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Controlled and Responsive Interactivity: What Politicians and Bureaucrats in Oslo Say About Their Social Media Use, and What This Might Mean for Democracy

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Abstract

The development and global diffusion of social media lead to high expectations among scholars and practitioners that this could improve democracy, including in cities. Empirical research has, however, cast doubt on these expectations, and found that governments and policy makers rarely use social media to increase public participation. This chapter therefore investigates how local politicians, communication officers and other administrators in the urban development policy area in Oslo, describe their social media activities. One main finding of this study is that their use of social media is more interactive than is often described in political communication and e-government research. Another is that this interaction contains elements of not only controlled, but also responsive, interactivity. The main contribution of the chapter is the development of the concept of ‘responsive interactivity’. This is defined as being an activity in which politicians and bureaucrats acquire information about citizens opinions and grievances through social media, respond to and explain their stance and their actions to the users, and adapt policies, programmes, projects, or services to the citizens’ input. This contributes to a more nuanced image of governments’ use of social media that emphasizes the interactive aspects, without subscribing to the idea that this alone will democratize politics and government.

Keywords

  • Social media
  • Responsiveness
  • e-government
  • Political communication
  • Democracy
  • Urban development

Introduction

Discussions around social media’s impact on democracy are multifaceted, scholarly attention having turned in recent years to the dark sides of social media, including misinformation, automated propaganda, echo chambers, political polarization, and hate speech (Persily & Tucker, 2020). Academics just a decade ago used terms such as ‘liberation technology’ (Diamond, 2010) and pointed out that social media could connect citizens directly to policy processes, give ordinary citizens a voice in discussions on urban development, and enable governments to crowd-source and co-produce services and solutions with its constituencies. This today seems a very long time ago (Bertot et al., 2012; Mergel, 2016).

A central aspect of the discussion is whether social media makes governments more responsive to citizens’ needs and preferences, the notion that digital development promotes responsiveness being popular in the e-government literature (Lee & Kwak, 2012; Moon, 2002; Siau & Long, 2005). Empirical investigations have, however, found that governments and policy makers rarely use social media to increase public participation (Bellström et al., 2016; Jukic & Svete, 2018; Reddick et al., 2017), Koc-Michalska et al. (2020, p. 1) saying that ‘there is broad consensus that digital technologies have had minimal effects on the nature of political communication’. Studies of public administrations have also shown social media to be mostly used for self-promotion or to unilaterally provide news and official information, but not to engage the public in the workings of government.

This chapter investigates how local politicians, communication officers, and other administrators in the urban development policy area in Oslo describe their social media activities, and asks what kinds of responsiveness, or absence of responsiveness, are reflected in these descriptions. The findings of this study challenge the dismal conclusion drawn above, and indicate that the use of social media by government officials is probably more interactive and responsive than we believe. I furthermore discuss, in the final section, what this alternate picture might mean for democracy.

Theory and Existing Research

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

Data and Methods

Sampling and Interviewees

The data in this study is from the semi-structured, in-depth interviews of 5 politicians and 9 bureaucrats from the municipality of Oslo (see Table 6.1). Two of the politicians and five of the bureaucrats operate at the municipality city level, the remainder operating in the inner-city district of Gamle Oslo, one of the city’s 15 administrative districts. The interviewees were asked to participate in the study because they either were politicians involved in urban development in Oslo, or because they worked with communication for or the administration of urban development projects in the city and district administrations. Both levels were included because the city district often acts, in urban development, as a mouthpiece for community demands. The district also runs an area-based initiative that seeks to improve living standards and life quality in two of its neighbourhoods. Area-based initiatives include urban development programmes that are particularly participation oriented (Atkinson & Zimmermann, 2018), in which higher levels of digital and analogue government-citizen interactions can probably be found.

Table 6.1 Interviewees

Case Selection

Oslo, being a particularly wealthy city in a rich country, is in many ways a probable case. Social media, computers, and smart phones have been around for a while. The government and population of Norway are therefore, based on this, likely to be at the forefront in the use of these for a variety of purposes. Norway, furthermore, has a popular democratic tradition, a well-functioning civil service, high levels of trust in government, and few instances of corruption. If responsive interactivity does exist as a phenomenon in government actors’ use of social media, then it should be found in Oslo. Norway is, on the other hand, not an extraordinary case. The political activity level of citizens on social media is, as in most other developed countries, not particularly high (Holst & Moe, 2021; van Dijk & Hacker, 2018; Chapter 4), the level of activity found in Oslo therefore probably also found in other countries where social media is widespread, and where trust in government institutions and levels of ‘good governance’ are quite high, as is typical in Nordic countries and The Netherlands.

