Social Networks and News Media: Impact on Information and Policy Development

studentsubmission2014thumbThe recent rise of social media and the growing presence of news media in the realm of public policy and decision making have created a new dynamic: policy makers are now sitting alongside the general population. In this new era of policy making, scientists, policy makers, and the general population all collaborate on policy issues ̶ and if not collaborate, certainly discuss subjects on widely accessible platforms. Social media and the news media have been placing more pressure on decision-makers; the effects this activity has had on the policy creation realm are far-reaching and eye-opening.

Social Network Analysis

Social network analysis (SNA) is a useful tool to understand the nature of information flows within and between organizations. Websites and social media as the means of information exchange lend themselves particularly well to observe ties between and among actors (McNutt & Wellstead, 2010). The traditional conception of information flow for policy development has been linear and tied to hierarchy and organizational structure. However, SNA reveals the real complexity of information flows among actors (Oliver, Everett, Verma, & de Vocht, 2012). Using measures such as nodality or tie strength, it is possible to identify important points within a network (McNutt & Wellstead, 2010). As a result, social network analysis can be leveraged to target information flows to policymakers better, and it can also be used by policymakers to identify sources of new information or the quality of existing sources.

Social-networks

SNA can also be used to assess the effects of other structures on networks. For example, government institutions retain significant nodality and power (McNutt & Wellstead, 2010; Oliver et al., 2012) despite recent movements toward more horizontal engagement and policy-making. The complexity of networks also reveals the impact of reorganizations – in many cases, positions in hierarchies and organizational structures do influence an actor’s nodality and number of ties (Oliver et al., 2012). Reorganizations, or the departure of key actors, can have a chilling effect on flows of information while functional ties are being re-established (Oliver et al., 2012), actually reducing the amount of social capital existing within a network.

Increased Policy Network Complexity

As noted above, one implication of the expanding presence of social media in information dissemination is the increasingly complex landscape it creates. Stakeholders become more readily available to contribute to the development of policy, resulting in more heterogeneous participants with more diverse interests (elaborated more fully in the following section) (Eden, 2009). While this involvement of diverse participants has the ability to produce more readily acceptable outcomes for a wider range of people, it changes the process of policy development and makes consensus more difficult to achieve (Eden, 2009). Furthermore, social media contributes to the growth of complex policy networks, with information flowing in many directions. This trend breaks down what was typically a rigidly hierarchical structure and emphasizes the increasing importance of informal relationships and information transmission (Oliver et al., 2012). Indeed, the consequences of not recognizing the importance of informal knowledge can lead to less support for the information that is produced, as it may be out of step with reality (Piggin, Jackson, & Lewis, 2009).

Beyond the shift in the membership of policy networks, other considerations are the speed at which social media operates and the longevity of information. Never before have policy makers been able to access the opinions of the populace so quickly, nor have they ever been subject to backlash at such a rapid rate (Scott & Jacka, 2011). Furthermore, information is readily found, and can resurface, even years after a program is over. These flattened communication networks augment the importance of using social media effectively and appropriately, and illustrate the potential volume of information available to policy makers.

Bringing More Stakeholders to the Table/Breaking Down Dichotomies

Related to the above observations, the beautiful thing about social media is the newfound voice it gives to those who have not been previously involved in policy conversations. While some concerns have been raised about how that new involvement has been affecting the development of science and how scientists must now navigate questions thrown at them by individuals outside of the field (“Climate of fear”, 2010), there are a number of benefits from the perspective of both the public and, surprisingly, the experts. Furthermore, the benefits have not always arisen in the typical way.

For the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), shifts in the realm of science and policy-making have allowed for new openings for it and other NGOs to step forward. Having been seen outside the “expert” spectrum, the FSC is now finding a foothold in the scientific world (Eden, 2009). With changes in technology, news media and social media have been able to bring non-state actors to the policy formation table, as well as to publicize these previously ignored voices.

Changing the Type of Information Produced/Communicated

Modern day public policy is significantly associated with the desire to verify its efficacy and legitimize its value through scientifically derived evidence (Piggin et al., 2009). Piggin et al. (2009) have stated that “constructing and defending policy with evidence is ostensibly a positive, worthwhile practice” (p. 91). Thus, one could assume that policy makers would have the desire to create policy based extensively on sound evidence. Nevertheless, research has shown that this is not always the case as “evidence-based knowledge is often discarded in favour of other understandings held by the policy makers themselves” (Piggin et al., 2009, p. 94).

Empirical evidence has been known to be eschewed by policy makers in an effort to avoid scrutiny from media sources or avoid accountability to the general public (Piggin et al., 2009). As a result, certain policies are not well informed or legitimately based on substantial evidence. It is, therefore, extremely important for scientists and researchers to continue to “inform policy makers about the underlying science and the potential consequences of their policy decisions” (“Climate of fear”, 2010, para 8). The relationship researchers and scientists have with the media is also extremely important because they need to be perceived as objective and open with their knowledge in order to develop trust within the public (“Climate of fear”, 2010). In essence, researchers and scientists must find a way to effectively communicate through the media in an effort to curb doubts about the fundamental importance of science and evidence in policy making (“Climate of fear”, 2010).

Conclusion

Social media and news media’s influence on the decision making realm has been diverse, ranging from pressures on decision makers to make certain decisions, to adding increased complexity to an already multifaceted and crowded realm, as well as create tools for policy networks to generate some self-reflection. Social media and news media highlight the fact that policy making has very real human connections and needs at its core: relationships and connections are often the conduits to information flow, rather than hierarchical structures set up by the governance structure. While the articles mentioned in our analysis of social and news media influence on policy structures all focused on different aspects of the role and influence, none were recent enough to speak to the current and growing role that social media plays, as it carries more and more weight in allowing connections between decision makers and outside actors and stakeholders to grow. In addition, none of the articles paid much attention to the role of news media by itself. While the news media are increasingly becoming swept up in the social media storm, these articles focused little attention on the role of the news media as the long-time bridge between decision makers and the public.

The influence of social media and news media in the decision making structure walks a very thin line between helpful and detrimental. The benefit of having more stakeholders at the table could be quickly outweighed by the added complexity in the system. The benefit of recognizing and anticipating the human element and relationships that exist in the policy realm can be outweighed by the possible neglect of hard evidence. While muddying the activity of decision making makes the process more difficult, the access that social media and news media give to a wider number of participants creates more accountability and more transparency – something that has long been desired by the general public.

 

References

Climate of fear. [Editorial]. (2010, March 11). Nature, 464(7286), 141.

Eden, S. (2009). The work of environmental governance networks: Traceability, credibility and certification by the forest stewardship council. Geoforum, 40(3), 383-394.

McNutt, K., & Wellstead, A. (2010). Virtual policy networks in forestry and climate change in the U.S. and Canada: Government nodality, internationalization and actor complexity. Policy & Internet, 2(2), 33-59.

Oliver, K., Everett, M., Verma, A., & de Vocht, F. (2012). The human factor: Re- organisations in public health policy. Health Policy, 106(1), 97-103.

Piggin, J., Jackson, S. J., & Lewis, M. (2009). Knowledge, power and politics: Contesting “evidence-based” national sport policy. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 44(1), 87-101.

Scott, P., & Jacka, M. (2011). Auditing social media: A governance and risk guide. Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

 

Authors: Ben Lyle, Meghan MacDougall, Alison Manley, and Kate Mercier

This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.