Tweeting the President of Rwanda

Barely two months after the Rwandan government encouraged decision makers at all levels to join social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, we see our first heated exchange. London-based journalist Ian Birrell used his personal Twitter account to quote some sections from an interesting interview with President Paul Kagame in the Financial Times. The President responded, as did the Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo and several others.

The View from a Cave blog has the entire exchange, which is well worth reading. Birrell’s questions focus on media and politics. This is not the first time the Rwandan President has used Twitter to engage with people.

In March, 2011, the tennis playing President arranged to visit Ibirunga Tennis Court in Musanze on Twitter to meet the children there. There have also been discussions about arranging a conference in Kigali, all on Twitter and in the public domain.

I do have some doubts about the appropriateness of the use of these tools in Rwanda. As I blogged previously,

With barely 3% of Rwandans in Rwanda online, the question is who are they intending to communicate with? The diaspora? Investors? The donor community? Or are we in for more of the endless tit for tat battles you see playing out in comments on blog posts and newspaper articles about Rwanda?

It remains to be seen when and how members of parliament and other decision makers begin to establish a presence online. As someone who’s spent the best part of the last 8 years training journalists and others in what these tools are and how to use them, I fully expect to see a few booboos being made – and that’s normal.

Each tool attracts a different community and different ways of communicating. Each tool has a distinct culture which needs to be learned if you’re to get the most out of it. Forcing anyone to use Facebook or Twitter is a recipe for failure. link

I can’t recall seeing a similar Q&A exchange between a head of state and a journalist on Twitter. I’m not sure Twitter is the ideal place for tit-for-tat arguments on substantial questions – 140 character messages leave little space for nuance or depth. In addition, while I see engagement in general as a largely positive step on Rwanda’s behalf, I do worry that Rwanda spends an unusually large amount of time responding to critics across social networks, blogs, newspapers and other media.

Criticism aside, the geek in me likes the fact that both the President and the Foreign Minister tweet from Blackberry phones… It’s also worth noting that since April, 2011, you can tweet in Rwanda from SMS text message. It’s been surprisingly useful in traffic jams, during power outages and Internet downtime in the capital.

UPDATE 16 May, 2011: A View from the Cave blog has a video from Channel 4 News interviewing Ian Birrell about the Twitter exchange.