E-lectoral Engagement

Updated: 20 February 2013

Jim Macnamara
University of Technology Sydney

Benefits and opportunities

  1. A number of electoral management bodies (EMBs) and other government departments and agencies, as well as political parties and politicians in Australia and internationally, have demonstrated that social media afford new opportunities for engaging citizens in democratic processes. These opportunities have both quantitative and qualitative dimensions, as follows:
    1. Because the readership, listenership and viewership of traditional media (press, radio and television) are declining among most demographic groups, particularly among young people, and use of social media is increasing rapidly, these forms of media offer increased access to voters and potential voters;
    2. Because social media are interactive, they offer qualitatively improved opportunities in mediated communication. Whereas traditional mass media primarily involve one-way transmission of information top-down from elites (government, businesses, institutions, etc.), social media provide two-way interactive and participative engagement with citizens – specifically, they allow citizens to have a say and be heard (to some extent1), they allow citizens to ask questions and seek information directly relevant to their needs and interests, and they afford discussion and participation. Psychological research shows that engagement is enhanced through the affordance of voice and participation and, conversely, that it is much less achieved through one-way information flow.
  2. Social media can offer cost savings compared with use of traditional mass media, as well as access to low-cost and no-cost metrics for measurement and evaluation.

Contingent factors affecting and limiting e-democracy initiatives

  1. However, there are a number of contingent factors that mitigate the effectiveness of organisational use of social media, including the following:
    1. A substantial proportion of social media use is personal and entertainment-orientated, focussed on self-identity construction and what organisations regard as trivia;
    2. Because social media are usually open to anyone to comment, social media can disseminate criticism, as well as other disruptive information such as spoofs, parodies, 'send-ups' and satire. There are, therefore, risks to assess and manage;
    3. Social media sites need to attract audiences. Audiences are not pre-assembled, as they are with mass media. New social media sites start 'from scratch' in terms of audience and need to engage in audience-making as well as content production – a factor overlooked in many social media initiatives (see Macnamara, 2012 and footnote 1). Static informational sites usually do not attract significant audiences. Rather, content needs to be attractive to target demographics, often requiring multimedia and interactive content (even games), as well as opportunities for visitors to comment and even contribute their own content.
      Many social media sites have relatively small audiences – e.g. in 2010, 97 per cent of Twitter users had fewer than 100 followers (DigitalBuzz, 2010) and, at March 2011, the average Facebook user had just 130 friends (Kraut & Resnick, 2011, p. 97);
    4. Interactivity in social media, which in successful sites can result in substantial numbers of inquiries, questions and comments requiring reception, consideration and response, can have considerable resource implications for host organisations. Technology can partly provide solutions (such as automated monitoring, alert systems and acknowledgements). However, consideration of comments, questions and inquiries also requires human resources and can take considerable time of staff and management to listen and respond. Organisations engaging in social media need to have an "architecture of listening" (as well as for talking) and be prepared to do the work of listening (Macnamara, 2012). This requires human resources as well as technology (see p. 26);
    5. Failure to listen and respond appropriately in social media can result in damage to the organisation and be worse than not using social media at all. Becoming overwhelmed by or ignoring citizens' comments, questions and inquiries usually causes resentment and may lead to criticisms of the organisation online across multiple platforms and sites. Furthermore, heavy moderation (such as removing critical comments) can offend social media users who have high expectations in terms of freedom of expression. 'Light moderation' policies are recommended and these require tolerant and supportive management.

      Further macro-level contingent factors relating to the use of social media for political engagement warrant a separate main point (see point 4).

