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Sciencewise project: The Role of Social Media in Public Dialogue and Policy

Dr Eric Jensen (e.jensen@warwick.ac.uk; @JensenWarwick) - SKIP TO 'Why I am Interested in this Topic'

*This project has now completed. The report is now published on the Sciencewise website.

About the Project

As social media expand, policymakers and practitioners are increasingly considering what the role of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook should be in informing public policy. There are important limitations, as well as opportunities, involved in using such media as sites for dialogue and these are not well understood. Using social media to gain insights about public views and to host public dialogue offers the potential for involving a much larger number of participants. It also enables on-going participation from individuals over time, and even the possibility of unobtrusive consultation by drawing upon conversations that are already taking place online. In all these cases, the cost barrier for hosting public dialogues or consulting public views would be substantially lowered, when compared to the main alternative approach: face-to-face events with small numbers of people in one location.

Despite such potential benefits, social media-based approaches to public dialogue should not be embraced without careful consideration. However, the limitations of social media such as Twitter as a site for public dialogue and participation in policy deliberations are not well established. This leaves a number of important questions to be addressed:

• How does the rapid global expansion in social media usage affect our understanding of the available means for conducting public dialogue?

• Based on existing research and theory on the concept of the online public sphere (and deliberative democracy more generally), what is the potential for public dialogue to be conducted effectively within the context of social media? Where might social media-based public dialogue fit into a broader deliberative system?

• What can be learned from existing research on efforts to conduct public dialogues online, and through social media in particular? For example, what is gained (e.g. lower costs) or lost (e.g. less depth) from moving public dialogue into this setting? To what extent is such dialogue already occurring within social media?

• What are the particular characteristics of social media discourse, and what are the implications of these characteristics for public dialogue?

This post describes the Sciencewise-commissioned project I am currently undertaking to address these questions relating to social media’s role in public dialogue. I will be conducting a critical review of relevant theoretical accounts (especially focusing on the online public sphere) to identify the potential role for social media in a broader system of public dialogue, as well as reviewing existing research literature on online public dialogue (especially focusing on social media such as Twitter). This project aims to establish a basis for policymakers’ decision-making about the use of social media in public dialogue as well as highlighting important directions for future research and evaluation.

The project will be carried out using existing research and theory, which will be critically applied to the present topic and extended. So if you know of any research, relevant theoretical arguments or real life examples, you think I should take account of in my reviews, please do let me know by e-mail (e.jensen@warwick.ac.uk) or tweet (@JensenWarwick). The next blog post for this project will be a critical response to the previously published Sciencewise commissioned report on this topic, entitled ‘In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world’. If you have any thoughts on this paper, do please let me know through Twitter or by commenting on this blog.

Why I am interested in this topic

I am an Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Most of my published research is in the fields of media sociology, public engagement and impact evaluation methodology.

This project builds upon my recent work on the topic of social media impact evaluation. One example of this recent work is a methodological project called Public Engagement with Research Online (PERO) (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/academicstaff/jensen/ericjensen/pero). This project developed important insights about how to effectively measure the spread and impact of scientific ideas communicated online. The primary methodology employed in this project began with an important role for web analytics software (viz. Google Analytics), and completed with well-established content analysis and qualitative discourse analysis methods.

Since this project, I have been working on ways in which the process of evaluating public engagement impact in social media settings can be automated through an adapted form of sentiment analysis. This work is currently being conducted as part of Qualia (qualia.org.uk), a project developing an evaluation and feedback web engine and app for the arts and culture sector. This work also connects to a project I am doing on ‘The role of technology in evaluating the non-economic impacts of arts and culture’ (funded by the AHRC).

Finally, in terms of theory, this project will link up with my work on a new interdisciplinary model of social change, described in my book: Culture & Social Change: Transforming Society through the Power of Ideas (Information Age).

My work on this project will be complemented by contributions from my colleague at the University of Warwick, Dr John Parkinson. He is a key figure in current debates about deliberative systems and democratic theory, and he will be leading on the deliberative systems dimension of this project.