A central claim made about social media, is that social media can act as a direct intermediary between citizens and public officials, so bypassing public communication gatekeepers such as traditional media, parties, and organizations (van Dijk & Hacker, 2018, p. 62). It is also claimed that social media may increase a government’s responsiveness to ordinary citizens. Responsiveness is broadly defined as the congruence between the attitudes and preferences of the public, and the policies and actions of elected representatives and public administrations.Footnote 1 Outcome responsiveness refers to the degree to which government officials alter policies and spending so that they come into line with public opinion, process responsiveness referring to the manner in which government officials consider the needs, wishes, and claims of citizens (Eom et al., 2018).
Governments can be responsive to citizens in two ways, in this latter sense: through elected officials and their party organizations, or through public employees and their administrative organizations. Politicians may use social media as a listening post to keep track of the opinions of citizens (Rustad & Sæbø, 2013), or to engage with them in an active dialogue on policies and actions (Grant et al., 2010). Parties can track citizens’ talk about specific topics on social media in a more organized way, or analyse their interactions and feedback during and between elections (Ennser-Jedenastik et al., 2021). Public administrations can also be responsive through responding to and acting on complaints or suggestions from residents (Sjoberg et al., 2017), and through asking for input, polling citizens, inviting into a dialogue on social media (Mergel, 2016; Sobaci, 2016), or analysing content to understand what users think of policies and actions (Reddick et al., 2017).
Let me from the outset disclose that I do not think that modern governments approximate the ideals of ‘continuing responsivity’ based on the equality often associated with democracy. When they are responsive, then they are normally responsive to elite segments of the population and upper-class interests.Footnote 2 There are, however, a number of reasons for assuming that elected officials will be responsive to certain groups of more ‘ordinary’ citizens as well. Incumbent politicians and parties may, from an elitist perspective, feel pressured to conform with opinions expressed on social media, to keep their supporters happy and strengthen their chances of being re-elected (Silva et al., 2019). Politicians and parties in opposition may alternatively actively engage with voters on social media, to improve their standing and to gain future electoral benefits (Ceron, 2017, p. 13). Politicians and parties are, from a less cynical viewpoint, split between providing leadership and being responsive to the public (Kane & Patapan, 2012). Responsiveness is, in such a perspective, a strong norm of political conduct, particularly in local government where officials are expected to act as ‘custodians,’ ‘stewards’ or ‘ombudsmen’ on behalf of their constituencies (Kleven et al., 2000; Lewis & Neiman, 2009).
Bureaucrats are, according to a Weberian administrative ideal, not to be responsive to anything other than the tasks and orders they receive from elected political organs. Public administrations have, however, changed and moved towards more responsive practices under the influence of ideologies such as New Public Management and New Public Governance (see Chapter 4 in this book), and the deeper transformation of ‘governments’ to ‘governance’ in which administrators need to interact with outside agents, including citizens, to achieve its goals (Torfing et al., 2012). Administrators need, from a consumer-oriented perspective, to understand public needs if they are to develop and distribute effective public services, and to continuously assess the public’s satisfaction with these services (Vigoda, 2002). Administrators are expected, in more collaborative arrangements, to be involved in reciprocal interactions, which implies a mutual responsiveness characterized by open discussion, communication in partnership, and by co-decision making, for these to work (Bryer, 2009).
One-Way vs. Two-Way Communication
There is very little research that shows that government actors would be responsive on social media, despite the many assumptions that they are. Koc-Michalska et al. (2020) found, in an investigation of 279 parties’ Facebook pages during the European parliament elections of 2014, that these parties were more likely to avoid than to engage in interaction. Johansson (2019, p. 157) claims, based on research on Facebook profiles of ministers in Finland, Poland, and Sweden, that ‘most politicians use monologic (one-way) forms of communication and avoid dialogic forms of interactivity’. Enli’s (2015) study of Norwegian party leaders also shows that the primary ambition of politicians using social media is to control and build their image as politicians, and not to engage in a dialogue with citizens.
Studies of public administrations also indicate that they hardly ever interact with citizens on social media, a comprehensive literature review from 2017 concluding that content produced by government actors is consistently unidirectional, and the tone formal and neutral. Very few studies find active citizen responses to government posts (Medaglia & Zheng, 2017, p. 501), more recent research also finding similar results. Bonsón et al. (2019), in a study from Spain, found that municipalities mostly use Twitter for self-promotion, and that user engagement was mostly in the form of retweets and not replies. A study from Greece similarly shows that cities primarily use Facebook to create a favourable image of themselves, and do not encourage public engagement (Lappas et al., 2021).
