Social media and democracy: How the Facebook usage patterns of Toronto city councilors influence political engagement

Social media and democracy: How the Facebook usage patterns of Toronto city councilors influence political engagement
By Christian Campbell - 2014

In the early days of the Internet, many political communication theorists held the utopian belief that political actors would use online tools to communicate directly with members of the public, and thereby bolster political engagement and enrich democracy. Unfortunately, studies over the past two decades found that political websites were not usually used to interact directly with the public, but instead were used to simply disseminate information in a one-way information-sharing model. However, the emergence of social media sites presents political actors with the opportunity to interact with the public far more easily than websites had previously allowed. Given the widespread adoption and high usage rates of social media sites, these online resources could potentially open up a space for public discussion about politics and allow political actors to interact directly with members of the public. Literature indicates that this type of shared space is conducive to the kind of civic mindset that leads to higher rates of political engagement. Research on political uses of social media tends to focus on the use of social media within elections, such as the 2008 U.S presidential election, and on the use of social media by national governments. I have chosen instead to examine how a group of municipal councilors in Toronto, Ontario uses social media. These politicians have the greatest need to interact directly with individuals throughout their term of service because municipal councilors are expected to know the members of their ward far more intimately than federal, or even provincial, politicians. My study focuses on the use of Facebook because literature indicates that it is the most political social media platform and that it presents politicians with the greatest opportunity to foster political engagement online. Through analysis of the Facebook pages of Toronto city councilors this study examines the degree to which councilors use Facebook to engage their followers, whether certain citizens are consistently engaged in ongoing political discussions, and whether small communities of politically engaged citizens develop around the Facebook profiles of councilors.