1. bookVolume 41 (2020): Issue 2 (June 2020)
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01 Mar 2013
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A Longitudinal Analysis of Swedish Local Governments on Facebook: A visualisation of communication

Published Online: 19 Nov 2020
Page range: 147 - 162
Journal Details
License
Format
Journal
First Published
01 Mar 2013
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Languages
English
Abstract

Facebook has become an essential channel for local governments to convey information and interact with citizens, and communication on the platform has been studied intensively through a range of smaller case studies in various countries. By looking at the development of Swedish municipalities’ Facebook usage between 2009 and 2017, this article attempts to frame such use in a longitudinal perspective. Based on more than 85,000 posts from 38 Swedish local governments, the findings show that most municipalities have adapted to an online visual culture, using photos and videos “to go viral”. The findings also show large increases in interactions, such as sharing and liking, whilst commenting appears to lag behind. It also shows that local government Facebook pages retain a strong, yet decreasing, tie with government web pages, visible through a tendency of the Facebook page to recycle information from the web page.

Keywords

Introduction

The development of social media in the 2010s has transformed both the public sphere and our ways of interacting with each other and organisations. Authorities, especially local governments in close and daily contact with its citizens, are profoundly affected by such developments. As opposed to the written culture of governments, online social media are engrained in a visual culture. Today, local governments operate in a digital environment of e-services, e-government, and e-participation, and digital and social media are commonalities.

Previous research on interaction through social media in the Nordic countries has shown interesting results. For instance, Bonsón and colleagues (2015) measured the impact of content and media types across 75 local governments in 15 Western European countries. They found that Nordic and southern municipalities have the most engaged stakeholders. Swedish municipalities are diligent social media users, most have one or several Facebook pages, and some have used Facebook for more than a decade. These usage rates reflect the increase in social media use amongst Swedish citizens aged 9–79, which increased from 26 per cent in 2009 to 65 per cent in 2017 (Facht & Ohlsson, 2019). Today, 98 per cent of the Swedish population can access the Internet in their home (Facht & Ohlsson, 2019).

In a recent dissertation focusing on municipalities’ social media use in Sweden, Livia Norström (2019: 19) argues that social media in local government can have innovative use, by supplying service, external relations, and “access to knowledge beyond organisational borders”. Social media provides a hybrid medium through which local governments can inform, pursue dialogue, receive feedback, and monitor discussions (Rasmussen & Ihlen, 2017). Social media is also a part of a set of digital technologies that continues to be central in a discourse of development and efficiency within the public sector (Bertot et al., 2012; Norström, 2019). Local government communication and social media have been an intensive topic of research and discussion (see, e.g., Bertot et al., 2012; Bonsón et al., 2015, 2017; Guillamón et al., 2016; Lappas et al., 2018; Mergel, 2013; Miranda et al., 2018). Most researchers agree about social media's potential to reduce agency costs and support a network governance framework. However, it appears that most local governments use it as one-way communication and as an extension of existing channels, such as the government web page (Bellström et al., 2016; Norström, 2019; Magnusson et al., 2012). The Facebook communication of local governments is, therefore, typically described as resulting in high reuse of information from trusted institutional sources (Mergel, 2017). However, such information recycling should be seen as one of many tactics to maintain a presence in social media, a presence that requires continuous moderation and awareness of spin (Guillamón et al., 2016).

Research on local governments’ uses of social media consists of a patchwork of empirical studies with limited data capturing small moments in time. By looking back and reflecting on how local governments’ uses of social media have developed between 2009 and 2017, the purpose of this study is to paint a broader picture. More specifically, I pose three research questions:

RQ1 How has interaction developed over time in terms of likes, shares, and comments, and what seems to drive interaction for municipalities?

RQ2 How has media use and posting in terms of status messages, photos, videos, events, and links developed over time?

RQ3 What kind of links have local governments shared, and do they indicate high levels of information recycling?

Local government communication in Sweden

Like all organisations, local governments are “embedded in social environments and governed by structural preconditions”, and therefore, their social media practices are “enabled and constrained” by the social (Fredriksson et al., 2013: 184). Politics in Sweden, and especially at the local level, is characterised by strong centralised parties and high voter turnout, by international standards. Swedish municipalities have considerable autonomy and taxation rights and provide a vast array of services, such as schools, elderly care, local transport, housing, garbage disposal, and more.