Inductive and Constructivist Approach to Expert-Interviews

This study follows what Ragin (1994, p. 94) calls analytic induction, the prime concern of this being the extent to which an analytical image is refined, sharpened, and elaborated by the evidence. The main images in this chapter are controlled and responsive interactivity, the research ambition being not only to determine whether the descriptions of interviewees fit within these categories, but also to improve on the concept of using these descriptions. Understanding how the government actors approach social media interaction in urban development required the interviewing of persons who are responsible for municipal communication channels or otherwise have privileged access to the policy process. They constitute expert-interviews (Van Audenhove & Donders, 2019), and share some characteristics with elite interviews, the most important here being that interviewees may exaggerate their roles (Berry, 2002). This is a challenge, but not a necessarily a problem, when interpreting data. I do not purport to treat the interviewees statements as being true (or false) claims about what they really do, but rather as displays of experiences that are affected by dominant discourses and values (Silverman, 2001, p. 112).

Findings

Internet connection rates in Norway are high, and social media is omnipresent, 73 per cent of the adult population reporting that they use social media daily.Footnote 4 This estimate is probably higher for Oslo, with income and education levels being higher here than in the rest of the country. It is therefore no surprise that most of the city’s politicians and municipal agencies can be found on social media. The majority of the city council’s elected officials also have public profiles on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and most politicians in Gamle Oslo have an active Facebook-account.Footnote 5 The municipality has official profiles on most of these networking services for most of its agencies, and all agencies involved in urban development.Footnote 6 The district administration uses a variety of communication channels. However, ‘Facebook is the main channel’ (Bureaucrat 8). A number of the district’s projects, programmes, and services also have their own accounts, the area-based initiative mainly using Facebook.

Two-Way Communication

There is a difference between how politicians and bureaucrats describe their social media presence. Politicians mainly say that they use social media interactively. Some bureaucrats, however, focus mostly on the unilateral provision of information, others on dialogue.

For example, Politician 2 has two profiles on Facebook, one public and one private, using both randomly to stay in touch with local associations and action groups. She follows their Facebook-groups to stay updated on their concerns, and is contacted either by being tagged in a commentary field or being sent a direct message. Politician 1 says that ‘one cannot be a politician today without being contacted on multiple platforms’, Politician 5 stating that she is frequently contacted by residents via social media. Politicians 3 and 4 also describe how they use social media to obtain information on the opinions and grievances of inhabitants. It is important to note that the material also contains descriptions of self-promotion and information spreading by the politicians.

Bureaucrats at the district level primarily emphasize information sharing, Bureaucrat 7 for example saying that ‘the district administration’s page is perhaps mainly information’. Bureaucrat 9 from the area-based initiative confirms that they use social media ‘to inform about events, important processes, and to share good stories’. The district administration also claims that they try to stimulate public engagement. This is, however, always by directing citizens to other venues than the social media. Bureaucrats 4 and 6 explain that they regularly publish posts that encourage citizens to provide feedback on policy proposals or development plans. They, however, do this by redirecting them to other online platforms that do not have social networking functionalities, or to offline participation processes.

Communication officers at the city level, in contrast, stress that the main reason for using social media is to enter into a dialogue with citizens. Bureaucrat 1 states that the municipality’s goal is to have ‘as much citizen dialogue as possible’. He explains:

The public expects an answer. If you have a Facebook-page and don’t answer, people will be disappointed. You may ask what’s the point of having a Facebook-page if the public cannot enter a dialogue.

Bureaucrat 3 claims that ‘we never provide information, that’s the whole point of being on Facebook’. Behind this statement is the municipality’s policy to respond to all comments and messages, but not to push information. The district communication officer also shares this goal, her team having established a week day nights and weekend shift system to rapidly respond to feedback.

Descriptions of Controlled Interactions

Interaction is, as emphasized above, not the same as running a responsive social media operation. The remainder of this section therefore elaborates on the dimensions of controlled and responsive interactivity found in the interviews.

Avoiding Discussions, Correcting Misinformation, and Censoring Harassment

An example of controlled interaction is provided by Politician 2, who says that she rarely comments on discussions taking place on the Facebook-groups of local action groups, ‘because you can easily end up in discussions that lead nowhere’. She instead prefers to have the conversation by e-mail or meet in person, to promote a constructive dialogue. She is not trying to avoid discussion per se, just discussion that become uncontrollable in public. She therefore wants to conduct discussions in a space that she is familiar with, and that is beyond the public’s gaze.

