Social Media

In the context of public participation initiatives, social media is often used as a supplementary channel of engagement used to inform participants and schedule events. Social media is also a powerful tool for use by both organized and decentralized participatory initiatives

Problems and Purpose

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, social media encompasses "websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking."[1] In the context of public participation initiatives, social media is often used as a supplementary channel of engagement used to inform participants and schedule events. However, social media's ability to disseminate information and engage a wide audience has also lead to some of the largest instances of pubic participation such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wallstreet. Social media is therefore a powerful tool for use by both organized and decentralized participatory initiatives and movements.[2]

A case can be made for the exclusion of web-based hosted platforms or designed networking models to facilitate deliberation as not appropriate for this thread- Hosted platforms like PlanIt, Citizinvestor, and NextDoor can have design implications on deliberation[3] on geographic proximity or localization on a neighborhood or city-wide scale,[4] even help develop cultural practices based on norms of engagement facilitated by design features.[5] Elements of the following social media concepts may also be present on hosted platforms, but the nature of their engagement, scale, and networked presence is not the same as more commonly considered social media platforms.[6] Based on the general use of the term “Social Media” on Participedia, the term either explicitly or implicitly refers to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, among other global platforms.

Deliberative ideals match the capacity of social media platforms in a variety of ways. Citizens can gain a multitude of perspectives of information,[7][8] government entities can demonstrate transparency[6] and the public can be engaged in large-scale discussions.[3] However, social media platforms can also be found incomplete, lack adoption, or not yet realize these deliberative ideals in a variety of ways. Three common themes that arise in the use of social media for public engagement include the expressions of citizenship, the perpetuation of misinformation, and the nature of transactional, or “one-way” engagement.

Expressions of Citizenship

We must ask “What is the role of digital and social media to give visibility and voice to expressions of citizenship?”[9] Access to social media and the proper networks of information can be inclusive for those properly connected, and potentially further disenfranchise disconnected citizens.[9] Expressions of perspectives and engagement online can be reinterpreted or misinterpreted by governing agencies, creating a sense of ‘pseudo-participation’ and constraining the techno-political sphere of managed cyberspace. [10][11][12] Inclusion of perspectives, when done poorly, can reinforce citizens distrust in a public process and the credibility of institutions.[9]

Perpetuating Misinformation

Noting that communication is a shaper of public opinion[13] we must be wary of heavy consumers of media distorting society to fit their views being consumed.[9] “Framing” and “Priming” are two means of presentation that can perpetuate misinformation on the part of producers, undermining the effectiveness of social media and other digital tools to strengthen public engagement.[6] Misinformation erodes one of the core tenets that must be present for deliberation and the use of social media both, trust in the information and the process.[14]

Transactional Engagement

A lack of influence on policy or a long-term feedback loop [15] matches a transactional perspective that can be held by some government agencies using social media for public engagement and deliberation.[6] Lacking “two-way” communication impacts the nature of discussion on different platforms [16] and failure of recognition can lead citizens to blame the process rather than the technological tools.[6]

Origins and Development

Communication scholars have long recognized the potential for the internet, and subsequently social media, to impact deliberation and public engagement. Initial means of public engagement consisted of local forums,[17] email transactions, and web sites to enhance the communicative capacity and information sharing seen as a regular part of municipal governance.[6][18] Social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have gained prominence in many nations around the globe since 2005, contributing to deliberative discussions and civic engagements like the Arab Spring, Gezi Park, Brexit, and most recently the 2016 United States Presidential Election.[4][14][16]

How it Works

Who might be the typical user of a social media platform, and what is their level of engagement? Moss and Coleman (2014) propose four types of citizens in this regard: the deliberative citizen, who engages in discussion forums; the monitorial citizen, who evaluates policies and services, the single-click citizen, who promotes and signs petitions; and the citizen who represents the collective wisdom of crowdsourcing.[9]. It is important to understand how citizens are reached, be they the “usual suspects” who may drown out other voices[6] or well networked individuals with social capital.[8] For deliberative ideals of inclusion and equal opportunity to participate, social media must be evaluated and utilized to provide a voice for those marginalized or lacking capacity for other means of engagement.[7][16]

