One might argue that legislation and political initiative should apply for all instances that laws need to be applicable universally and not be case dependent. This is true for the content of (political) messages and decisions. However, this article focuses on successful communication in policymaking. To do this, it is necessary to take a closer look at the different players in the political decision-making process and examine how they communicate.
A satisfactory model of intelligent and suitable discussion via the Internet that summarises, filters and classifies input has not yet been established. There is still no real sustained interactivity between legislators and citizens. Only in the run-up to elections, or for specific issues, have there been attempts to foster interactivity with citizens on a larger scale. Nonetheless, the awareness of politicians has risen, and parliaments are increasingly trying to take stock of constituents’ opinions. To improve communication streams, Internet forums and diverse tools have been introduced to allow people to comment or vote. This should be done not only as part of political sites but also as part of SNS and on the sites of news organisations. However, the debate remains largely unmoderated, in part to avoid accusations of censorship.
It remains difficult both to channel the flow of information and ideas from various sources and to distinguish clearly in an exchange-based model who is sending information and who is receiving it. And there is yet another matter that remains worrisome: public discourse is not conducted in a fair way. The principles of privacy and the ‘right to be forgotten’ (known in the US as ‘Retain your name’) do not justify unmannerly behaviour. Posts and comments in political online forums often seem unconstructive. Ferber et al. (2007, 397) state: ‘Almost all of the participants wrote under some sort of “screen name”, with very few postings associated with what appeared to be a real name. Although this may be typical of electronic discussion, it also avoids serious ownership of one’s ideas.’ It has another downside: it puts politicians in a situation of having to respond to an anonymous mass of people. It is all the more difficult to address precise issues when the identity of one’s counterpart is unknown. Successful communication will always be a result of responses that are adapted to the knowledge of the recipient and his or her intention and need for information, which is more difficult when little is known about the recipient of the information.
Another overlooked item in the discussion is that a commitment to communicating politics online involves the expenditure of resources. Thorough work on social network sites and the whole stream of communication on them is not a task that can be accomplished half-heartedly. Political statements are under more severe observation than before and consequently require close attention. An individual, ‘tailor-made’ reply becomes almost impossible. It was only in 2015, that the German government launched its Facebook site (2015). This reveals the dedication required to set up serious political communication online. The site provides insights into the work of the government, describes its institutions and introduces initiatives. It also offers an unconventional way to get in touch with the government’s communications team. Facebook sites existed much earlier for individual politicians, such as the chancellor and members of the cabinet and of political parties. And other online tools such as weekly podcasts and informative websites have been in existence for years. The launch of the government’s Facebook site was meticulously planned and is staffed with a team large enough to interact with citizens and the wider public.
Citizen–government interaction will always remain limited, however, and the reiteration of arguments will be inevitable if the government intends to reply to each citizen on SNS. Hence, moderation remains crucial, especially to ensure that key stakeholders and decision-makers receive a comprehensive overview of the concerns and issues raised by citizens. The moderation process is not easy because it will inevitably involve judgements about which comments should be deleted and why. There is a thin line between eliminating a comment that might contain insults, and censoring content and infringing on the right to speak one’s mind.
It remains for society as a whole and for politicians in particular to improve the way decisions are made. There is a gap between the everyday lives of citizens and politics, and efforts to strengthen online communication are only one way to fill this gap in connecting the two. Another way is to re-address grass-roots initiatives and to reach out to citizens in new ways that stretch beyond SNS. The German government’s Facebook site aims at what has been described as the need to explain politics. Other governments have also taken steps to move away from the image that politics is only dealt with behind closed doors. Some have reintroduced town hall meetings to create political gatherings that make it possible for citizens to get in touch with politicians on a personal level.
In fact, the need to shape encounters is just as important as the need to point out that a single voice can be important, even in the vast field of politics. This is emphasised by Bauerlein (2008) and in Jacoby’s findings (2008). Both authors contend that, despite increased budgets and government investment in ‘democratic’ information technology, young Americans are increasingly unaware of current issues and disengaged from civic involvement. The same holds for Europe. In some parts of Europe, political youth organisations are struggling to attract members. It would appear that the younger generation is not prepared to make the commitment entailed in joining a political group—as opposed to supporting a specific, time-limited cause. It seems untrendy to stick to one organisation when society is constantly changing and posing new challenges. Institutions that try to provide more holistic approaches and solutions to societal challenges will eventually take a decision or adopt a position that is unpopular and does not reflect the mainstream consensus. Since these institutions are and will always be run by people, over time they will all make mistakes and reveal imperfections. Recent political consulting takes the approach that the success of political parties lies in having the flexibility to change their views and political discourse. This approach also admits that, at some point, validated positions will conflict with current challenges and the party will have to develop a new position. The larger the entity or institution, the longer the repositioning process. During that time, the entity or institution will be in the line of fire. People do not like to take the fall for decisions and views that a previous generation has made and that time has proven wrong or outdated. Consequently, there is a reluctance to join parties because they will have made faulty decisions at one point or another. And this reluctance is only made greater by the fact that parties carry the weight of decisions that can affect the whole of society.
The use of SNS can be one way for citizens to express their concern about a particular issue. The European level is particularly emphasised since more and more decisions are being taken at a European or multinational level. The transnational decision-making bodies are larger than their nation-level counterparts and have more stakeholders. This makes it even more critical to point out the relevance of the individual in the decision-making process.