Nearly all the bureaucrats said that they try to avoid discussions completely. When asked whether the district administration enters into Facebook-discussions, Bureaucrat 7 said:

What Do You Think They Should Discuss? We Are a Politically Neutral Organization and Are not Supposed to Have Opinions of Our Own. We Value that Quite Highly.

The administration’s role is to execute the policies passed by politicians, and cannot therefore become involved in discussions that appear political. As a result, administrators will either censor themselves on social media based on a Weberian administrative ideal, or they will try to manage the commentary field to prevent such discussions from emerging. This, regardless of the reason why, will appear to other users to be an unwillingness to respond to issues of political importance.

Another way of controlling interactivity is to correct or remove feedback, for example posts that bureaucrats feel contain misinformation or harassment. This is practised in most accounts, articulated here by Bureaucrat 4:

We don’t intervene and discuss anything. We don’t. What we sometimes can do […] is clarify things - correct things if it is important for us to display something. […] In cases of smears and insults, we simply contact the perpetrator and say that ‘either you delete your comment, because we don’t allow it, or we’ll hide it’.

Setting Up Positive Feedback

A subtler variant of controlled interactivity takes the form of pre-setting the tone of the interaction, which is achieved through the type of content published. This is close to what Freelon calls ‘staying on message’. The Agency for Urban Environment owns and moderates some of the most active Facebook-pages in the municipality. The agency’s central communication team, however, tightly controls which projects are allowed to establish a social media account. Bureaucrat 5, an agency manager who leads a number of urban development projects, said that she has never been allowed to establish a Facebook page for any of her projects. She believes that this is because the communication team only want projects that are non-controversial to have social media accounts. A project such as the pedestrian precinct in the city-centre will probably cause a lot of trolling once on social media, which then becomes unmanageable for the communication officers who are expected to respond to every comment. Bureaucrat 5 also has the impression that the communication team wants social media to be an arena for positive and pleasant agency responses:

[They have a person] there who writes a lot of replies like ‘How nice!’, ‘Thanks for your feedback!’, ‘I will check this up for you’, ‘So, that’s what you think? Well, thanks for your feedback!’. There is a lot of pleasantness.

Descriptions of Responsive Interactions

‘Listening in’, and Asking for Opinions

The politicians in this sample said that they use social media actively to listen to opinions circulating on social media, and to ask for citizens’ opinions on specific issues. This falls within online process responsiveness, politicians acquiring information on citizens opinions and grievances through social media channels. Politician 3 states that he uses Facebook ‘to find out what is buzzing [among citizens] and to pick up things’. Politician 4 makes an almost identical statement when explaining that she is a member of a number of Facebook-groups to gain insights into residents’ opinions. Her aim is ‘to pick up on what’s going on - to get an overview of peoples’ opinions’.

Politicians 3 and 4 said that they also actively obtained feedback through social media. Politician 3, for example, said that he may ask for feedback on issues that he is currently working on:

I have, in the last couple of years, posted perhaps eight to ten posts on the Facebook groups of residents’ associations. These posts have been on specific issues which I wanted feedback on, and I therefore asked for comments.

Politician 4 uses the Facebook page of her local party chapter to do the same:

It is also Used to Ask People What They Think About Different Issues. We Ask for Peoples’ Opinions, and We Get Quite a Bit of Feedback.

Responding to Questions and Complaints, Channelling Requests

The bureaucrats do not describe the use of this ‘listening’ to social media or asking for opinions. Their responsiveness is instead in the form of responding to questions, or channelling complaints and requests to the responsible departments. The most typical response is answering informational questions, normally through direct messages. Bureaucrat 4, for example, estimates that 60–70 per cent of user feedback is from informational questions, which can be immediately answered by the moderators. Inquiries that they cannot answer are forwarded to other relevant bodies in the district, or elsewhere in the municipality. They may also take an active role and push for a response if these units do not respond:

We may also forward them to another agency [when it is not an area] we are responsible for. […] If you are asking about something related to urban development, it may not be within our competence. […] In these cases we must find out who the responsible agency is and who they can talk to there. We pass the contact information on to them, or we say that we can add a comment on the agency’s Facebook-site, or that they must ask the question in an email to their official e-mail address. […] If they come back to us and say: ‘You know what? We never got an answer’. Then we say: ‘Okay, let us try’. […] We then often call the agency and ask. Sometimes we get clear answers that we can communicate back, or we are told that ‘this has to be sent to the official address to be included in the agency’s records’.

