Social Media and Policy: A Literature Review


Social media gives us more tools to talk about politics and policy.  Their effect on policy, changing how governments and citizens interact and policy is managed, is still open to discussion.  The following literature review examines this question and will serve as an extended introduction to my thesis- that social media does improve the interaction between citizens and governments and therefore improves policy making and outcomes- as well as my upcoming series of case studies.[1]

In the words of Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics: “the impetus for this [paper/project/extended blog post] arose from the perceptible assumption, increasingly found in the media, online and in a number of academic publications, that the widespread use of the Internet for social networking, blogging, video-sharing and tweeting has an elective affinity with participatory democracy.”[2]

Lay of the land

I have used Twitter in my own analyses to this point, as one of the most accessible and quantifiable tools for instantaneous exchange under the umbrella of “social media.”  Howard and Parks present a thorough definition in their “Social Media for Political Exchange: Capacity, Restraint, and Consequence”:

“social media consists of (a) the information infrastructure and tools used to produce and distribute content that has individual value but reflects shared values; (b) the content that takes the digital form of personal messages, news, ideas, that becomes cultural products; and (c) the people, organizations, and industries that produce and consume both the tools and the content.”[3]

In short, a digital ecosystem, where everything from the “soil” of the platform to the most followed and visible apex users is alive and interacting.  Institutions and individuals can communicate directly in an open, closed, and something-in-between forums.

According to “Information, Community, and Action: How Nonprofit Organizations Use Social Media,” 73 of 100 of the top American nonprofits in 2009 had Twitter accounts.[4]  They tweeted an average of 66 times over the course of 30 days. 58.6% of their tweets were informational; 25.8% coded as  “community” communications, responding and acknowledging; and 15.6% were “action”- promoting, selling, lobbying, etc.

Similar categories are identified by 2017 review of studies on social media in the public health sector (“transparency/accountability, democratic participation, and co-production,” with the addition of “evaluation,” or reviews via social media).[5]  The review finds that most information sharing flowed between governments and citizens.  A study of Italian official account tweets names their similar “communication goals” “promotional, informative, [and] participative,” and shows limited interaction with societal actors.[6]  “Understanding Twitter™ Use among Parliament Representatives: A Genre Analysis” finds Twitter predominately used by representatives to disseminate information, with 24% posting links to information.  Most deliberation is between representatives, not with citizens or requesting their input- 16% to 2.5%.[7]

These categories, and the tendency to silo discussion, may be so prevalent because this is basically how institutions behave on Twitter.  More broadly, they may reflect what we all do on Twitter, and maybe social media generally.[8]

The Twiplomacy data set shows that 92.23% of UN member countries have Twitter accounts.  They average around 400,000 followers and 3.37 tweets per day over the lives of their accounts.  This comparison shows that there are a lot more government bodies represented on Twitter than top 100 NGOs, and that they tweet a lot less- although we are looking at two different time scales at two different times.  Additionally, both personal and institutional accounts count towards national representation.

That brings up the interesting issue of how the type of government or account plays a role in the behavior of the account.  While looking at Europe I did not examine the EU Twitter accounts, because their inclusion would complicate the otherwise more straightforward task of comparing national outcomes.[9]  I did find that royal accounts in the Middle East were highly followed and interactive, accounts linked to individuals or individual offices were highly interactive, and the accounts tweeting the most were all institutional.[10]

This could fit into the findings of the non-profit study: the institutional accounts acted primarily as informants while the personal accounts were for community and action.  A more definite comparison will require coding the tweets by intention.  Further, we have not evaluated the behaviors of governments on platforms other than Twitter.