According to Fredriksson and colleagues (2018), communication work in Swedish municipalities is conducted according to seven principles: organise and create a structure for communication work; position the municipality in relation to other municipalities; have routines for alerting in the event of a crisis; be uniform to appear consistent; interact with stakeholders to capture opinions; use web and digital services to serve citizens; and interact with journalists and the outside world to inform. These principles reveal the comprehensive nature of communication work in the public sector and point to its difficulties and tensions. For example, a fifth of the Swedish municipalities lack a journalistic presence, making information dissemination more challenging (Facht & Ohlsson, 2019). From the citizens’ perspective, this also means less insight and investigation of political and administrative decisions. Such challenges also exacerbate tensions that organisations must deal with, such as creating a uniform brand whilst maintaining transparency (Fredriksson et al., 2018; Fredriksson & Pallas, 2013). In short, communication work interacts with laws and regulations (for instance, the principle of openness and secrecy legislation) that make it more difficult for municipalities to communicate. With the rise of social media, municipalities must adapt to these preconditions in unison with a system where one's personal information is currency, and the control over – and predictability of – messages might be nullified by commenting and sharing on a large scale.

Local government communication departments usually do not have their own goals. Instead, they plan their activities based on political priorities and support other departments in activities to fulfil (politically set) priorities and goals. However, not all local governments have the same financial and organisational means to pursue their goals. Local governments vary widely in both the tax base and human capital they have available, which influences their political priorities and thereby shapes the communicational priorities. This variety also applies to the opportunities to use social media. Lidén and Larsson (2016; see also Larsson, 2013), for instance, note that municipal size and use of social media are positively correlated. In the Swedish context, Bergquist and colleagues also point to differences in how authorities use social media in different ways; for example, the police using it for “flexible interaction” by utilising social media's various capabilities, or the Swedish Social Insurance Agency creating a more “stable and well-defined” customer service channel (Berguist et al., 2017, 870; see also DePaula et al., 2018). Since Swedish local governments perform a comprehensive set of services, this will presumably lead to social media being used both as a means for flexible interaction and as a customer service channel.

Local governments and social media

Several frameworks have been developed to capture municipal use of Facebook, as well as the various levels of engagement (e.g., DePaula et. a., 2018; Guillamón et al., 2016; Bonsón et al., 2015; Mergel, 2013). One way to characterise social media use in the public sector is through a framework of push, pull, and networking (DePaula et al., 2018; Mergel, 2013). Though previous research concludes that the level of engagement depends not only on strategies and media usage, but also on networking with the community (Picazo-Vela et al., 2016), due to the nature of this particular study, my focus is on push and pull. Networking, which captures collaboration with citizens in issue networks or communities and co-design of services (Mergel 2013), requires more qualitative approaches, and preferably in-depth local knowledge on issue networks and governance schemes.

Pushing aims to increase transparency by informing and educating citizens through one-way communication. Studies show that the push category is most common, particularly for information provision (Gao & Lee, 2017; Reddick et al., 2017; DePaula & Dincelli, 2016; Mossberger et al., 2013) and marketing activities (Bellström et al., 2016; Bonsón et al., 2015; Magnusson et al., 2012). Mergel (2017: 490) argues that governments are prone to push tactics due to the “risk-averse” context in which they operate, and therefore, they often recycle information already published on their website or by trusted institutional sources. This strategy helps avoid posting incomplete information, which can erode citizens’ trust in government, even in less severe matters (Wukich & Mergel, 2016). Furthermore, though expressing a reservation for cross-consumption of information on multiple platforms, Porumbescu (2016) suggests that users are more receptive to less-detailed information, favouring social media as a medium for pushing information. Another aspect contributing to the popularity of social media for pushing information, according to Fredriksson and colleagues (2018: 21), is that municipalities perceive social media as “fast, easy and cheap”. While pushing information is the most common tactic DePaula and colleagues (2018) found that 45 per cent of all posts in their study were symbolic, and a large share of these posts (21%) were acts such as “thank you” or “congratulations”. Thus, they raise the importance of understanding the “social” in social media through a ritual model of communication (see Carey, 2008), not as a mere transmission of information from a sender to a receiver.

The push approach mainly follows what seems like a tradition of e-government and information provision (Hanssen, 2007; Torpe & Nielsen, 2004). There is a relatively linear relationship between governmental adoption of social media and delivery of online democratic services via official homepages, making e-government a trend that may be hard to opt out of (Lidén & Larsson, 2016). The relationship is also apparent in how local governments share links on their Facebook pages and through the guidelines that dictate how they should relate to each other.