Receiving and forwarding social media inquiries is, according to the other bureaucrats, also common in their organizations. These sometimes, particularly when they are complaints about services, lead to concrete government action:

[…] When playground equipment is broken, we communicate [on Facebook] that we will come and fix it asap […], and then we can add a post that we have been there, seen it, and fixed it. Or when there is no water in a water fountain. Those sorts of things. (Bureaucrat 7)

Such reports of defects or failures are often reported directly by the social media moderators to Bymelding, a website and app on which citizens can report a local problem. These reports are automatically channelled to the service provider that is responsible for fixing it. Bureaucrat 3 calls this responsiveness ‘citizen service’ and claims that it is a precondition for a dialogue with the citizenry:

It is important that citizen service is in place, because without citizen service there is no citizen dialogue. No citizen will involve themselves in urban development if they don’t see that we are present and take them seriously when they report about potholes or uncleared snow.

Discussion

This study contradicts the picture drawn by political communication and e-government research, which mainly depicts social media use as being a one-way affair. The interviewees in this study firstly describe their social media use as mainly being interactive. The exception is the area-based initiative, who report that they lack the resources and skills to be as interactive as they would like to be, which is a common finding of studies of government use of social media (Falco & Kleinhans, 2018). Secondly it suggests that interaction involves elements of control and responsiveness. Controlled interactivity is, as a concept, well-established in the political communication literature, and is also identified as a phenomenon in studies of public administrations. Controlled interactivity is mainly described by the bureaucrats in this chapter as being the avoidance of discussions, the censoring of misinformation and harassment, and the setting up of the medium for positive feedback. Responsive interactivity is, in contrast, applied here to conceptualize politicians’ activities when (for example) elaborating on how they ‘listen to’ and ask for the opinions of residents on social media, and to bureaucrats responding and explaining to users through direct messages, and acting on their grievances where this is related to the services they provide.

Why this discrepancy? Political communication and e-government researchers often study the official social media accounts of politicians, parties, and government agencies (Koc-Michalska et al., 2020), which is of course important. These studies can, however, overlook the social media interaction between citizens and politicians and bureaucrats that takes place elsewhere, such as in the commentary fields on the pages or groups of resident associations, or through direct messages. We therefore need to apply methods other than the conventional approach to the study of this phenomenon, such as interviews or even the observation of such areas of communication.

Another reason why responsive interactivity largely has fallen outside the purview of e-government, and particularly of political communication studies, is that the data is normally drawn from politicians, parties, and campaigns at the national level, and not from municipalities or even city districts as I have done here. As Larsson and Skogerbø (2018) point out, politicians probably have a more interactive presence at the local level than at the national level, the politics and the struggle for power and position being much more pronounced at the national level. Political competition is, of course, an element of urban politics. However, as (Barber, 2013) argues, urban politics is more pragmatically oriented towards fixing things and finding solutions than ideological battles. The relationship between a municipal councillor and citizens is also much closer at this level, which makes it more susceptible to the kind of ‘strong’ democracy associated with responsive interactivity, rather than national politics.

An alternative explanation could, however, be that my study is unreliable and gives the wrong impression. It is, after all, based on a small sample and there is a risk it could be biased. Additional evidence from Oslo suggests, however, that the interview sample is not biased, but instead reflects a practice that is quite widespread among politicians and administrative units. The survey described in Chapter 4 of this book shows that around one third of the surveyed politicians in Oslo answer that they engage in dialogue with citizens through social media on urban development issues. Around one third also report that their political priorities on these issues are influenced by their contact with citizens on social media. Around 60 per cent of the bureaucrats who work in the areas of citizen participation and public communication also claim that their organization has a dialogue with citizens on social media.Footnote 7

Another possibility is that interviewees overestimate their responsiveness and level of interactivity on social media. This, in one way, is almost certainly the case. Elected officials are, according to generally accepted political norms, expected to be responsive to new information on public opinion and citizen needs that arise between elections. Bureaucrats, despite mainly being expected to be responsive to politicians, are also expected to be responsive to users and residents in issues that relate to planning and service delivery. Their statements are therefore in line with dominant discourses and values. It is, however, important to add that interactivity and a certain type of responsiveness also makes theoretical sense. Politicians will, given that responsiveness is a dominant political norm (Kane & Patapan, 2012), benefit from both appearing and actually being responsive to ‘ordinary’ citizens, especially at the local level where the ‘custodian’ role is prominent. New agendas emphasizing bureaucratic responsiveness have, at the administrative level, not only led to changes in discourses, but also in how administrators relate to the general public (Vigoda, 2002). It is therefore logical to assume that this has also affected their approach to communication.

