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British government tells civil servants how to get tweeting

The British government has told civil servants: Go forth and tweet.

The government published guidelines yesterday for its departments on using the microblogging service Twitter.

In contrast to Twitter's limit of 140 characters per message, the document runs to 20 pages, or more than 5,000 words.

It tells civil servants their tweets should be "human and credible" and written in "informal spoken English."

It advises government departments to produce between two and 10 tweets a day, with a gap of at least 30 minutes between each "to avoid flooding our followers' Twitter streams."

The advice says Twitter can be used for everything from announcements to insights from ministers, and in a crisis could be a "primary channel" for communicating with the electorate.

The document warns against using Twitter simply to convey campaign messages, but notes that "while tweets may occasionally be 'fun'," they should be in line with government objectives.

It also says departments should not follow any Twitter users who are not following them, as this could be interpreted as "Big Brother" behavior.

The guidelines are the British government's latest attempt to embrace the Internet and social media - efforts that have been both praised and mocked.

Stolid, unglamorous Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been called "an analog politician in a digital age" by the leader of the opposition. A YouTube appearance in April amid a scandal over politicians' expenses backfired when Brown seemed to be stiff, insincere and smiling inappropriately.

The Twitter document said the government must "accept that there will be some criticism" of its efforts.

Twitter, launched in 2006, has already proved a powerful tool for mobilizing causes and protest movements, in post-election demonstrations from Iran to Moldova, where activists used Twitter to rally support after cell phone networks went down.

Governments around the world are also starting to use it to keep voters and constituents informed, with Britain and the United States among the most active.

United States President Barack Obama's Twitter stream - with more than 1.8 million followers - has recently encouraged people to tweet their members of Congress about healthcare reform, and provides links to the president's news conferences.

In Britain, the prime minister's office, the Foreign Office and some individual politicians already use Twitter to broadcast their activities.


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