One-way communication is the main plot of the story of political communication and bureaucracy’s use of social media. It is, however, not the only one, a number of studies showing that politicians and bureaucrats also engage in two-way communication. Larsson and Skogerbø (2018) point out that very few studies examine how social media is used by politicians in periods between elections, or how it is used by local or regional elected officials. This therefore does not pick up on the way in which local politicians play an interactive role. Politicians use social media to stage themselves and gain media attention. They, however, also use social media to talk and discuss with voters. This matches a pattern found in Norway, in which local politicians engage in a comprehensive two-way exchange with civil society actors through various communication channels, including digital channels (Hanssen, 2007; Lo & Vabo, 2020).
Studies of local governments’ social media accounts similarly tends to show that at least some of their tweets and posts consist of responses to users (Faber et al., 2020; Silva et al., 2019), or invitations to take part in online dialogue and seek input from the public (DePaula et al., 2018; Wukich, 2021). Mergel (2016) emphasizes that these practices vary between administrative units, some U.S. federal agencies for example focussing on pulling content and ideas from the public, others having moved from mainly providing information to mostly responding to users. A study of Canadian and US public transportation agencies found that they frequently try to engage with stakeholders, and often reply to users on their social media (Manetti et al., 2017).
Controlled vs. Responsive Interactivity
It is worth noting that interaction is not the same as responsiveness. Political actors and administrators can, however, only appear to be responsive, or interact in ways that do not qualify as responsive on social media. Stromer-Galley (2014) coined the term ‘controlled interactivity’ for this type of behaviour, and argued that politicians are not really interested in a genuine dialogue with voters, but in creating a ‘spectacle of interactivity’ to gain votes. Campaigns, according to Freelon (2017), tend to embrace the interactive nature of social media. They, however, only embrace this to ensure users ‘stay on message’, i.e. that there is a close correspondence between the political issues and terms that the candidates mention and those mentioned by supporters who share or respond to their messages.
Controlled interactivity is amply described in the political communication literature, but not mentioned or thematized in e-government or public administration studies. One exception is Gintova’s (2019) research on Canadian immigration authorities’ use of Twitter. She finds that these agencies do reply and react to users’ feedback, but that they do so in a very restrictive manner. They do not, for example, engage in conversations about policies in general or issues that they know to be controversial, and they avoid replying to tweets that are critical of their delivery of services.
I use the term responsive interactivity in this chapter to describe the opposite of controlled interactivity. ‘Responsive interactivity’ or ‘responsive interaction’ are sometimes used in social media studies, but never defined or described to any real extent. The terms intuitively suggest an activity in which social media users respond to, consider, and even act on posts, tweets, questions, comments, and other type of feedback from other users. I, however, take Esaiasson et al.’s (2013) definition of communicative responsiveness as a point of departure for a more precise definition. Communicative responsiveness requires three types of actions by politicians or administrators: Listening or the endeavour of informing oneself of the preferences of citizens, explaining or providing reasons for their actions, and adaption through making decisions or taking actions that are in line with the opinions expressed by citizens. Translated to social media activity, and broadened to include both politicians and bureaucrats, responsive interactivity involves (1) acquiring information on citizens’ opinions and grievances through social media, (2) responding to and explaining one’s stance and actions to users, and (3) adapting policies, programmes, projects, or services to their input. Action one and two in this definition are a part of process responsiveness, action three being a part of outcome responsiveness. All three actions must be performed to be truly responsive. Process responsiveness is, however, a prerequisite for outcome responsiveness, and is the only type of responsiveness I can deal with in this chapter given the nature of the data.
Some studies indicate that responsive interactivity is already a feature of government actors’ social media use in Norway, local politicians for example claiming in a report published by Kommunesektorens organisasjon (2017), that they use social media as a listening post. Through direct inquiries or by observing open discussions, they gain an overview of the issues that engage residents. The government actors also say that they bring social media feedback all the way to their own party organization, the municipal council, or the municipal administration. Data from Statistics Norway shows that the majority of Norwegian municipalities report that they use social media for interactive purposes, such as obtaining citizen reviews of and inputs on their services, and to respond to questions. A third of municipalities also say that they use social media feedback to improve their services.Footnote 3