Zombies, killer cyborgs and the government

The new face of government is a zombie. Or is it the Terminator?

Either way, it's a new face for people tracking the government through social media. Recent weeks have brought several indications that the government is becoming more comfortable with social media and open to using it in ways that would have been anathema in a previous era of buttoned-down, all-business federal agencies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a blog post titled "Social Media: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse." The post was a tongue-in-cheek guide to preparing for disasters, using the kind of massive zombie attack found in films such as "Dawn of the Dead" rather than a tornado or hurricane as a backdrop.

"So what do you need to do before zombies…or hurricanes or pandemics for example, actually happen?" writes Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan. "First of all, you should have an emergency kit in your house. This includes things like water, food and other supplies to get you through the first couple of days before you can locate a zombie-free refugee camp (or in the event of a natural disaster, it will buy you some time until you are able to make your way to an evacuation shelter or utility lines are restored)."

The humorous approach to disaster preparedness was generally well received. The blog OhMyGov reported that the post brought thousands of new followers to CDC's Twitter account, caused a spike in traffic to the blog site and generated coverage in the mainstream media.

The success is "further proof that a bit of social media savvy combined with a knowing sense of humor can help federal agencies get notice for their more important initiatives," wrote Alex Salta at OhMyGov. "Chances are most people who read the CDC's zombie post did not give a great deal of thought to disaster preparedness beforehand, but by hooking readers with a clever premise, the agency was able to presumably get its more serious message across."

But Jordan Yerman, writing at NowPublic, had some criticism for Khan's guide. "The CDC plan doesn't mention removing the head or destroying the brain, which I consider to be vital info," Yerman write. "Zombies play for keeps, and so should you."

Mike Adams, editor of NatureNews.com, took a more conspiratorial view of the Zombie warning.

"Some of the strategies include preparing all your 'important documents' such as your passport and birth certificate," he writes. "This is obviously based on the idea that you are going to be relocated  and will probably end up as a refugee of some sort (in a FEMA camp, no doubt). So remember to bring your birth certificate. Of course, if you don't actually have a birth certificate, you can always use Photoshop to create one from a collage of random scanned documents and no one will notice the difference these days. Not even the mainstream media."

And the Terminator?

Jesse Lee, the White House's director of progressive media and online response, started his new position May 23 with a tweet describing Twitter as the Twitter machine and linked to a photo of a gleaming silver skull that fans of “The Terminator" franchise recognized as being from those films.

In the science-fiction world of "The Terminator," machines become self-aware and take over the world of the near future, leaving only struggling bands of humans engaged in a resistance movement. Terminators are cyborgs with human skin over a metal skeleton that houses a computer brain — the better to infiltrate human resistance groups.

Lee's move went over a bit less well than CDC’s zombies. “It appears that the White House is getting rather aggressive in their defense of the president and his policies as the re-election campaign rolls on,” writes David Gomez in TG Daily.

Lee’s job is to respond to online criticism of President Barack Obama, hence the “online response” part of his job title. Gomez said the picture Lee chose might be more than a pop-culture reference.

“Keep in mind that this is a paid government position and Lee chose to use the imagery of a Terminator skull in the first post he made on the White House Twitter account,” Gomez writes. “It’s pretty clear what he thinks his job description is.”

Jack Blood, at the blog Deadline Live, questioned the legality of Lee's position. Under the law, he explained, the only public funds available for campaign activities are those in the Public Election Campaign Fund, the pool of money from taxpayers who voluntary donate it on their tax forms. If Lee is being paid from any other fund, Blood writes, his work may not pass muster with the Federal Election Commission's rules.

Administration officials likely would argue that Lee's internal activities do not constitute campaign work -- that it's analogous to a press secretary simply "setting the record straight." But Blood said that would be a questionable defense.

Press secretaries "usually put out statements and answer questions from the press on behalf of the president conducting United States business," he writes. "Sometimes it might get political depending on the questions asked, or the issue of the day, but press secretaries are not supposed to be used as a campaign mouthpiece or as a microphone to attack political critics or promote a political ideology."

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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