Back on December 26, 2010, the Eastern US was hit by a major snowstorm, dubbed the “Snowpocalypse”. In the aftermath of the storm, communities were left under inches of snow, bringing life to a standstill. Such snowstorms visit cities in the US at most a few times a year. With so many other more urgent needs, the equipment needed to clear away snow is insufficient to clear snow quickly, and can often take a few days. Work begins on cities’ main arteries, and slowly spreads out to smaller, connected roads and streets. Residential streets, sidewalks and footpaths are the last to be cleared, and are often left up to residents. This often becomes a problem because it can keep the elderly snowed in and immobilised for days.
The local mayor at that time, a gentleman by the name of Cory Booker, kept track of Twitter posts from his constituents, particularly the ones that were left helpless by the snow. He and people on his staff took up shovels and began showing up at residences of the elderly and disabled and dug them out of the snow. Booker made national headlines and Time magazine named him the “Mayor of Twitter” and “Blizzard Superhero.”
Digging people out of snow became Booker’s signature thing, and he stuck to it in subsequent snow emergencies. Booker accumulated more than a million Twitter followers, was eventually elected the senator from New Jersey. On Wednesday night he took to the stage at the first debate in the Democratic party’s primary election, leading up to the 2020 US Presidential election.
Booker’s engagement with social media worked out great for the people he dug out. However, I ask myself, in an emergency, is working as a first responder the best use of an elected representative’s time? Would constituents not be better served if their representative is in his/her office making sure the people working with him have the resources they need, clearing systemic and structural roadblocks, rather than physical ones? While Booker was certainly not the first, he was among the early bird elected representatives that figured out how to use social media to build their political brand in the service of career advancement.
A few years later and a few thousand miles to the East in Pakistan, politicians and civil servants and anyone who is even slightly recognizable, is on Twitter. While it is impossible to generalise and ascribe a single motive to such a large group, to a casual observer like me it certainly seems like everyone has climbed onto that same bandwagon.
Nowadays, apart from politicians, some public servants like deputy commissioners, food inspectors, etc., have become Twitter celebrities. “Follow” them, and you will see them enforcing prices, conducting surprise inspections, tearing down illegal structures here and there. It looks great on-screen, and gives viewers the impression that things are getting done, laws are being enforced. The problem is that it is always just one man or woman steamrolling, pushing, pulling, fighting, struggling against an administrative machinery whose default state is to remain motionless and let problems languish.
It temporarily appears like the system is working, when it is often just one person expending extraordinary effort to move the state machinery to do what it should be doing on auto-pilot all along. Even then, an individual case has to register on the right person’s or department’s radar or has to be blown up on Twitter to become a trend before it is addressed, often in an equally public manner. It should not take the district commissioner himself visiting markets across the city to ensure that inspectors in charge of checking price gouging are doing their jobs.
The exercise of routine food inspections at millions of restaurants should not depend on the presence of any one personality higher up the chain. The fact that officials so far up in the hierarchy have to accompany one of its many teams to make sure that routine work gets done signals systemic failure and is an indictment of the departments under their control.
Over time, ordinary citizens’ expectations from their government have been lowered so much that they cheer when one case in public view out of thousands gets resolved. When politicians, public servants, judges are too focused on where they are going to get their next win on Twitter, shall we still hold out hope for anyone to address structural problems to fix problems permanently?
A while back a picture of a page from a school textbook (which turned out to be non-Pakistani) was making the rounds on WhatsApp. The page describes noise pollution with a picture of cars, trains, planes and a mosque all emanating sounds, and a man in the foreground in pain dramatically covering his ears. A few hours ago, some Joe Shmoe tweeted the picture claiming it is from a Pakistani textbook, tags Punjab’s Education Minister Murad Raas and asks him to condemn it and take action. Not surprisingly, several members of the public replied and corrected him on the origins of the picture. Surprisingly, however, the minister himself also responded. When I saw the reply I found myself wondering if this really was the best use of time for a minister responsible for school education in a province home to roughly half of Pakistan’s population of 210 million. But what do I know, because judging by the reaction, the Twitterati were happy.
Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, has done away with our need to have someone’s email, landline or cell number to relay a message or complaint. It is tempting to use, because it is public, it is direct, and cuts through layers of bureaucracy (if you can get heard). On the other hand, in the context of complaints, most of the time there is no formal tracking of the status of complaints sent through such channels. Either you hit the jackpot and your problem is resolved, or you lose and remain at the mercy of the system.
The public may have come to see social media as the great leveler and democratiser that can kick state machinery into action. There may also be a case for the good that it can do to bridge the gap between government and the people. However, in a country as large as ours, where the rot of corruption at every level has hollowed out government from its roots, like termites, the problem is not the occasional exceptional case that gets stuck in the machine. The problems are a broken bureaucracy and broken processes. No amount of Twitter engagement can paper over that.
Our public servants’ and elected representatives’ time is better served by fixing the underlying system with the aim of having it run day-to-day operations without intervention from the top. Until that happens, actions prompted by and seen on Twitter should be seen as little more than polishing of one’s personal brand and slapping a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound.