Ethical considerations for government in social listening

There’s been a fair amount of discussion about the use of ‘social listening’ over the past few months, particularly surrounding the relationship between people’s use of Internet tools, the corresponding institutional capability through big data and advanced analytics to mine that usage, and the evolving privacy and ethical concerns. Social and ethical considerations move at a slower pace that technological possibility, corporate lawyers and people’s everyday usage of new tools leaving large pools of opportunity and questions in ethical positions. The purpose of these thoughts is to stimulate conversation.


Social media platforms are public; people have knowingly chosen a wide-cast, persistent platform to share their views in the hope that someone is listening… and to stimulate a response.

Nothing is private, if you read the agreement you made with the service provider you’ll find out exactly to what degree.  But who reads the small print; especially when it’s in the way of talking to your friend?

When you select email or phone that’s another issue; whether legally binding or not, the expectation is one of some privacy, your choice of medium is an expression of intent, that you wish to address an individual and the content is between self-selected people.

The boundaries of privacy in a networked world are perceived and assumed as much as contractual, and potential grievances that may come about will not make a distinction. The more things are connected the more they blur.

This blurring will prompt more and deeper dialogues around privacy and its current protections under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States or Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


With most everything digital and social, context is king. How you are perceived all depends on the intent with which you listen. Who’s doing the listening and for what purpose matters. Listening because you want to be responsive, to engage better is not the same as surveilling.


There are legitimate reasons for security services and law enforcement to listen. In every other function government needs to be open and clear that we are not listening to anything not already in the public domain. A clear and transparent methodology is vital; let the public see the data you see, let them see visualizations of public expression. Not only should citizens know you’re listening, but there should be ways for them to engage with government and with each other around issues.


Intention, perception, expectations and etiquette: What we’re really getting to is behaviour. Listening implies having heard. The action of listening will be understood by the behaviour that follows it. This puts an onus on government not only to converse (rather than say) but to act in pace with networked publics.

In practical terms policy teams can benefit broadly. Social listening can provide valuable assistance throughout the policy-making process from problem structuring and options generation to implementation, providing more nuanced understanding of a system into which government seeks to make an intervention.

Traditional bureaucratic mechanisms are too slow to handle the pace of collaboration in open situations. Well meaning efforts can be crippled by a ponderous gap between engagement and action. If we don’t ensure our capability to be responsive the Civil Service Reform Plan could be adding a “consultation gap” – we heard but. . .

Are governments prepared to engage in the social space in an ethical way to really hear what matters to citizens and to deal with the issues that they raise – and more importantly change as a result of citizen feedback?


3 replies on “Ethical considerations for government in social listening”

  1. Government is getting better at digital engagement but there’s still nervousness from civil servants about representing their organisations on social media. People will happily write a letter, make a phone call or send an email, but social media is seen as ‘too public’.

    I’m always looking for examples of policy teams using social media to engage that I can share in my organisation. The more people see others doing it the more likely they are to see that the benefits outweigh the risks.

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