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TWITTER: A Potential Tool for Policymaking in Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lorita Copeland Daniels
March 27, 2023

Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms with approximately 320 million active users and over 500 million daily posts. Today, not only is Twitter a necessary platform for disseminating information by individual users, but it is also a way for government entities to connect to the public.

In Boston, Twitter users communicate concerns or city needs with rapid responses from public officials (@CityOfBoston). The New York City Parks’ Twitter page shares important information about upcoming programs or opportunities for active community member participation (@NYCParks). Twitter hashtags have also been an incredibly effective method for bringing attention to important issues and addressing government policies (#blacklivesmatter, #americanrescueplan, #sotu, etc.). These examples highlight the potential value of Twitter for promoting transparency, openness and public involvement.

Twitter can offer citizens an opportunity to peer inside the infrastructure of politics and provide input to government decision-making. But, many government agencies still need help using social media to interact with the public effectively. Recent Pew Research data, reveals that even though nearly all government legislators have Twitter accounts, and Tweet at least once a day, they only receive a small number of likes and retweets. Is there a better way to engage with constituents?

The widespread use of social media and smartphone access has the potential to build meaningful relationships between citizens and local government officials by facilitating participation in policy and decision-making. Current scholarship has only recently recognized the value of external voices, creating spaces for democratic governance and citizen involvement. For Twitter specifically, according to Stone, Flanders and Can in a 2022 Government Information Quarterly article titled , “Strategic Communication? Measurement and Evaluation of Twitter use among Municipal Governments,” there is not a sufficient presence of goals, policies, procedures and metrics to consider Twitter a formal, strategic communication tool for participating municipalities. So, is Twitter an effective method for strategic communication between government agencies and constituents?

Governments should not simply use social media because it is popular, but rather examine its effectiveness and acknowledge its ability to correct or improve organizational performances and service delivery programs. Social media is a way to ensure officials hear from those most impacted by agency decisions and prioritize their involvement in the decision-making process. The question becomes, how do we expect citizens to co-produce when we give them few opportunities to do so? 

One innovative way for citizens to get involved is through a structured social media platform that not only feeds the public information but captures information to inform policy decisions. To examine whether Twitter content has the potential to invite citizens into the decision-making circle, I focused my attention on the extent to which tweet content, used here as policy narratives, might inform policy or contribute to policy discussions.

We coded 263 tweets using #UvaldeMassacre and #UvaldeStrong with 100 or more likes, and were posted between May 25th-26th, 2022. Hashtags such as #Uvalde were ignored because the focus was on the Robb Elementary School shooting. After review, these hashtags were most used after the shooting.

Most tweet content in this sample focused on the victims, as opposed to villains and heroes. About 17 percent (45) of the tweets included solutions. Solutions were categorized as micro or macro. Micro solutions are small scale solutions, such as users asking others to perform an action to create awareness that could lead to a future policy discussion. In this case, they asked others to contact elected officials or tweet specific hashtags to a police department. Macro solutions, however, are larger, systematic solutions, such as a specific policy outcomes. For macro, a solution might be the need for a gun control policy reform or the retraining of officers in a police department.

Our findings suggest that engagement through a social media platform could help inform policy decisions and discussions. By allowing citizens to participate on an organized and coordinated platform, those closest to the problem are allowed to offer solutions, speak about perceived wrongdoings and share needs for improvement. Therefore, for government to improve its policy outcomes and public approvals, it must take note of how citizens respond through social media outlets (like Twitter).

Where do we go from here? First, government officials must find ways to engage citizens in a meaningful and productive way, using innovative mechanisms that are already accessible to the majority, such as Twitter. Since Twitter has become a tool for engaging with one another on an individual level, the government must find a way to embrace this platform and use it to inform and gauge their performance.

There are certainly successful examples, such as the one from The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which have successfully hosted a discussion on the department’s Open Government progress to gather input and apply what they learned from the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Twitter Townhall.  

Further, with the growing complexity of social media and civic engagement, government officials must go beyond “likes” or hashtags. Instead, agencies must develop ways for citizens to contribute to policy discussions and decisions in effective, meaningful ways. Twitter might just be one method for transforming social participation and, ultimately, government policies.

Author: Lorita Copeland Daniels is an adjunct professor in the Master of Public Administration and Policy Program at American University and a Local Government Board Member.  Email: [email protected] Twitter @DanielsLorita

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