Do politicians and bureaucrats, through being responsive to citizens on social media, improve democracy? Not necessarily. This study suggests that responsive interactivity does not preclude controlled interactivity, but may not necessarily provide a representative picture of what goes on in Oslo. Controlled interactivity, or even the absence of interactivity, could still therefore be most prevalent. The responsiveness portrayed in these descriptions is also a very limited form of responsiveness, the issues in this chapter which politicians ask for citizen participation being very local and of minimal importance to citizens’ lives. Further, this form of process responsiveness does not necessarily translate into outcome responsiveness, as politicians have the authority to disregard such input at will. This administrative responsiveness is therefore mainly transactional,Footnote 8 and consists of improving services in a way that resembles how private businesses relate to customer feedback. It is not, for example, related to the preparation of policy documents.

One can also turn the question on its head and ask whether social media responsiveness is, from a democratic point of view, desirable. Research concludes that the most politically active social media users are in a relatively privileged segment of the population (i.e. people with better income and education, and better access to political power) (Min, 2010), as Chapters 2 and 5 of this book also demonstrate. Policymakers being responsive mostly to these groups may therefore, in fact, lead to less and not more democracy.

Conclusion

The main contribution of this chapter is to distinguish responsive from controlled interactivity, and to define the former as an activity in which politicians and bureaucrats acquire information on citizens opinions and grievances through social media, respond to and explain their stance and their actions to the users, and adapt policies, programmes, projects, or services to citizens’ input. There are important limits to this study. Other data and theoretical expectations also, however, suggest that responsive interactivity may in fact be a notable aspect of the government officials’ social media use in Oslo. These findings are probably also valid for cities in other but similar contexts, such as the Nordic countries and The Netherlands.

One key lesson that the political communication and e-government literature can draw from this is, that one has to look beyond the official social media accounts of politicians, parties, and administrative units when looking for interactivity. The descriptions in this chapter of politicians and bureaucrats imply that their communication with citizens is more interactive and responsive than first meets the eye, but that this normally occurs through direct messages, and through social media accounts established to deal with specific issues, or on other users’ social media.

The other lesson is that we should be less cynical about social media. Not all politicians, or all bureaucratic organizations, try to control the social media space all the time. Having said that, this type of responsiveness is limited and probably has a modest effect on democracy, if it has any beneficial effect at all. The local politicians who take ‘regular’ citizens’ views on social media into consideration when voting in the council, most likely only do this for issues of minor importance, and the bureaucratic responsiveness described in this chapter is mostly transactional. This chapter therefore contributes to a more nuanced image of governments’ use of social media, one which emphasizes the interactive aspects without necessarily subscribing to the idea that these will, alone, democratize politics and government.

Notes

  1. 1.

    I slightly adapt the definition of responsiveness from Hobolt and Klemmemsen (2005) to encompass public administrations as well as politicians.

  2. 2.

    This is the case both in countries where this is most-likely (the US) and least-likely occur (The Netherlands) (Gilens & Page, 2014; Schakel, 2021).

  3. 3.

    Source: Statistics Norway (2019), https://www.ssb.no/statbank/table/12034/tableViewLayout1/ (last accessed 26.08.2021).

  4. 4.

    Statistics Norway: https://www.ssb.no/statbank/table/11437/tableViewLayout1/ (last accessed 07.09.2021).

  5. 5.

    Of the 58 regular representatives in the city council, 55 have a public profile on Facebook, 44 on Twitter and 35 on Instagram. Of the 51 elected officials in the Gamle Oslo city district’s councils, 43 are on Facebook, 25 on Twitter, and 17 on Instagram.

  6. 6.

    17 of 24 agencies are on Facebook, 12 on Twitter and 10 on Instagram. Many municipal agencies do not communicate with the public, which means that nearly all agencies involved in public communication can be found on at least one social network service.

  7. 7.

    The results from the survey of the politicians are still unpublished. Thanks to Kristin Reichborn-Kjennerud for providing the raw data.

  8. 8.

    Thanks to Ian McShane for pointing this out.

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Correspondence to Sveinung Legard .

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Legard, S. (2022). Controlled and Responsive Interactivity: What Politicians and Bureaucrats in Oslo Say About Their Social Media Use, and What This Might Mean for Democracy. In: Hovik, S., Giannoumis, G.A., Reichborn-Kjennerud, K., Ruano, J.M., McShane, I., Legard, S. (eds) Citizen Participation in the Information Society. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-99940-7_6

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