In contrast to the one-way communication of push, pull is used to stimulate the interaction and engagement of citizens in deliberation, consultation, and feedback (Mergel, 2013), for instance, through encouraging language (Gao & Lee, 2017). E-participation of citizens seems to result in governments posting more information via social media, as the acts of participation often require government responses (Guillamón et al., 2016). Given the broad activities and services Swedish local governments provide and the party-centred nature of local politics in Sweden, pull messages often contain a comprehensive set of events and issues. In terms of interaction, large amounts of likes, shares, and (positive) comments may serve as an indication of how an issue or policy is received. Similarly, the absence of any reactions can be interpreted as a sign of disinterest.

Adapting posts to include more visual material may be vital to pull strategies as a way to increase user interaction (Lappas et al., 2018; Lev-On & Steinfeld, 2015), and may thus be a strategic tactic for public relations work (Fredriksson et al., 2018). For instance, Rasmussen and Ihlen (2017: 12) note in a literature review on social media, risk, and crisis that social media can be used proactively as a “listening post” and a space where organisations can float suggestions and engage with stakeholders and risk bearers. Lastly, the ability to pull, listen to citizens, and thus increase interaction should be understood as deeply connected to “rhetorically configur[ing]” social media usage “to establish stronger bonds of friendship with the next generation of media-savvy citizens” (Isaksson & Jorgensen, 2018: 126).

Material and method

Studying the Internet and social media is, as Karpf (2012: 652) puts it, “unsettling”. It requires hitting a moving target – analysing phenomena as they change. The data collected from 38 Swedish municipalities’ Facebook pages was initially meant for use in a pilot study conducted before material from all 290 municipalities was collected. As a consequence of the Cambridge Analytica incidents, however, Facebook made communication with their application programming interface harder, thus limiting further access to municipal Facebook data.

This study's data was gathered by communicating with Facebook's application programming interface using a python-script specifically configured to mine the posted content and interaction figures of a given page. The script only retrieved descriptive statistics and not the comments, images, or videos posted, which has both advantages and disadvantages. For instance, the source of the collected data has been accessible except for Luleå municipality, who reshaped their Facebook page shortly after the data collection, making it impossible to follow the mined links back to the original post.

It is often preferable to physically store the digital material should it be removed or disappear, as often is the case. At the same time, such a collection involves more far-reaching ethical difficulties than collecting descriptive statistics, as samples often would include posts and comments from citizens.

The sample was randomly selected from a list of all municipalities and controlled for geographical and demographical markers, such as municipal size and geographic location, as well as municipality classifications set by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (2016) (see Appendix 1 for full details of the municipalities’ data). The sample thus contains data from both early and late adopters, and during the studied period, they most likely have developed and changed their experiences and knowledge. There have also been political shifts in power and new developments that inevitably have affected the content and posting habits. The sample also includes three municipal place-branding Facebook pages: Jönköping, Luleå, and Halmstad. These pages differ from the “official main pages” not in their ownership, but rather in their focus. Place-branding pages focus more exclusively on aspects of marketing municipalities as places to live, work, and visit.

Data collection ran from the day the respective municipality made their first post until data collection ended on 15 September 2017, and resulted in 85,663 posts. Of these posts, 181 had a date preceding the Facebook page's existence and were excluded from the analysis.

From 2011 onwards, Facebook allows its users to add events on their timeline to chronologically order life (see Van Djick, 2013). For instance, Ystad municipality added a post from October 1910 on their timeline to highlight their first cinema's opening.

The data contains the status of the message posted, post or media type (link, event, video, photo, or status text), any links associated with the post, permanent link to the actual post, and date.

During the time this dataset was posted, new platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat gained momentum, affecting how people think of and use social media. Furthermore, new features, such as autoplay and focus on video, have during this time changed the functions of Facebook's software. Another limitation is that many posts contained images, links, and text in the same post; the classification here reflects only how individuals actually posted. The data also includes the total number of reactions to the ascribed post and the number of comments, shares, and likes. To retain continuity in the interaction measurements, I have excluded the reactions introduced by Facebook in 2017. Further, the dataset does not distinguish media type (for instance, video) for a post type such as events – they are all treated as media; however, it is crucial to know that an event can appear as a video or a photo. The raw data from each municipality was exported to Excel and then merged, providing the bulk of the descriptive statistics for RQ1 and RQ2.

For RQ3, I exported all links and used a text editor, TextWrangler, to isolate the external links from every municipality. I used a semi-automated approach by instructing the editor to select similar strings – such as “goteborg.se” – to categorise the links. 38,970 links were processed, but one fourth – many of them so-called short links like “bit.ly” – required a workaround and manual coding. To the extent possible, I traced broken links through Google, yet some links were untraceable, making the total number of links 38,076. To keep the categories of links at a manageable size and still be able to discern issues of information recycling (Mergel, 2013; Wukich & Mergel, 2016), I categorised links on sectorial considerations and organisational forms, such as NGO, commercial companies, governmental agencies or companies, and interest organisations. I also divided links into categories of local, national, and international news media, public service and magazines, and other social media to frame linking in a broader network of actors. All sorted links were exported to Gephi – an open-source visualisation and exploration software – for network analysis and visualisation and will be presented in the next section (see Figure 2).

