Communities and Social Media

Government’s misunderstanding of social media is a missed opportunity

This paper argues that while Australian state governments do have a digital presence, they are slow to utilise platforms like Facebook and Twitter as opportunities to build their social capital, and evolve their relationships with citizens. Historically the relationship between citizens and their government has changed as advancements in technology reshape communities, and the way citizens live and interact. Arguably digital technology is driving a new wave of change but the citizen/government dynamic is remaining static.

This paper argues that Australian State Government agencies must engage through digitally networked publics to build social capital and encourage public participation and community engagement in democratic processes. It will consider the leadership role Australian state government agencies have to ensure their communities understand the public information and programs generated by the government, and the ease by which citizens can access this information. It will outline how the dynamics between citizens and government have continuously evolved over time and this has affected community participation and expectations. Opportunities now exist for government and ruling structures to change with the emergence of networked publics, and opportunities to move towards new leadership models that offer greater ability for citizens to engage and participate. The paper explains the role of networked publics in building informed communities of citizens who can use the internet and digital devices like smartphones to easily engage in democratic process, and this engagement can complement more traditional government engagement methods. In order to encourage this participation, the paper discusses the importance of social capital in building trust between government and citizens. Successful communication online can increase citizens perception of government transparency, which effects how they perceive trust. Simple methods for building social capital through networked publics is included in the paper, as well as the benefits and risks.

Government and community dynamic
Australian State Governments operate within a predominantly geographically defined community. Connection to place is a common trait shared by otherwise very diverse citizens who rely on government agencies to provide community services (Beel & Wallace, 2020). Access to, and information about, services is increasingly digital, but so is access to cultural artefacts and community information (Beel & Wallace, 2020). Particularly in a developed country like Australia, many citizens have access to the internet through computers and devices like mobile phones, and there is an increasing expectation for transparent information online (Mandarano et al., 2010). Historically changes in the way citizens access information have been drivers to the change of governing and ruling structures (Hampton, 2015). The development of the printing press, and an increasingly bureaucratised government is one example of this (Hampton & Wellman, 2018). Digitisation offers a new opportunity for government reform based on community leadership principles, which is currently embraced by limited government organisations globally (Madden, 2010). Citizens are demanding greater transparency, and trust in government institutions is low (Song & Lee, 2016; Park et al., 2015). But over time, through the public work they do, government agencies have amassed a lot of data and information about the geographic communities they operate in, and their purpose aligns with that of citizens which is to “positively affect the wellbeing of constituents in a specific geographic area” (Madden, 2010). Greater emphasis of these shared values and common interests can increase citizens sense of place and confidence to participate in democratic processes. These shared values can become the basis of conversation and information on networked publics between government agencies and citizens within their geographic community (Beel & Wallace, 2020). Platforms like Facebook and twitter offer networks that can help to positively change public perception of government agencies and invite citizen participation in democratic process.

Networked publics
Dana Boyd (2011) describes networked publics as “publics that are restructured by networked technologies. … Networked publics serve many of the same functions as other types of publics – they allow people to gather for social, cultural, and civic purposes, and they help people connect with a world beyond their close friends and family” (p. 39). Mandarano et al (2010) describe living in the digital age as “a period in which digital technologies serve as the infrastructure of our communications” (p. 123). Typically government agencies use networked publics, platforms like Facebook and twitter, in very utilitarian ways (Lee & VanDyke, 2015). They appropriate the spaces to broadcast their messages using a “command and control” method that doesn’t inspire public participation or engagement (Madden, 2010, p. 178). Online platforms like Facebook offer affordances beyond traditional methods of public engagement (Guo et al., 2018). Affordances like commenting, direct messaging, opinion polls, and the ability for citizens to share information with their own networks (Guo et al., 2018). These affordances can complement traditional engagement methods with government agencies and democratic processes, which include public consultation processes, physical community meetings, websites, print articles, and printed material (Hampton & Wellman, 2018). By combining the affordances of both traditional and digital forms of pubic communication government agencies can broaden their networks further within their geographical community, their information can reach more individuals, and they can take on a leadership role to ensure citizens within their community understand government programs and information (Hampton & Wellman, 2018). Further to that if they can meaningfully engage with citizens, citizens will be more likely to actively engage with government content and processes. This engagement will grow, and gain momentum as government agencies build social capital across the networked publics they have chosen to operate in.

