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The role of social media in civic engagement

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Social media has undoubtedly given the public much greater access and involvement in civic operations over the past few years, be that through the opening up of data or crowdsourcing public involvement in projects.  A new study has set out to provide a detailed expose of what social tools have been used and how effective they’ve been.

Or at least, that’s what I’d have liked them to look at.  Alas, the study, published in Government Information Quarterly, focused primarily on the role Facebook played in building civic engagement amongst Malaysian citizens.  Anyway, overlooking my general dislike for Facebook, did it highlight anything of note?

The study saw just over 500 citizens, who were active Facebook users surveyed.  Whilst there was a decent gender split amongst the sample, it did consist primarily of 26-35 year olds.  The aim was primarily to understand whether civic bodies could communicate with citizens via Facebook, and cajole them into greater civic engagement (elsewhere).

Two main findings emerged from the study.  Firstly, there was potential for Facebook usage by civic bodies to promote online civic participation.  No great surprise there you will no doubt say, yet the study goes on to suggest that online attempts to coordinate civic activities still lags behind other more traditional methods.  They go as far as to cast doubts over the use of Facebook for such purposes, branding the type of engagement obtainable as only likely to secure slacktavist style involvement.

The second major finding was that online civic behaviour is undoubtedly a real thing and that social media can enable significant involvement in the civic process.  The narrow focus of the study around social media as a communications channel did limit the research quite significantly, but they revealed that social media stimuli can prod those with an already active social interest into further action.  What’s more, they suggest that social media users are a receptive group to attempts to engage them more in civic processes.

One interesting finding was however the juxtaposition between social media postings and trust in civic institutions.  The study found that greater transparency and involvement in civic processes, not surprisingly, increased the levels of trust citizens had in those institutions.

The study concludes by perhaps highlighting the very weakness in the study itself.

As such, the government needs to shift to an approach that puts citizens at the center of a powerful way to make them feel needed and appreciated. They need to help ordinary people take action on the issues that are most important to them, and in the ways they choose.

Which is indeed great, and there is considerable evidence of such work being done around the world.  It’s hard to escape the perception that talking at citizens via Facebook is not really the way to go about achieving the desired level of engagement however.

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