The long presidential campaign season is upon us and the media is filling up with stories about how social media is changing politics. And perhaps because bad news always seems to sell better, many of these stories take a dim view of the impact. They focus on the risks candidates face from getting caught saying bad things on video; how those videos can spread like wildfire through social media. They point out how social media may be trivializing politics. But few of these articles talk about the potential for social media to increase political efficacy. And that is something the media should consider covering.
Political efficacy occupies a corner of the larger notion of "trust in government." Efficacy, when it comes to politics, is the degree to which citizens feel that the government is responsive to the will of the people. Research reveals two levels, internal political efficacy and external political efficacy, both of which comprise the whole of political efficacy. External efficacy is the degree to which citizens believe that the government is responsive to the will of the people, at large. Internal efficacy is the belief that the government is responsive to "me," as an individual citizen.
Improving political efficacy is essential for strengthening democracy. How engaged citizens are in politics is directly affected by their sense of political efficacy. Working against a positive sense of political efficacy is a sense that government is unresponsive and gridlocked, as well as the frustration and sense of powerlessness that comes from wealth and income inequality. Therefore, with trust and approval levels
of Congress being so low and financial inequality being so high and getting worse, anything that improves political efficacy now is good for America.
Social Media to the Rescue?
When they use it effectively, politicians and government officials can improve both types of political efficacy with social media. To the extent that our elected officials, candidates and government officials use social media to truly engage with the public, they can increase people's sense that the government is responsive to the people.
To effectively improve political efficacy with social media, electeds, candidates and officials should be using social media to:
- Provide a window into how government, legislative and campaign decisions are being made
- Respond to questions from citizens
- Provide resolutions to problems raised by citizens via social media, where possible
- Provide information about where citizens can find more details about how their concerns are being addressed
Because these interactions between citizens and government would (and do, to some extent, already) take place on social media, they will help raise levels of both external and internal political efficacy. With respect to external efficacy, engagements between citizens and government that take place on social media are visible to everyone. And if the press picks up on the interactions, visibility would only increase.
Also, the way social media works in this space is invariably to highlight individuals getting responses from decision-makers in government. For those individuals, their internal efficacy is certainly enhanced. For others seeing the interaction, they are more likely to extrapolate such power to themselves AND more likely to test the waters on their own. To the extent that decision-makers in government are consistent in how they use social media to engage constituents, citizens who reach out will find the positive reinforcement they need to feel personally empowered.
But all of this is premised on elected officials, candidates and government officials living up to their end of the bargain. If those on the side of government are using social media simply to broadcast and not to engage, their positive impact on political efficacy will not emerged. They must cultivate this relationship to overcome the levels of distrust in government that currently pervades the polity.