Social media and opinion

“Flames and Debates: Do Social Media Affect Satisfaction with Democracy?” finds that, in Europe, Internet usage has not made people more satisfied with democracy.  Consumption of online news from traditional sources has a positive impact, and from social media a negative.[11]  Catie Snow Bailard writes in a 2011 article that, in advanced democracies, the internet is positively correlated with satisfaction in the functioning of the democracy, while negatively correlated in weaker democracies.[12]

Any findings are likely impacted by the dispersion of broadband across and within countries.  For city-readers, internet access seems ubiquitous.  But it isn’t, not even across the United States: 10% of Americans don’t have access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.[13]  Stoycheff and Nisbet’s 2014 article finds that both individuals’ internet use and the presence of internet hardware shape perceptions of democracy and democratic preferences.[14]

For the connected, although It seems like social media is a driving force for information-gathering and sharing, the evidence for that too is shaky.  “Wired Voters” shows that Irish voters are more politically uncertain because of their use of the internet for political information.[15]  But this finding may actually be positive for online political conversations as a whole, because uncertainty could indicate a questioning of baseline ideals and in-groups.

The role of individual constructs, as discussed by Richard Lau in “Construct Accessibility and Electoral Choice,” may be part of limiting the effect of access of information on informed decision making.[16] Bias and generalization can be especially problematic when trying to process the constant stream of new information provided by social media.  Even if the stream is not a much-discussed “bubble” of look-alike opinions, it can be difficult to keep up with both personal confirmation bias and the unrelenting flow.  If this was true for Professor Lau in 1989, it is certainly even more relevant in the tiny-interconnected-computers-in-hand era.

There is evidence of the existence of the aforementioned bubble.  Ceron and Memoli’s 2015 cross-sectional analysis discusses these echo-chambers in European media and politics, finding that media slant reinforces existing opinions and that “counter-attitudinal” information has little effect.[17]  “Getting Political on Social Network Sites: Exploring online political discourse on Facebook” showed that 73% of posters discussing political issues in a Facebook group support the position of the group.[18]  When the European Economic and Social Council analyzed its own interactions online, it found that its “extensive, far reaching social media presence” was handicapped in establishing in-depth engagement by content that extended only “to a select community of like-minded social media users and civil society organizations.”[19]  This is likely impacted by how information is diffused: for new information, through abundant, weak ties- but influence flows through stronger bonds.[20]

A Pew study demonstrates that people are more likely to talk about an issue (the Snowden-NSA leaks) in person than online, 86% to 42%; that those unwilling to speak in person are not turning to social media to do so; and that regular social media users were less likely to discuss their opinions in person, especially if they believed their followers didn’t agree with them.[21]  The study also finds that people are more likely to speak up or post when they believe others agree.

This research seems to indicate a “spiral of silence” in addition to an echo chamber.  Better information and interaction comes from a more diverse following and conversation, which needs to be actively cultivated by the government accounts.

But another part of the problem may be creating an environment where people feel engaged and free to share their opinions and engage in civil discussion.  Governments may need to learn how to effectively use a variety of platforms and methodologies. The EESC analysis showed that social media consultations were informative to a wider audience than the traditional consultations, but the paper advises integrating these new consultations with the traditional consultations and experts’ studies, rather than replacing them.[22]

Social media and participation

People’s civic involvement could be impacted by their online discussions. “Social capital online: Collective use of the Internet and reciprocity as lubricants of democracy” finds that social capital in the forms of trust and reciprocity online are good indicators of online political participation, and that that participation can spill over into offline effects as well.[23]  A 2014 meta-analysis shows that there is a positive correlation between citizens’ political and civic participation and social media use.[24]  “Political Use of the Internet, Political Attitudes and Political Participation” demonstrates that Internet use, at least in the late 2000s, preceded political interest and participation.[25]  However, in a 2009 survey, researchers found that ” reliance on social networking sites is significantly related to increased civic participation, but not political participation” (my emphasis).[26]

On the other side, another 2009 meta-analysis finds internet use to have a limited, if any, effect on political or civic engagement, although it may be growing over time.[27]  For American college students in 2008, social media use was not highly related to political efficacy or involvement, although traditional internet use was.[28] For 16 year old Belgians, time spent online does not mean time spent participating politically.[29]

At the same time, when comparing either side of the “digital divide” in the early 2000s, Jennings and Veitner show that the internet has actually helped shrink the “pre-Internet gap in civic engagement.”[30]  Anecdotally, Nigerian university students, almost universally Facebook users, feel that social networking has been a boon for participatory democracy in a variety of policy areas.[31]