Social Capital
Social capital is a concept that has been present prior to digital technologies and is often the outcome of positive networking activities (Smith et al., 2016). There are many definitions and Mandarano et al posits that “social capital is composed of three elements: relationships, trust, and norms” and that these elements allow multiple actors, be they individual or institutional, to work together towards common goals and outcomes (Mandarano et al., 2010). Social capital can be built within networked publics, and this building of engagement and trust will enhance citizens sense of community and connection to place as they gain a deeper understanding of the complexity and breadth of government work (Lee & VanDyke, 2015). Research has shown that there is a positive correlation between digital access to government information and services, and perception of trust and transparency (Mandarano et al., 2010). Networked publics, and particularly social networking sites like Facebook, make it easier for citizens to maintain a continuing relationship with government through passive, or persistent contact (Hampton, 2015). They automatically receive a stream of updates and information according to the affordances of the platforms they are using. It is also possible that governments engaging with networked publics benefit from the positive perceptions citizens attributed to the specific platforms they regularly use, and these perceptions flow through to the government agency utilising the platform as a communication tool (Hampton & Wellman, 2018). Social capital can be used to build both strong and weak ties (Hampton, 2015). Strong ties for government agencies could consist of other government agencies, non-government organisations, or not-for-profit institutions that are a regular stakeholder, project partners, and program deliverers. Weak ties might be citizens who passively engage with content just to stay up-to-date, or citizen journalists who share digital government information within their own networks. 

Methods, benefits, and risks of online engagement
Government agencies can use various methods to build social capital through networked publics, and it is through consistent use of multiple methods that trust and transparency can start to build (Lee & VanDyke, 2015). Government agencies do not use one single person to engage with citizens on networked publics so it is important that the agency determines its voice, and guidelines around what information is shared and when (Lee & VanDyke, 2015). This provides consistency in their application of communication (Lee & VanDyke, 2015). Citizens will be able to engage more confidently with government agencies if they develop rules of engagement for dialogue (Lee & VanDyke, 2015). This creates a safer digital space and a shared understanding within a networked community (Lee & VanDyke, 2015). Networked publics have nuanced engagements styles depending on which platform is used and this affects user behaviour (Goncalves et al., 2015). Agencies must have some knowledge about these nuances and tailor their communication to suit (Goncalves et al., 2015). The provision of easy public access to information about government activities and decisions offers citizens the opportunity to “access, monitor, and evaluate” government work (Song & Lee, 2016) which gives government agencies are clear objective in the use of networked publics. Applying these methods and principals results in a strong sense of place and community belonging for citizens because they have access to information directly affecting their geographic community (Beel & Wallace, 2020). When citizens have greater understanding around the work and programs of their government they have greater agency to contribute to democratic processes and become involved in community leadership and shaping their own sense of place (Madden, 2010). Greater accessibility to information, and greater transparency also builds trust in government (Lee & VanDyke, 2015). Some risks exist in increasing digital government communication. It is easy to assume citizens have universal access to the internet and networked publics, so there must be continuity of traditional engagement methods alongside increased digital communication (Mandarano et al., 2010). It is also possible that individual citizens, or other organisations, who have their own social capital can mobilise their own networks to affect certain outcomes to serve their own interests (Mandarano et al., 2010), but successful networking and community building by government agencies can combat this.

Governments and citizens both benefit from greater perceptions of trust and transparency, which are a product of social capital. Governments can build social capital by offering citizens greater opportunity to engage with their activities and decisions. This social capital is a resource that governments can use to assist with their work within the geographic communities they operate in. More positive engagement results in better informed citizens who will participate in democratic processes. In turn, citizens benefit by experiencing an increased sense of place and community belonging, and a greater sense of agency to contribute to democratic processes within their geographic community. The evolution of the government/citizen relationship is not unique to the relatively new emergence of digital technologies. There are many societal and technological changes throughout history that have caused the relationship to change. Networked publics offer a new platform for citizens and governments to communicate, but the full potential of this has only been embraced by limited government institutions globally. As Australian state governments start to build social capital online they offer citizens greater opportunities to engage in community leadership and contribute to the shaping of their sense of place.