Macro-level considerations affecting e-democracy initiatives

  1. In the political environment, social media are most effective in engaging citizens in new, non-traditional forms of political participation such as single 'issue politics' and direct action (e.g. Occupy and Kony 2012). Research indicates that social media are less effective in engaging citizens in traditional forms of political participation. While generalisations should be avoided, to a significant extent social media users:
    • Are most closely associated with actualising citizens rather than dutiful citizens – that is, citizens seeking self-expression, to have their say and be listened to and to participate on their terms rather than through formal institutional processes such as elections (Bennett, et al., 2011, p. 839);
    • Seek maximalist rather than minimalist forms of democratic participation (Carpentier, 2011, p. 17) – the former including micro-participation (such as regular consultation, local and special interest group participation and online engagement) as well as macro-participation (e.g. voting in elections);
    • Engage in multiple sites of information and participation – i.e. multi-sited participation rather than mono-sited participation (Carpentier, 2011, p. 18);
    • Engage in agonistic rather than deliberative ways involving diversity of views rather than consensus, dissent as well as consent, and expression of views and political struggle rather than "rational debate" and deliberation advocated in deliberative forms of democracy (Carpentier, 2011; Mouffe, 1994; Shaw, 2012) (see pp. 22–25).
    Some researchers identify the emergence of "a new civic paradigm", particularly among young people. Longer term and more broadly, beyond the scope of this study, governments may need to review and reconsider the ways in which citizens are afforded democratic participation, including the way elections are conducted (see pp. 22–25).
  2. The contingent factors identified in findings 3 and 4 indicate that social media can provide effective channels for electoral management bodies (EMBs) to engage citizens in traditional democratic processes such as enrolling to vote and voting formally in elections to some extent. But social media do not offer a panacea for political engagement and for reinvigorating the public sphere. Case studies presented in this report from Australia, New Zealand and other countries show examples of effective engagement, as well as limitations to be noted and lessons to be learned.
  3. The changing nature of civic engagement and political participation referred to in finding 4, together with the relatively small audience size of many social media sites (compared with large mass media), mean that social media offer complementary and supplementary channels of communication and should be integrated within overall communication strategies.

Key practical and operational considerations for EMBs

  1. From analysis of case studies of electoral management bodies undertaking initiatives to engage citizens in democratic participation online, a number of important practical and operational considerations and themes are identified, including most notably the following:
    1. Loss of control of the message – that communicators ever had control is disputed by communication and social science scholars, noting that audiences interpret information in various ways and that meaning is influenced by social interaction, culture and many factors other than media messages. Even if communicators could control the messages they distribute, they undoubtedly have never been able to control meaning, which is the central element of communication. Notwithstanding, in social media there is even less control over messages and channel use. Some see social media as the 'Wild West', while others see it as a democratisation of media and public communication. Whichever view is taken, the lack of control of conversations and even topics in social media engagement needs to be recognised and accepted by organisations participating online and this is a key issue for government bodies engaging in social media (See 'governance');
    2. Resource implications – Four out of five EMBs studied and more than 50% of all case studies reported resourcing as a key issue in establishing, maintaining and engaging in social media. Stagnant, out-of-date sites can have negative impact on an organisation. Furthermore, the 24/7 nature of social media places heavy demands on staff (including overtime) and the potential for large volumes of public comment and discussion poses a challenge to organisational listening and capability to respond;
    3. Supportive senior management – senior management needs to be supportive of social media initiatives and prepared to take some risks. These can be mitigated through planning, the engagement of staff with experience and expertise in social media platforms and adherence to the protocols and conventions of social media, but some risks remain. This also means that there needs to be trust by senior management in staff responsible for social media engagement. Without senior management support and leadership, e-democracy initiatives either do not get off the ground or remain limited in scope;
    4. The need for a champion and specialist expertise – in addition to having senior management 'on side', most organisations achieving some success in social media report leadership by a champion within the organisation and also engagement of specialist staff or consultants to assist and advise;
    5. Decentralisation of communication – effective social media engagement is, to a significant extent, a reversal of the centralisation of corporate and organisational communication that has occurred over the past 100 years into PR and communication departments and units. To meet the diverse and large-scale demands of social media engagement and also to be authentic, a key requirement of social media engagement, online communication needs to be delegated to a number of staff in an organisation – even all staff. This has significant implications for training and governance (see next point);
    6. Social media governance – decentralisation of communication through social media should be done only within a sound governance framework. Governance in the context of social media is identified in European and Australasian research studies as including:
      • Social media policies;
      • Specific social media guidelines for staff;
      • Training of staff; and
      • Monitoring of social media (Zerfass, Fink & Linke, 2011; Macnamara & Zerfass, 2012);
    7. Most EMBs, departments and agencies start using social media internally, before going public. This offers a learning ground and minimises risks. However, overall, internal social media tools such as Yammer (an internal microblogging service) and 'white box' social networks are rarely used on an ongoing basis by government organisations. This could be a neglected area of engagement for some;
    8. Most social media use by EMBs is event-basedthat is, focussed on election periods, with many struggling to find ways to keep citizens interested in non-election periods. Some even commented to the effect that, if you don't have something interesting to present, don't engage in social media. However, this opportunistic approach is contrary to the ongoing conversation nature of social media. Online engagement focussed on listening can continue during periods in which the organisation does not have much to day. Others can be prompted to speak, such as by posing questions and discussion topics for citizens to give their views. Making a site interesting does not have to rely on the organisation speaking; crowdsourcing and collaboration can be tapped to create interesting content (e.g. asking young people to tell their stories of political engagement);
    9. While basic metrics are plentiful in internet-based media (such as page visits, views, downloads, 'likes', 'followers', etc.) and widely used, outcome-orientated measurement and evaluation are not extensively undertaken at this stage. Also, even at output level, most government social media users rely on free platform measurement tools such as Google Alerts and Facebook Insights for broad quantitative metrics, with less paid attention to demographics and even less to qualitative analysis. This is an issue for sector-wide development;
    10. Importantly, no EMBs and few government departments and agencies reported social media 'disasters' or major controversies. A majority report that social media sites largely self-moderate, with users correcting inaccurate information and challenging extreme or offensive comments and content;
    11. Political neutrality and privacy were not seen as issues by most EMBs and government departments and agencies interviewed. Most believe political neutrality is already well-established in Public Service procedures and existing codes and guidelines apply to social media. Also, neutrality is already well-ingrained in Public Service culture. Notwithstanding, EMBs engaging online in relation to voting and elections are likely to need guidelines and training in 'managing conversations', as online discussion will almost certainly include topics such as online voting (a matter for the Parliament on which EMBs cannot comment). Simply saying 'no comment' or refusing to accept citizens' comment on such issues will stifle the conversation. Publication of user-friendly but clear 'terms and conditions' on EMBs sites will be an important step, as well as sensitive moderation;
  2. High levels of citizen engagement in social media necessitate creative approaches and adoption of social media practices which are grounded in informality, irreverence including satire, entertainment and humour, and high levels of interactivity including collaboration and acceptance of user generated content. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) used humour to some extent in tweets, which generated a higher number of followers than other government sites, but overall few government organisations are prepared to venture too far in these areas due to conservatism and fear. Elections New Zealand communication using Orange Man (see pp. 40–41) and the 2012 London Mayoral election 'Bite the Ballot' campaign (see pp. 72–74) are noteworthy examples of a creative and entertaining approaches and, interestingly, these campaigns have attracted compliments and little criticism. Finding the right tone of voice online is an important step.
  3. Government department and agencies, like corporations, are increasingly appointing Digital Managers, Online Community Managers and other similar specialist positions, or appointing specialist in agencies, to develop and manage social media engagement, particularly in the early stages of development to bring focus and specialist expertise to this area. But, increasingly, social media engagement is likely to become mainstream public communication and be integrated into overall communication strategies. Digital and online will increasingly become de rigueur.
  4. To a significant extent, government department and agencies view social media engagement as a 'no choice' situation. With large-scale public adoption and use, social media are increasingly spaces in which citizens congregate and converse, access information, form opinions, and have their say. To not engage in social media will inevitably result in further alienation of democratic political processes and government from citizens. Conversely, social media engagement is a further way of taking government to the people and bringing people to government.

