Social Media Effects on Civic Engagement – Cultivating the Social Pulse

Author
Ryan Betz, Graduate Research Assistant, AmeriCorps VISTA Fellow
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Understanding the effects of social media on civic engagement is growing in importance because more and more organizations are using social media to engage individuals and communities for civic action. The Institute of Public Policy (IPP) has investigated how an organization might begin to think through the relationship between an organization’s use of social media and its effects on civic engagement.

How might social media use affect civic engagement, and how might organizations use social media to cultivate it? To begin, social media allows almost anyone the opportunity to share information about social issues, which may encourage participation in a variety of community or international causes. Social media tools offer another means of empowerment for organizations and citizens to engage with many audiences on topics and issues where they demand attention and action. Civic engagement within social media and the promotion of civic activities can be defined as connections between people, as well as organizations, that contribute to the public good. An example of this is the reduction of second-hand smoke advisory campaign based on social media platforms. To illustrate this point, “if audience members engage with an organization via social media in successful advocacy to reduce public exposure to second-hand smoke from cigarettes, both have contributed to an improved condition that is conducive to health. As a result, the organization fulfills its responsibility and audience members benefit through improved air quality.” 1Organizations and individuals may now use social media with the goal of changing perspectives, behaviors, and even policies.2

Organizations that look to use social media to encourage civic action must then use social media strategically and build a social media presence. They must first understand why they are taking the social media approach and plan accordingly. Neiger et.al (2012) suggest that before attempting to create a social media presence….organizations and practitioners should consider four key strategic issues:

  • Decide what the organization is trying to accomplish with social media (e.g. goals and objectives);
  • Identify specific audiences of interest to the organization and its efforts and tailor strategies to invite them into the social media conversation;
  • Identify benefits the organization can offer audience members within the context of predetermined goals and objectives; and,
  • Identify what the organization wants audiences to do (e.g., create or promote content, participate or partner with the organization off-line).3

After developing a strategic social media stance, an organization can then work to build a social media presence. Warren et al. (2014) suggest that organizations build social media presence in three, sequential stages: low engagement, medium engagement, and high engagement. In the low engagement stage, an organization creates a social media presence, recruits and retains followers, engages in one-way messaging that mainly provides information, with the goal of establishing a critical mass of followers who can later engage with the organization. In the medium engagement stage an organization helps develop meaningful conversations compelling enough for followers to share the organization’s posted content with the goal of nurturing conversations to identify followers who are good candidates for program involvement. Finally, in the high engagement stage an organization mobilizes social media participants and partners to take actions that help the organization achieve its goals.

To conclude, several considerations emerge concerning social media use by public organizations. First, social media, in certain situations, can encourage civic engagement and build trust in institutions by connecting organizations with audiences in ways that both benefit, enabling both to contribute to improved conditions conducive to a healthy community.  But social media does not reach all populations, therefore it is important to consider a strategic approach to social median planning and use of online and offline communications. This is directly connected with the need for an organization to build a social media presence with the intention of going beyond one-way communication by moving through the process of low, medium, and high engagement. As a result, to evaluate social media effects, an organization should measure participation and partnership outcomes.

Endnotes:

1Neiger, B., Thackeray, R., Burton, S., Giraud-Carrier, C., & Fagen, M. (2013).  Evaluating Social Media’s Capacity to      Develop Engaged Audiences in Health Promotion Settings: Use of Twitter Metrics as a Case Study.  Health Promotion Practice, March 14(2), 157-162. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23271716

2,3Warren, A., Sulaiman, A., & Jaafar, N. (2014). Social Media Effects on Fostering Online Civic Engagement and Building Citizen Trust and Trust in Institutions. Government Information Quarterly, 31, 291-301. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0740624X14000367