A model for using social media to inform public policy and communication: Cases of shark management in NSW Australia

Kane Callaghan

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Advances in digital technology and the proliferation of social and online media platforms have transformed the relationship between governments and their citizens, and have forced governments to rethink how they engage citizens in processes of public policy decision-making. Citizens who have experience with the collaborative and participatory features of online platforms increasingly expect that they will be treated as partners in policy-making, and that their values, concerns, and interests will inform decision-making. Meanwhile, many governments now acknowledge that robust public policy relies not solely on expert insights and technical advice, but on accessing and understanding citizen thinking expressed online.
Much previous work on developing approaches to collecting and analysing such online citizen commentary has tended toward automated quantification of comment data, and the active solicitation of citizen feedback through government run pages and calls for input like that used in traditional crowdsourcing. There has been less development, however, of manual qualitative approaches, or those that seek to passively collect comment data which has been freely generated by citizens online without direct government stimulation. Where examples of this latter underdeveloped group exist, they are limited by their use of highly technical language aimed at expert and academic audiences, and their minimal engagement with the information needs of public policy-makers.
This thesis aimed to build on current approaches to collecting and analysing online citizen commentary found in social and online media platforms while addressing these identified limitations. To do so, it used a qualitative multi-method research approach consisting of three studies.
The first study used semi-structured interviews with public policy-makers and strategic communication experts to understand why and how decisions are made, and to categorise their information needs. It identified a distinction between decisions that arise proactively and reactively and their respective information needs. It also found four categories of citizen thinking desired by decision makers, including citizens’ attitudes, values, understandings and misunderstanding of policies, and the lived realities of those impacted by policy decisions.
To capture these information needs, the second study developed and piloted a six stage Systematic Approach to analysing social media commentary in ways that would help to meet the policy-making information needs identified in Study One. The six stages of the approach are: (1) Determine inquiry scope and relevant public, (2) Identify and justify data sources, (3) Address ethical considerations, (4) Collect data, (5) Analyse data, and (6) Report findings. The development of this system was guided by the need to account for proactive and reactive decision-making contexts, mapping of previous research using passively sourced comment data to understand policy topics, and Kozinets’ netnographic research techniques (2010, 2015, 2019).
The Systematic Approach was piloted using two cases of policy interest in NSW, Australia, both centred on the highly contentious area of shark bite mitigation. These two pilot studies demonstrated the application of the Systematic Approach, and produced nuanced in-depth insight into the categories of citizen thinking identified as vital pieces of policy-making information.
The final study returned to the policy and communication experts and used a novel evaluative framework that incorporated dimensions of effectiveness, and usefulness, to determine the utility of the Systematic Approach to policy-making generally, and to policy-making information needs specifically. The systematic approach was found to be highly compatible with existing processes used in government for listening to citizens, allowed for the public to contribute to policy discussions in ways less constrained than traditional methods like town hall meetings or focus groups, and produced nuanced insight into the public thinking useful for decision-making on topics that are sensitive, involve major financial investment, or include communities that are geographically dispersed.
This thesis makes important contributions to the field of policy-making by categorising the information needs of policy decision-makers, and designing a novel systematic method to identify, collect, and analyse these information categories from social and online media. Importantly, it also characterises the types of policy problems well suited to the use of a systematic approach to social media monitoring.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Simmons, Peter, Principal Supervisor
  • Mehmet, Michael, Co-Supervisor, External person
  • Curley, Belinda, Co-Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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