Beel, D., & Wallace, C. 2020. Gathering Together: Social Capital, Cultural Capital, and the Value of Cultural Heritage in a Digital Age. Social & Cultural Geography, 21(5), 697-717.

Boyd, D. 2011. Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 39-58). Taylor & Francis Group.

Goncalves, J., Liu, Y., Xiao, B., Chaudhry, S., Hosio, S., & Kostakos, V. 2015. Increasing the Reach of Government Social Media: A Case Study in Modeling Government – Citizen Interaction on Facebook. Policy and Internet, 7(1), 80-102.

Guo, J., Zhang, C., Wu, Y., Li, H., & Liu, Y. 2018. Examining the Determinants and Outcomes of Netizens’ Participation Behaviours on Government Social Media Profiles. Aslib Journal of Information Management, 70(4), 306-325.

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Hampton, K.N., & Wellman, B. 2018. Lost and Saved… Again: The Moral Panic about the Loss of Community Takes Hold of Social Media. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 47(6), 643-651.

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Mandarano, L., Meenar, M., & Steins, C. 2010. Building Social Capital in the Age of Civic Engagement. Journal of Planning Literature, 25(2), 123-135.

Park, M.J., Choi, H., Kim, K.S., & Rho, J.J. 2015. Trust in Government’s Social Media Service and Citizen’s Patronage Behaviour. Telematics and Informatics, 32(4), 629-641.

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Smith, C., Smith, J.B., & Shaw, E. 2016. Embracing Digital Networks: Entrepreneurs’ Social Capital Online. Journal of Business Venturing, 32(1), 18-34.

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14 thoughts on “Government’s misunderstanding of social media is a missed opportunity

  1. Hi Kymberly,

    Firstly, excellent topic. Its fascinating to examine how despite advancements in technology, the relationship between citizens and the government is not collaborative and operating in a traditional antiquated hierarchy – you note that the government uses the platforms in a command and control method, and I agree, it doesn’t inspire public participation, collaboration or engagement.

    As you mention, the platforms and technology afford agencies the ability to diversify their messaging, communications, and engagement with the public. I like how you mention the Government or agency needs to define a unified voice that will be shared across their platform to communicate by their multiple staff manning their social media. That point made me consider what a Government would look like if their social media presence was as diverse as the people that make up their staff? Would it express the true nature of Government, that they have 1000s of individuals representing their values in their own voice, or would it be inconsistent? I’m guessing that people want reliability and consistency from their Government – but having multiple voices might make the Government develop better and more mature social capital? Robotic responses tend to feel policy driven, governing and authoritarian – above all, they don’t feel authentic. Authenticity is what drives trust through online platforms, and trust leads to followers and growth of social capital.

    I really enjoyed reading your paper. Thank you for sharing.
    Kind Regards,

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks so much for engaging with my topic! I feel like maybe you work for Government too?

      I found it interesting how people are having such a hard time distinguishing Government Departments on social media, and politicians campaigning on social media. It’s made me realise how invisible the public service is online, and how reliant the institution still is on newspaper and radio journalists writing and speaking about their work.

      Their are so many people in Government working behind the scenes to ensure legislation is enforced to keep the environment, people and animals safe and for the most part it all runs pretty smoothly – we’re so so lucky in Australia. I think there are so many day-to-day stories that could be shared about the work done by Government, the happy outcomes that happen, and also open up the opportunities of fine tuning systems and working out what is important to people now and how that’s evolving.

      Open Government gets talked about a lot academically but few Governments have really made use of it. Individuals are used to participatory behaviours online – wikipedia is probably an amazing example of this, and how well systems can actually self regulate. The Obama administration ran a few participatory type programs but there actually aren’t many examples that I was able to find.

      So much of our lives now play out online on SNS’s and through other apps and platforms, it’s only a matter of time before Governments haul themselves into more contemporary spaces, but I really do believe it’s a generational thing and it just isn’t a priority for politicians right now….