Regardless of whether people are more or less active politically when using social media, if people are developing and posting their political opinions online, and they are, it would then be valuable for governments to use social media tools to harness and shape the opinions of constituents.[32]

Social media and policy

Governments can look to social media to connect them with general public sentiment as well as expert opinion- crowdsourcing their constituents, or “citizensourcing.”[33] Able to directly interact with policymakers, or at least their staff, citizens can constantly hold their representatives responsible.  CitizenLab, a citizen engagement platform, cites examples in Colombia, Iceland, and France where citizensourcing projects generated thousands of responses, and resident’s ideas becoming local polices and projects.[34]  Open data, and transparency in general, can not only improve citizens’ satisfaction and approval of their government, but can give them tools to directly influence policy.  Civic hackers like with Data for Democracy or Chi Hack Night take advantage of the data made available by governments to improve them and hold them accountable.

As William Duton points out in “Networking Distributed Public Expertise: Strategies for Citizen Sourcing Advice to Government,” however, the term “crowd sourcing” can be a bit of a misnomer, because effectively managing and using large networks, as well as the data they create, requires active platforms and management.[35]  On the input side, not all citizens have the skills or abilities necessary to contribute to e-government.[36]  This may need to be addressed through policy changes.

Additionally, the opinions of some may be more valuable than others.  Expert advice can help inform policy discussions and outline not just editorial but empirical support for policies.  One of the limiting factors of the impact of social media on public policy could be governments’ ability to use the range of public opinion and expert advice they are given so freely.[37]

When I examined Europe’s Twiplomacy data, I considered the possibility of other governments acting as experts and case studies, and the impact of government peer connections in “building an international policy consensus [and] establishing norms and systems which in turn could lead to more fluid diplomacy, economic coordination, and peaceful growth.”[38]  One study, from 2013, examines the South Korean central government’s tweets and show that ministries’ networking with citizens does not “necessarily motivate their participation,” but does help reinforce government to government relationships.[39]  This interaction needs to be investigated further to make more general conclusions about how governments are interacting using social platforms.

As pointed out in “The Impact of Social Media in the Public Sector,” citizens use social media tools increasingly and daily, and there is an expectation that governments can interact with them using the platforms as well.[40]  However, “Use of social media for e-Government in the public health sector: A systematic review of published studies” finds insufficient evidence to prove the efficacy of public health sectors’ use of social media for e-government.[41]  Several studies in the review did elude to the influence of citizens on policy decisions discussed in a social media setting.  There may be some evidence of governments already working with citizens, and possibly each other, effectively on social media.


There is a risk of being too idealistic or pessimistic when it comes to discussing the opportunities presented by social media.  As utopian or dystopian visions dance with each new technological step, it is important to remember how all the steps before have become mundane facts of life.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the role social media has played in several major political changes and movements, from Ukrainian Euromaidan protests to high profile resignations.[42]  I myself was originally interested in the role of social media in promoting democracy, but it could be equally effective in circumventing it.

It is difficult to make blanket statements about effects.  Local conditions, like internet access and the structure of the political systems, play a role in how countries use social media differently and how their policy may be impacted.  Additionally, there seem to be at least two kinds of social media conversations happening simultaneously: informative and discursive.

Governments will likely have to learn to understand those conversations and engage effectively across a range of platforms.  But there are also dozens of platforms.  While most studies examined the easily quantifiable and generally open Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Whatsapp, Google+, and others are used to varying degrees for varying purposes around the world, and their role has been understudied.  In addition, the vogue platforms and how they are used is constantly shifting.

At the same time, much of the social media research is rooted in the communications principles outlined in works dating back to the mid-century and earlier.  In the face of all these hopes, worries, and research, there is definitely an argument to be made that the way governments interact with citizens has not fundamentally changed for half a century.


