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‘Look at me!’

UAlbany researchers look at how local governments communicate via social media.

Nic DePaula is a Ph.D. candidate in information science.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 20, 2018) – People pose on social media all the time, but local governments, too? Research by a trio of UAlbany scholars finds that local governments throughout the United States use Facebook just like everyone else, or for what the researchers term “symbolic action.”

In analyzing 3,000 Facebook posts from the accounts of local government units, the researchers found that nearly half of these posts were “symbolic acts” or “favorable presentations,” messages that attempt to produce good feelings or present the organization in a positive way.

For example, a “Happy Birthday” post to an employee or a congratulatory post to someone recently promoted are examples of symbolic acts, said Teresa Harrison, a professor of communication at UAlbany and one of the three authors of the study.

“This was news, because in prior examinations in the use of social media by government organizations, there really hadn’t been any indication that these posts engaged in these types of activity,” said Harrison, who is also a faculty fellow at the Center for Technology in Government (CTG). “This research shows that governmental agencies are quite a bit more like standard organizations than we might have otherwise have expected or believed.”

The other roughly 50 percent of the posts analyzed provide more neutral government and policy information to the public.

The study will be published in Government Information Quarterly next year.

Advice to local governments in the Capital Region

Nic DePaula, a Ph.D. candidate in information science and lead researcher for the study, said that local government organizations can, and potentially should, use social media for specific marketing purposes. But, he said, too many light-hearted anniversary posts might end up aggravating or even alienating some users.

“Social media are platforms for fun and exciting content, but this may implicate how the platform is used for dealing with more serious issues,” he said. Moreover, if organizations do not try to reach out to a broad population, including only those who approve of its activities, all that has been accomplished is a sort of echo chamber, according to DePaula.

“Some groups may feel left out or disconnected from governments, so social media brings an opportunity for this to be ameliorated,” he said. “Governments may take advantage of social media to try to bring in minority groups, or groups that have been disenfranchised in their networks.”

DePaula said only about five percent of all posts studied included government dialogue, and only about two percent referred to calls for offline discussions.

Another risk for governments using social media is squandering these platforms’ ability to communicate transparency and authenticity, which is often at odds with more institutional information goals.

“What happens when we don’t want our organizations to do public relations, or we don’t want our organizations to be seen in a favorable light, is that we are kind of denying the nature upon which all of these organizational activities have to take place,” Harrison said. “What some people might caustically label public relations can be absolutely essential to them getting their job done.”

Part of the answer seems to be blending posts for these institutional goals with posts that might be termed interpersonal or, in the language of the research, symbolic acts.

“If everything is images and smoking mirrors, then that’s not any good, but if an organization only pushes out information, people won’t appreciate what their government is doing, and what their taxes are doing for them,” Harrison said.

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