      Thanks again for your comment 🙂


  2. Hi Kymberly
    I am so happy that we connected prior to this conference and realising we were writing about similar topics. However, you took another approach which I really took note on was ‘social capital’. Trust is a big issue amongst citizens, and I really took in how governments can use to this ‘build strong and weak ties’.
    How do you think politicians can build trust with their followers? If we look at Obama’s campaign, he made citizens feel their voice was heard. In some cases, I do feel Mark McGowan has taken this approach and the reputations he has built has been on trust. The flip side is look at Trump had what he has done with his power of media and influence. What will governments do now and look at and seeing how Mark McGowan as adopted a great social media presence. Will Australian leaders follow suit and rebuild trust that way with citizens?

    1. Hi Nakia,

      I actually deliberately steered clear of individual politicians and their use of social media. It’s interesting that there is so much confusion about the distinction between departments and politicians. I can see I should have included more information on this in my essay as it highlights just how invisible and absent Government departments are from social media.

      I think most people can recognise State police departments on social media and disassociate their day-to-day work from political rhetoric – other departments work very much the same – they upgrade roads, issue permits for landholders to build dams, they they assess air quality etc. I think these aspects of keeping people, and wildlife and the environment ticking along and living together harmoniously should be talked about so that citizens can gain a deeper understanding about how many scientists and expert staff work for Government. And hopefully if they understand more about how much work goes into these processes they can also engage meaningfully and help shape the future of these activities (regardless of the political circus that goes on as new leaders come and go etc).

      1. I think you have raised a fair point and I think we associate too much on politicians and the way social media is, we are so focused on political leaders as opposed to all the other departments and what goes behind issues that you have pointed out. In reply to Tim’s comment “There are so many people in Government working behind the scenes to ensure legislation is enforced to keep the environment, people and animals safe and for the most part it all runs pretty smoothly”, I feel that we have all been following political leaders that these issues are being left behind and I am sure these areas could do with more public awareness. The discussions have made me more aware of looking at a broader sense. I personally have been researching about political leaders but there is so much more to understand and thank you for taking a different approach and making me understand that there is so much more that needs to be made more aware of.

        1. It’s a complex issue, Often we look to politicians to fix things like hospitals that are under strain, but our elected members and ministers don’t necessarily have any actual back ground in healthcare – they must rely on advice of experts. Australia’s navigation of COVID is a really positive example of this. Our Government has really listened to all the safety advice from epidemiologists etc and we are in a really great position. It’s easy to pin that on our prime minister or cabinet, but we would quite likely be in the same position with a different leader because the expertise remains.

          Hopefully that makes sense.

          1. It certinaly does and I have really learnt a few things reading your article and meeting you through Facebook.

            Good luck for the rest of the semester


  3. Hi Kymberly,

    This was a really interesting paper! It made me think of how effective Victorian Premier Dan Andrews is at engaging with social media and his high social capital (though I note your comment above how you were focused on departments over individuals).

    I suspect part of the problem is the power of the government marketing departments on what image and information broadcast. There are multiple channels information has to go through before it goes public, so it’s very controlled. There is also a long history of first using focus groups to test community feedback, which may not be the most accurate way to get a legitimate community response.

    In your research did you find a government body/department that engages with social media successfully? I’m curious if there is anywhere globally that nails it? Like you say it will probably be a change that occurs when younger generations have more control.


    1. Hi Kristen,

      Thanks for your comment. I did try to steer clear of politicians and their campaigning uses of SNS’s. My focus was on Government Departments who keep all our policy and programs running, who administer legislation, issue grants, and offer support and guidance etc. A lot of the work is day to day, core work and it rarely gets promoted anywhere, and is only mentioned in newspaper articles if something has gone wrong. Government work tends to “fly under the radar” and there isn’t much collaboration with the community on how it be done better, or even just talked about and explained. Police Departments are the stand out when it comes to government social media presence. They engage their followers with light hearted content, but also really on their community to inform their police work.