Overall, research hardly seems conclusive.  There are unlimited confounding variables, and so many ways to walk the same road.  And, just as excitingly, the platforms and networks are in constant flux.  Anything we find today could be more or less true tomorrow.  But we do know that there are a whole lot of us online, talking over, around, past, and to each other, for whatever that’s worth.  Reports of the death of democracy, to this point, are clearly exaggerated.

Going forward into my own projects, this literature landscape illuminates some of the potential variables and pitfalls I will likely run across examining individual nations.  There needs to be a baked in awareness of the cultural, social, technological, economic, and political conditions playing a role in how social media is used by both citizens and governments.  Every interpretation will be up for debate.

If you would like to be part of it, please keep an eye on for upcoming social media and policy national case studies and other, completely unrelated, work.

[1] Using Twitter and World Bank data, I compared the use of governments’ social media participation and policy outcomes.  From these comparisons, I identified possible national examples of this thesis.  Going forward, I plan to look at them each one at a time to evaluate if and why social media has had an impact on policy outcomes.

[2] Loader, Brian D., and Dan Mercea, eds. Social media and democracy: Innovations in participatory politics. Routledge, 2012.

[3] Howard, Philip N., and Malcolm R. Parks. “Social media and political change: Capacity, constraint, and consequence.” Journal of communication 62, no. 2 (2012): 359-362.

[4] Lovejoy, Kristen, and Gregory D. Saxton. “Information, community, and action: How nonprofit organizations use social media.” Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication 17, no. 3 (2012): 337-353.

[5] Tursunbayeva, Aizhan, Massimo Franco, and Claudia Pagliari. “Use of social media for e-Government in the public health sector: A systematic review of published studies.” Government Information Quarterly (2017).

[6] Leone, Stefania, and Angela Delli Paoli. “The social media communication flows of Italian Institutions. A framework analysis for public and political communication on Twitter.” Comunicazione politica 17, no. 3 (2016): 393-424.

[7] Sæbø, Øystein. “Understanding Twitter use among parliament representatives: A genre analysis.” Electronic participation 6847 (2011): 1-12.

[8] Ifeanyi J. Ezema, Christian S. Ezeah, Benedict N. Ishiwu. 2015. “Social Networking Services: A New Platform for Participation in Government Programmes and Policies among Nigerian Youths.” ibres 25 (1): 33-49.

[9] La Fleur, Christina. 2017. “Twitter and Policy Outcomes- Mid Eurasia and Northern Africa.” Christina Marie La Fleur. July 23. Accessed November 15, 2017.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ceron, Andrea, and Vincenzo Memoli. “Flames and debates: do social media affect satisfaction with democracy?.” Social indicators research 126, no. 1 (2016): 225-240.

[12] Bailard, Catie Snow. “Testing the Internet’s effect on democratic satisfaction: A multi-methodological, cross-national approach.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 9, no. 2 (2012): 185-204.

[13] Federal Communications Commission. 2016. “2016 Broadband Progress Report.” January 29. Accessed November 15, 2017.

[14] Stoycheff, Elizabeth, and Erik C. Nisbet. “What’s the bandwidth for democracy? Deconstructing Internet penetration and citizen attitudes about governance.” Political Communication 31, no. 4 (2014): 628-646.

[15] Sudulich, Laura, Matthew Wall, and Leonardo Baccini. “Wired voters: The effects of Internet use on voters’ electoral uncertainty.” British Journal of Political Science 45, no. 4 (2015): 853-881.

[16] Lau, Richard R. “Construct accessibility and electoral choice.” Political Behavior 11, no. 1 (1989): 5-32.

[17] Ceron, Andrea, and Vincenzo Memoli. 2015. “Trust in Government and Media Slant: A Cross-Sectional Analysis of Media Effects on Twenty-Seven European Countries.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 20 (3): 339-359.

[18] Kushin, Matthew J., and Kelin Kitchener. “Getting political on social network sites: Exploring online political discourse on Facebook.” First Monday 14, no. 11 (2009).

[19] Semantica Research. 2012. Study on Social Media and Social Networking as Agents of Participatory Democracy and Civic Empowerment. European Economic and Social Committee.