Citizens have the opportunity to be both the consumers, and producers of information and deliberative perspectives due to social media [6][9] with an approach called “informational engagement”. This develops through a relational orientation among citizens and organizing institutions, rather than using social media for information distribution. Active participation is not just a matter of frequency of engagement or decision-making based on public surveys, rather that citizens see the results of online engagement embody their suggestions, demonstrate recognition of their contribution,[6] and develop social presence with citizens as afforded through persistent presence and pervasive awareness.[8] Persistent presence is the technological affordance of a static and developed online persona, identity, or networked relationships that evolve as citizens communicate peer-to-network and not just peer-to-peer. Pervasive awareness is the capacity for citizens to monitor, and have the expectation to investigate, metrics on any number of public elements. Challenges of pervasive awareness include the flattening of contexts, such that important or critical messages may be delivered via the same medium as a more personal message about mundane elements of a friend or colleague.[8][19] Certain platforms that do not emphasize an identity connection to the online conversation also run the risk of perpetuating more judgmental or opinionated information, lower critical investigation of messages by citizens, and a higher likelihood of ideological polarization around sensitive topics.[16]

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The influence of social media on public opinion and deliberative democracy has perhaps never been more top of mind in a global way as it has been recently with the revelations of psychographic profiling. The demonstrable and quantifiable impact of this new work has yet to be evaluated in an academic capacity, but two converging principles demonstrate the influence, outcomes, and effects of social media and provide insight on the likely conclusions to come from recent revelations. Deliberative democracy depends on trust by those engaged that the process will be fair and equitable, [19][20] and social media usage can both perpetuate issues of trust and resolve them. In practical study, one of the strongest ways that social media engagement empowers citizens and crystallizes messaging is through the combination of online discussions and offline, in-person engagement. [9][21][8][22][12]

Social Trust and System Trust

According to Wang and Emurian (2005), social trust is the faith invested in a party for their propensity to abide by the best interest of the trusting party, and this found to be highly dependent on social identification and connection to social groups or organizations. System trust is the faith vested in technological systems and Information Communication Technologies (ICT’s) based on the affordances they provide. Use and familiarity with a system contribute to users building trust in that technological system.[14] System trust, especially technological affordances that can improve immediacy or engagement with users in a manner that is recognizable confers a measure of credibility onto the person or organization with these affordances,[14] like an activist group with a heavy presence on Facebook or twitter. Self-categorization on social media leads to depersonalization of self-perception, lending users to more easily confer trust in social identities or systems with more alignment to one’s own feelings and behaviors, similar to in-group and out-group differentiation.[14][23] One of the most validating actions for social trust and system trust as found by Haciyakupoglu and Zheng (2015) is in-person experience that lends credibility to the perspective of the social identity, or in-person experience that corroborates information shared across a system.[14] In lieu of such in-person experiences, video footage has been found to have a high capacity for instilling trust due to the difficulty in fabrication and the viewpoint being similar to in-person perspectives.

The Need for In-Person Engagement

Other research has shown a connection between social media use and in-person engagement as resulting in more substantive information exchange. Findings from social media use by local councils in Leeds, UK identify the real challenge for creating meaningful engagement to be the use of social media to facilitate civic “connective actions” [24] enabled by a digital civic place.[9] In-person engagement can verify and validate information exchanged on social media networks as well as foster authentic dialogue by providing more contextual cues than social media might allow,[16] and this authenticity is especially sought after in areas where government intervention in social media is high.[14][12] Hybrid uses of social media and in-person engagement simultaneously can make sharing perspectives easier, co-learning information more robust, and ground perspectives in-situ while providing an overlay of proposed ideas or complementary technical information.[21]