      It’s interesting that government departments feel they don’t need marketing strategies and shy away from self promotion. But even further to that they could be developing new scenarios where there is a lot more public participation. People are used to being engaged online – being asked questions, informing content decisions etc. I suspect when subsequent generations move into leadership roles those “digital natives” will see new opportunities to engage. I think resistance might even be to do with election cycles and current politicians not wanting to promote work that was implement by previous political parties. It’s a weird old cycle and there seems be little trust from both sides. Citizens don’t completely trust government, and government doesn’t trust citizens. It would be nice to that gap closed somewhat and I think that can be spurred on by social media and communicating more openly

  4. Hi Kymberly,

    I’ve been excited to read your paper since I first heard about it weeks ago and it did not disappoint! This is such a huge topic to tackle in such a small word count limit and you’ve made a lot of great points that I think really need to be considered by our state and federal governments/government departments.

    I’ve seen a few government bodies do this really well, particularly some Australian police departments. Obviously they have an incredibly important and serious job to do, but breaking up the serious and authoritative posts with some levity (a recent april fools post about sausage dogs joining the K9 team comes to mind) really increases their social capital and builds engagement and trust, as you mention.

    What do you think keeps government organisations from engaging effectively online? Is it a lack of understanding, or a fear of encouraging a more egalitarian environment – relinquishing some power as citizens gain the power to “access, monitor and evaluate” as you note? What do you think it will take for this to change in the future – or is it only a matter of time?

    1. You’re not wrong that it’s huge! I feel like the whole paper is an introduction. I read so much interesting material and could easily have written twice as much!

      It’s funny that you mention the police because that is exactly the social media presence that I was thinking about the whole time I was writing this. I totally agree that they do so well to mix irreverent, funny content into their very serious business/day to day content. It really makes people feel as though the organisation has a relatable “personality” and it very clever.

      I think there are a few things that are holding digital engagement back
      – I think the idea of social capital and engaging and building relationship online are linked with marketing practices, so requires expertise and outlay
      – there are probably generational biases where elected members still don’t fully understand the need for it and are happy to maintain the newspaper/radio talkback status quo
      – there’s still a fear that for some reason more transparency will open the floodgates of criticism

      I’d like to think that there will be continual change in this space, but only time will tell!

      Thanks for discussing this with me!

      1. These are great insights, I think you’re right! Your third point about fear that more transparency will open the floodgates for criticism is true of many companies online as well, I think. So often you see brand Facebook pages where they answer every single comment with “we’ve DMed you”. All that tells people is that you don’t want the answer being public – not a great way to build trust!

        Your point about generational biases is a great one too. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US has a great social media presence and has garnered a lot of support that way; hopefully she’s just the beginning of a new generation who “get it”.

  5. Hi Kymberly!

    I really enjoyed reading your paper!!

    I wholeheartedly agree the Australian Government are very slow and at times resistant to use social media to engage with the citizens. The use of social media could only strengthen their reach and communication, especially with the younger generation who solely rely on social media as a form on communication rather than the traditional – T.V, radio and newspaper. This form of media only reaches a small portion of the population and the government is missing out on a prime opportunity.

    If you look at how Barack Obama campaigned during the 2008 election he reached so many more voters because of his constant social media presence which was again expanded in 2012. The Australian Government could definitely follow this example to reach and engage with more people as well as letting the public gain some visibility to those running for office.

    Kind regards,


    1. Hi Jessica,

      Thank you so much for your comments. I feel exactly the same! I think networked publics are a very standard place for people to be spending time and absorbing information. A huge portion of Australians are on their phone while watching tv, on public transport, in cafes etc every single day and it’s become such normal practice. I think it’s limiting to think that behaviour is attributed largely to younger generations, I think Facebook in particularly is very loved by older Australians (my 70 year old parents included which always makes me giggle).

      I deliberately steered away from discussing politicians and their networking and campaigning behaviours online, as I believe this links strongly with marketing and influencer behaviours. My area of interest was government departments. The people and the institution that continue to provide services and programs as elected members come and go, governments change from liberal to labour, and leadership spills flair up and pass. They do so much that never gets reported in the media. There are areas where these government departments could encourage citizens to become more involved, and communicate the huge complex range of work they do. I think there are opportunities for the dynamics between government and citizens to change where citizens have more opportunity to participate in government work and processes, but before that can happen there needs to be a lot more transparency and trust. There are a lot of opportunities for this but I think this hesitancy to engage is likely a generational issue.

      Thanks again for discussing this with me 🙂

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