[20] Bakshy, Eytan, Itamar Rosenn, Cameron Marlow, and Lada Adamic. “The role of social networks in information diffusion.” In Proceedings of the 21st international conference on World Wide Web, pp. 519-528. ACM, 2012.

[21] Hampton, Keith N., Harrison Rainie, Weixu Lu, Maria Dwyer, Inyoung Shin, and Kristen Purcell. Social media and the ‘spiral of silence’. PewResearchCenter, 2014.

[22] Semantica Research. 2012. Study on Social Media and Social Networking as Agents of Participatory Democracy and Civic Empowerment. European Economic and Social Committee.

[23] Kobayashi, Tetsuro, Ken’ichi Ikeda, and Kakuko Miyata. “Social capital online: Collective use of the Internet and reciprocity as lubricants of democracy.” Information, Community & Society 9, no. 5 (2006): 582-611.

[24] Boulianne, Shelley. “Social media use and participation: A meta-analysis of current research.” Information, Communication & Society 18, no. 5 (2015): 524-538.

[25] Wang, Song-In. “Political use of the Internet, political attitudes and political participation.” Asian Journal of Communication 17, no. 4 (2007): 381-395.

[26] Zhang, Weiwu, Thomas J. Johnson, Trent Seltzer, and Shannon L. Bichard. “The revolution will be networked: The influence of social networking sites on political attitudes and behavior.” Social Science Computer Review 28, no. 1 (2010): 75-92.

[27] Boulianne, Shelley. “Does Internet use affect engagement? A meta-analysis of research.” Political communication 26, no. 2 (2009): 193-211.

[28] Kushin, Matthew James, and Masahiro Yamamoto. “Did social media really matter? College students’ use of online media and political decision making in the 2008 election.” Mass Communication and Society 13, no. 5 (2010): 608-630.

[29] Quintelier, Ellen, and Sara Vissers. “The effect of Internet use on political participation: An analysis of survey results for 16-year-olds in Belgium.” Social Science Computer Review 26, no. 4 (2008): 411-427.

[30] Kent Jennings, M., and Vicki Zeitner. “Internet use and civic engagement: A longitudinal analysis.” Public Opinion Quarterly 67, no. 3 (2003): 311-334.

[31] Ifeanyi J. Ezema, Christian S. Ezeah, Benedict N. Ishiwu. 2015. “Social Networking Services: A New Platform for Participation in Government Programmes and Policies among Nigerian Youths.” ibres 25 (1): 33-49.

[32] Nam, Taewoo. “Suggesting frameworks of citizen-sourcing via Government 2.0.” Government Information Quarterly 29, no. 1 (2012): 12-20.

[33] Androutsopoulou, Aggeliki, Francesco Mureddu, Euripidis Loukis, and Yannis Charalabidis. “Passive Expert-Sourcing for Policy Making in the European Union.” In International Conference on Electronic Participation, pp. 162-175. Springer International Publishing, 2016.


[35] Dutton, William H. “Networking distributed public expertise: Strategies for citizen sourcing advice to government.” (2011).

[36] Gohar Feroz Khan, Junghoon Moon, Cheul Rhee, Jae Jeung Rho. 2010. “E-government Skills Identification and Development: Toward a Staged-Based User-Centric Approach for Developing Countries.” Asia Pacific Journal of Information Systems 20 (1).


[38] La Fleur, Christina. 2017. “Twitter and Policy Outcomes- Europe.” Christina Marie La Fleur. June 11. Accessed November 15, 2017.

[39] Feroz Khan, Gohar, Ho Young Yoon, Jiyoung Kim, and Han Woo Park. “From e-government to social government: Twitter use by Korea’s central government.” Online Information Review 38, no. 1 (2014): 95-113.

[40] Karakiza, Maria. “The impact of social media in the public sector.” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 175 (2015): 384-392.

[41] Tursunbayeva, Aizhan, Massimo Franco, and Claudia Pagliari. “Use of social media for e-Government in the public health sector: A systematic review of published studies.” Government Information Quarterly (2017).



Note:  The image is of Lisbon in October.


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