In many ways, the initial predictions of how social media would revolutionize deliberation and public engagement have yet to bear out. Issues of misinformation, social identity, in-group alignment, trust, transparency, and authoritative control over the use of social media and ICT’s commonly present modern challenges for global platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as web-based and locally oriented online networks. However, when used to augment deliberation practices and community engagement, social media has found a number of successful roles to play.[22] Citizens can mobilize, confer with different perspectives on an issue easily[6][17]; vet reliability of information with first-hand and in-person accounts[14]; bring authoritative and technical information to bear during discussions to lower impediments to engagement[16]; and create more robust co-learning opportunities.[15][12] These perspectives and scholarship demonstrate that social media can and should be used to foster relational, two-way conversations among citizens[8] and that social media should compliment or catalyze concurrent in-person engagement.[9][12] Practically, we have seen this mobilization happen with the #metoo movement and #marchforourlives. Reflective consideration of the strengths and shortcomings of social media in public engagement will also help to further evolve the public awareness of our online identities, the role and connection these identities play in creating and connecting our public opinions, and likely embed social media as an innovative facet of deliberative democracy and public engagement going forward.

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[1] "Social Media" (n.d.) Retrieved from

[2] O'Donnell, C. (2011). New study quantifies use of social media in Arab Spring.

[3] Wright, S., & Street, J. (2007). Democracy, deliberation and design: the case of online discussion forums. New Media & Society, 9(5), 849–869.

[4] Abdullah, C., Karpowitz, C. F., & Raphael, C. (2016). Equity and Inclusion in Online Community Forums: An Interview with Steven Clift. Journal of Public Deliberation, 12(2).

[5] Hacohen, G. D., & Shavit, N. (2013). The cultural meanings of Israeli Tokbek (talk-back online commenting) and their relevance to the online democratic public sphere. International Journal of Electronic Governance, 6(4), 361.

[6] Firmstone, J., & Coleman, S. (2015). Public engagement in local government: the voice and influence of citizens in online communicative spaces. Information, Communication & Society, 18(6), 680–695.

[7] Gastil, J. (2016). Gastil (2016) - Building a Democracy Machine.pdf. Harvard Kennedy School.

[8] Hampton, K. N. (2016). Persistent and Pervasive Community: New Communication Technologies and the Future of Community. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 101–124.

[9] Bartoletti and Faccioli (2016). Public Engagement, Local Policies, and Citizens’ Participation: An Italian Case Study of Civic Collaboration. Social Media and Society 2(3), 1-11.

[10] Rogers (2014).

[11] Wright (2006).

[12] Zhang, W. (2016). Social media and elections in Singapore: comparing 2011 and 2015. Chinese Journal of Communication, 9(4), 367–384.

[13] Eadie and Gouret (2013).

[14] Haciyakupoglu, G., & Zhang, W. (2015). Social Media and Trust during the Gezi Protests in Turkey. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(4), 450–466.

[15] Gastil, J., & Richards, R. C. (2017). Embracing Digital Democracy: A Call for Building an Online Civic Commons. PS: Political Science & Politics, 50(03), 758–763.

[16] Halpern, D., & Gibbs, J. (2013). Social media as a catalyst for online deliberation? Exploring the affordances of Facebook and YouTube for political expression. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 1159–1168.

[17] O’Sullivan, P. B. (1995). Computer Networks and Political Participation: Santa Monica’s Teledemocracy Project. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 23(May), 93–107.

[18] Gastil, J. (2008). Deliberative Communities and Societies. In Political Communication and Deliberation (p. 324). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[19] Li, Y., Zhang, W., Perrault, S., & Shengdong, Z. (2017). Li Zhang et al (2017) - Building an Online Deliberation Platform.pdf. Presented at the Deliberative Democracy Summit 2017, Singapore.

[20] Dryzek (2010)

[21] Gordon, E., & Manosevitch, E. (2011). Augmented deliberation: Merging physical and virtual interaction to engage communities in urban planning. New Media & Society, 13(1), 75–95.

[22] Xiao, L., Zhang, W., Przybylska, A., De Liddo, A., Convertino, G., Davies, T., & Klein, M. (2015). Design for online deliberative processes and technologies: Towards a multidisciplinary research agenda. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 865–868). ACM.

[23] Levin, D., Witener, E., and Cross , R.(2006). Perceived trustworthiness of knowledge sources: The moderating impact of relationship length. Journal of Applied Psychology 91(5), 1163-71. DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.91.5.1163 

[24] Bennett, L. and Segerberg, A. (2012). The Logic of Connective Action. Information Communication and Society 15(5), 1-30. DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.670661

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