Using social media to inform policy making: to whom are we listening?

Fernández, Miriam; Wandhoefer, Timo; Allen, Beccy; Cano Basave, Amparo and Alani, Harith (2014). Using social media to inform policy making: to whom are we listening? In: European Conference on Social Media (ECSM 2014), 10-11 Jul 2014, Brighton, UK.



Domination of social media is giving today’s web users a venue for expressing their views and sharing their experiences with others. With well over a billion active users, social networking sites (SNS) have become dynamic sources of information on peoples’ interests, needs and opinions and are considered an extremely rich source of content to reach out to many millions of people. This is creating a revolutionary opportunity for governments to learn about the citizens and to engage with them more effectively. The potential is there for eParticipation applications to go from simply informing the public to unprecedented levels of interaction and engagement between Policy Makers (PMs) and the community, involving the public in deliberation processes leading to legislation.

Despite its great potential, several concerns arise from the exploitation of social media, especially when used to inform policy making. Among these issues we can highlight the lack of awareness of the characteristics of those citizens discussing policy topics in social media, and lack of awareness of the characteristics of their discussions. Although some studies have emerged in the last few years that aim to capture the demographics of social media users (e.g., gender, age, geographical locations) they tend not to focus on those specific users participating in policy discussions. Understanding who are the users discussing policy in social media and how policy topics are debated could help assessing how their views and opinions should be weighted and considered to inform policy making.

Aiming to provide a step forward in this direction, this paper investigates the characteristics of over 8K users involved in policy discussions in Twitter. These discussions were collected by monitoring, for one week, 42 different political topics selected by sixteen PMs from different political institutions in Germany. Our results indicate that: (i) a high volume of conversations around policy topics does not come from citizens, but from news agencies and other organisations, (ii) the average user discussing policy topics in Twitter is more active, popular and engaged than the average Twitter user and, (iii) users engaged in social media conversations around policy topics tend to be geographically concentrated in constituencies with high population density. Regarding the analysed conversations, a small subset of topics is extensively discussed while the majority go relatively unnoticed.

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