official websites of departments”. Useful, but that’s simply not how social media works! Who in today’s age of five second attention spans is going to check if an account is legitimate by first going to the department’s website?

Does government have a social media communications strategy? Does government have a social media policy? Is there any co-ordination at all?

Does government actually get it?

The evidence above, and the continued existence of handles like @DocZA1 (the official account of the (former) Department of Communications) speaks volumes. The handle itself is a joke. The fact that it remains, 36 hours after the Cabinet announcement (which saw the department change name to ‘Telecommunications and Postal Services’) is worrying. Many social media managers simply do not realise that handles can be renamed (without any impact on followers at all). Dare we look forward to @DTPSza1?

The outward signs point to no (or a very limited and uncoordinated) social media strategy. And without that, shutting down fake (or ‘counterfeit’) accounts will continue to be the exception, rather than the rule. How hard would it’ve been for someone in Treasury (or GCIS) to simply report the Nene account as an impersonator?

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There are some signs of hope. @the_dti is a verified account. @SAPresident too. (Although the last tweet from one of Jacob Zuma’s handlers came six months ago on October 6). There are doubtless a few more verified accounts. But again, these are the exception.

With a strategy and co-ordination in place, perhaps the solution is to do a ‘landgrab’ of Twitter handles and Facebook pages in future? (even if they aren’t actively used)

Chelsea Football Club and Spain national team star Fernando Torres set up an account in 2011, with a ‘placeholder’ message to his fans.

It took more than two years before the timing was ‘right’. There’s a big lesson in this for the SA government.

Image: Ken Banks via Flickr.



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