How politicians can master social media – and why it helps governments if they do

By on 13/11/2022 | Updated on 13/11/2022
Social media icons pinned to a pinboard

The use of social media could help politicians around the world – and by extension governments – open up to their citizens. But many senior figures struggle to connect on such platforms. Here’s what they could do, and why it matters

Social media have given us tools to talk about anything and everything, whenever we want. The ease with which you can post a message on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram for everyone to see is remarkable. And just as for the rest of us, it can be a valuable tool for politicians and for governments too.

Slowly but surely, politicians have found their way to social media. Twitter was the first platform they started to use, then came other platforms – notably Facebook – and today, some politicians even use Instagram or dabble in newer platforms such as TikTok. At the same time, citizens indicate that they receive much of their political news from these sources and increasingly follow politicians on social media. In light of this, it’s important to look at what content citizens get exposed to through politicians – what they follow and how it shapes their understanding of both government and party politics.

My research on Dutch-speaking Belgian politicians sought to broaden our understanding of which issues politicians choose to talk about on social media, and if this type of content is what citizens actually want from them. I have made several discoveries. First, politicians on social media often post about the issues they have specialised in – whether though ministerial posts or their own interest. Additionally, what politicians choose to post about is also driven by the issues their party own and (to a lesser extent) those that receive a lot of media attention.

Read more: The UK government’s social media tips for civil servants: we take a look

We could say that this is a good thing. Politicians seem to actively communicate their point of view to the public, maybe in the hope of educating them. Thus, we could say that politicians are using social media for what they are supposed to do: gathering information, building up contacts with relevant interest groups in the field, and putting forward policy solutions based on evidence and correct information.

Nevertheless, it is also important for politicians to be able to reach audiences in an approachable and accessible way and proficiently engage with citizens. Social media metrics, such as ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘comments’ can provide a measure of whether politicians are successful in reaching the public.

What I found is that politicians are often lacking in this regard. When politicians talk about the issues they specialise in on social media or the issues that their party own, they do not perform exceptionally well in terms of these social media metrics. It seems some politicians are just not able to keep their followers engaged and interested and this could in turn have an impact on how citizens perceive politicians and, more broadly, the government, because people perceive politics more and more in terms of individuals and less in terms of parties.

Upcoming webinar: Trusted voice: how government communications can gain trust in an era of misinformation

For years, party identification and party membership has been in decline, while individual politicians are moving to the forefront of the political arena. Therefore, people are more familiar with these individual politicians than they are with abstract parties. This personalisation of politics manifests itself very clearly in media coverage, where journalists prefer individual politicians to parties.

How then can politicians try and mend this schism – and its corresponding impact on trust in government? Well, people might be more inclined to trust people they feel they know more. One way politicians can achieve this is by showing parts of their private life, lifting the veil on who they truly are. When politicians post about their private life, it deepens the empathy voters feel towards the politician as a regular person, someone who is like them. It generates a sort of authenticity as opposed to the more formal and impersonal communication parties tend to have. In that sense, social media help politicians bridge the gap between themselves and the people they represent. Indeed, my research shows that the social media messages citizens tend to engage most with are posts about the private life of politicians.

Emotions are also important in building strong relationships with others. The importance of emotionality becomes clear when we look at which types of news people prefer. Audiences are drawn toward news that is not just a neutral description of events. Emotionality, whether positive or negative, draws an audience to the story. This is also reflected in people’s response to political posts on social media.

Read more: Australia’s media regulator set for powers to tackle internet misinformation

In my own research, I showed that both positive and negative emotional words positively impact the number of likes, shares and comments a Facebook post by a politician gets. I would advise politicians to use emotional words in their communication and to find a good mix between private and specialised content, which would seem to be the most opportune strategy. Through this strategy politicians can educate the audience as well as create a more intimate bond with them. This strengthened bond, this empathy and authenticity might give citizens a feeling of transparency, that they see the politicians for who they truly are. This transparency is key in improving citizens’ trust in politicians and government.

People mistrust the things they do not understand or do not have enough information about. Consequently, social media help citizens to look behind the curtain of politics and see what is actually happening, which helps them understand government better. In turn this could help citizens regain their trust in not only politicians but more broadly in the state as a whole.

About the author
Jeroen Peeters currently works at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Antwerp. Jeroen does research in social media behaviour of politicians, agenda setting and issue strategies of politicians.

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About Jeroen Peeters

Jeroen Peeters currently works at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Antwerp. Jeroen does research in social media behaviour of politicians, agenda setting and issue strategies of politicians.

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