Further research

  1. Overall, this study shows that social media use by government departments and agencies is still largely at a nascent stage, and often experimental in nature. This is also confirmed in relation to corporate use of social media (e.g. Macnamara, 2011b; Macnamara & Zerfass, 2012). Therefore, further research will be useful in this field. One key area for further research identified in this study is in relation to evaluation of social media communication and engagement. As discussed in finding 7(i), most organisations rely on basic quantitative metrics and free online tools. More sophisticated evaluation of outcomes in relation to objectives is desirable. A second area for future research that would offer direct insights from key stakeholders would be to conduct in-depth qualitative research among a cohort of social media users such as young people after a trial period of engagement. This could utilise interviews (e.g. by online chat, Skype or e-mail), participant diaries recording observations, feelings and outtakes during e-democracy engagement, and/or netnography (observation of online behaviour).

Prepared for the AEC Electoral Research Forum, 19–20 Nov 2012, Canberra.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author, and do not represent the views of the Australian Electoral Commission or the Australian Government.


  1. At least two key issues mitigate the affordance of voice in social media: (1) the availability of an audience, with many social media sites having very small numbers of readers, friends, followers, etc and (2) whether anyone is listening. Recent research points to a need for 'audience making' by the hosts of social media sites and the importance of listening in social media (see discussion of the 'work of listening' and the 'architecture of listening' on pp. 26 and 78).