Social Media and Public Participation: Opportunities, Barriers, and a New Framework

Social Media and Public Participation: Opportunities, Barriers, and a New Framework

James Patrick Toscano (Dots Matter, Inc., USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1081-9.ch005
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This chapter presents social media as a legitimate form of citizen participation in government decision making. The chapter details the power of social media and the opportunity it presents for citizens to inform government decision making as well as for public agencies that require citizen input. The chapter also details barriers to social media legitimacy in participation, including current laws and public organization behaviors. Using Arnstein's ladder of participation as a theoretical foundation, this chapter proposes a new evaluative framework of public participation – a Social Media Participation Range. The framework offers a new evaluative tool for researchers and practitioners to analyze citizen participation via social media.
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Social media refers to web-based communications platforms that allow users to generate their own content and interact with one another and is based on collaboration, information sharing, and feedback (Transportation Research Board, 2013). Social media includes blogs, micro-blogs, social networking platforms, and media sharing. Social media platforms whose adoption is commonly measured by researchers include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Pinterest. (Bertot, Jaeger, & Grimes, 2012; Bonsón, Torres, Royo, & Flores, 2012; Duggan & Brenner, 2013; Thackeray, Neiger, Smith, & Van Wagenen, 2012; Transportation Research Board, 2013)

Researchers have sought to describe the range of public participation that citizens and government experience and organize it into different types and qualities of application. A seminal work by Sherry Arnstein (1969) sets out a framework of public participation – a “ladder” with eight rungs or levels. The lowest rung represents a state of “non-participation” whereby the public is not afforded participation opportunities or, in the worst case, is manipulated by government. Ascending up the ladder, the next levels represent a state of “tokenism” whereby the government provides public participation that amounts to “consultation” or “informing.” It is only at the highest levels of this ladder that citizens share any power, from a state of “partnership” all the way up to the highest level, “citizen control.” Figure 1 displays Arnstein’s Ladder.

Figure 1.

Arnstein’s Ladder


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