Should Governments Tweet in All Their Official Languages?

If governments use social media to communicate with the public, should they do so in more than one of a country’s official languages? One Canadian province says yes.

If governments use social media to communicate with the public, should they do so in more than one of a country’s official languages? One Canadian province says yes.

On Thursday October 20th, the Canadian province of New Brunswick issued an annual report which requests that government agencies communicate on social media using both of Canada’s official languages: French and English. Currently, of the MLAs in the province, only a few are actively making use of social media, and most of the messages that are sent, particularly on micro-blogging site Twitter,  are in English.

The report, issued by Michel Carrier the official languages commissioner, said that “”In the commissioner’s view, these inquiries clearly demonstrate the need to establish guidelines for public agencies in this regard.” “This regard” is in regard to social media.  According to the CBC:

“Carrier said specific rules need to be established regarding how the language law applies to:

  • The use of bilingual public forums and unilingual forums
  • The use of personal accounts, such as Twitter, by government employees and the resulting linguistic obligations
  • The use of third parties in the management or moderation of government public forums.”

One of the leaders of the report, Bill Thompson was also concerned with the way public servants interacted with the public on social media. However, some of the concerns voiced by Thompson were not about language. Instead, he showed concern for the ways that government organizations might use social media without surrendering control of information.  He said:

“Social media are difficult for governmental organizations to use and execute. Full participatory use of this method involves giving up a certain amount of control over information flow and input that is publicly visible,” the energy report said.

“While this method promotes greater transparency, risks occur in the potential spread of misinformation or negative portrayal of official activities. Humour, informality and personal hosting attachment to public sector organizations can all present challenges to the way that governments operate due to public scrutiny.”

This push for New Brunswick to begin to tweet in both official languages is an important issue not just for the province, but for the entire country. The report’s title summarizes the importance of the issue: “Move Forward or Lose Ground”. The report notes:

“New Brunswick has made remarkable progress in official languages over the past few decades. However, the government must not rest on its laurels,” Carrier’s report said.

“All of this progress is fragile because we must not forget, there is that general trend of the predominance of English. We therefore have to continue moving forward or lose ground.”

While these concerns are specific to the province of New Brunswick and the official languages of Canada, it applies to other countries and regions. The sentiment of “move forward or lose ground” is a good summary of how important language can be in terms of maintaining culture, and as social media is used more and more by governments, organizations need to choose how to use social media in a way which honors all their official languages and cultures.