Saturday, 10 July 2010

Developing Government Policy via Facebook - who will have their say?

Published on the BBC news website is an article on how the new government intends to use Facebook to get the UK electorate to vote on where spending cuts should be applied. An initial thinking suggests that this is a novel approach to driving new government policy. For example, it will be inexpensive to apply as the social network is already in place. BUT: who's voice will be heard most as a result of this policy? Facebook advises that there are now 23 million Facebook accounts in the UK. In the UK there are approximately 61 million people of which approximately 75% are of voting age implying that about 40 million people should be polled on the direction of anticipated cuts (data reviewed at the Office of National Statistics). Earlier research shows that users of Facebook are characteristically different from those that do not use its service. For example, studies find that Facebook users tend to be younger and better educated. Research that I have undertaken at Lancaster University highlights very clearly that non-IT adopters, as measured by comparison of households with and without access to computers, are on average older and/or less wealthy; this pattern of digital exclusion will be directly implemented in the governments initiative. What this means is that any vote via Facebook will be biased towards those that are younger and wealthier. There will be other distortions that will be unmeasurable. Biasness aside, what of our much more experienced seniors that have a wealth of experience having lived through both good and bad times? Surely, we should pay special attention to their voice? What of the needs of those less wealthy households without decent IT access? They too should have a voice. Moreover, by shifting policy development onto social networks the government is forcing those that wish to abstain from social nets (and this is your right!) to become online active; even if they do not wish to share their data and lives online. Earlier this year I published a blog titled Rejecting Social Networks as a Good Idea Poorly Executed. In the blog I highlighted why it is a highly risky practice to submit personal data on social networks. For example, where is your data stored? How will privacy policies be changed? Who has access to your data? If Facebook is sold in 1, 5 or 10 years time how may the company use your data and could the data be physically moved to a geographic location with few data protection regulations in place? These are valid criticisms of why we should not use social networks until the market for personal data is better defined.

In terms of what the government is hoping to achieve with the present Facebook initiative, it will not be certain that the results it views are representative of the UK voting population for the reasons given above. Crucially also, we cannot be certain that those that vote are actually UK voters. Just because a Facebook account was created in the UK does not mean the account holder is actually a registered UK voter. Clearly, there is no easy solution to the problem of getting closer to the electorates way of thinking on important country matters. I do accept that we need a communication platform for people to become part of the decision making process; but the plan needs to be better thought out than the one that has been proposed.