Findings
Media usage

In 2012, most municipalities had a centralised Facebook page. Notably amongst the late adopters was Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden, who made their first post in late October of 2012. Some municipalities had accounts before the period found in the data; the starting point of each municipality here only marks the establishment of the specific centralised government page. Media usage for all municipalities varied more from 2010 to 2014, but seemed to stabilise after 2014 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Relative use of different posts, 2009–2017 (per cent)

Comments: N = 85,482: 2009 (379); 2010 (2,961); 2011 (8,836); 2012 (11,057); 2013 (12,664); 2014 (12,558); 2015 (12,895); 2016 (13,986); 2017 (10,146, data collection ended on 15 September 2017). Post type here reflects only the choice made by the individual poster.

The stable phase from 2015 onwards includes small increases in post types video and event, with videos showing the most positive trend. Increases in videos dating 2014 onwards coincided with Facebook's launching of its new timeline containing autoplay of video as a standard feature for users (Constine, 2013). The share of photos relative to total posts seems to verify results from comparative studies based on more limited data (Bonsón et al., 2015) and studies done in other European countries (Lappas et al., 2018).

Links were the dominating medium in the establishing period (2009–2012), during which two-thirds of all the external links lead to the central homepage. Bonsón et al., (2015), whose data collection took place in March 2013, also found that links were the most commonly used media type, which seems consistent with the dataset presented here.

A majority of the links – 70 per cent, or 27,516 – lead back to the municipalities’ homepages and was the most common link by most municipalities (see Figure 2), suggestive of recycling information from municipalities’ homepages (see Wukich & Mergel, 2016). Drawing on experiences from fieldwork,

The mentioned fieldwork took place at Örnsköldsviks municipality from 2015–2020, as part of a co-founded dissertation project.

policies, and guidelines, such use of links is consistent with municipal websites’ descriptions as “informational hubs”, positioning social media as complementary channels. Leaning on Fredriksson and colleagues (2018), one can understand this consistency in terms of the uniforming principle. For instance, in Örebro municipality, social media guidelines specify that departments should update their information on the web before they start to use social media, so that “what is communicated in the different channels is coherent” (Örebro municipality, 2018).

Figure 2

Model portraying local governments’ external links on their Facebook pages

Comments: N = 38,076. The threshold for nodes is set to 10, making only co-occurrences between a municipality (source) and category (target) that superseded 10 visible in the network. Through the modularity function (Blondel et al., 2008), three clusters were identified: a societal information cluster (blue; N = 31,632); a marketing and place-branding cluster (yellow; N = 4,644); and a press/publishing-service cluster (orange; N = 1,800). Node sizes indicate the number of links from a municipality (source) and line's thickness connection to a category (target).

The blue cluster contained mainly links to a wide assortment of societal information from either municipalities or governmental agencies’ web pages or their respective social media accounts. In 2010, almost half of all posts contained a link to the municipal web page. By 2017, the number had gradually gone down to a fifth of the posts. Connections to social media sites made up between 1 and 2 per cent of the links per year, predominantly to municipal YouTube channels. Notably, there were only 34 links to Twitter in total, and from 2016, an increase in links to Instagram and a decrease in links to Twitter can be noted. Links to public service media or national broadcaster TV4 pertained mainly to local (positive) happenings.

Municipalities placed in the orange cluster diverged in the sense that they linked more to their platforms on press service or job service outlets like Mynewsdesk or Aditro Recruit. In other words, it shows the extent to which Facebook became an outlet for press releases and job ads. Municipalities in the yellow cluster tended to link more to positive stories about themselves in news media outlets – locally, nationally, and internationally. Links to international news media outlets and magazines mostly contained travel report-ages or rankings of best destinations. Links between place-branding Facebook pages and municipal place-branding pages showed tendencies similar to main Facebook pages and municipal web pages. One-third of Halmstad's and two-thirds of Jönköping's external links went to their destination page. Links to local news media varied between 1 and 2.5 per cent and showed signs of increase from 2015.

The use of status messages decreased over time but made up one-tenth of the collected material. Between 2010 and 2015, the words “information”, “PR-Officer”, “municipal”, “water”, “http”, and indications of time and days were consistently amongst the most used. These words indicated that this particular media type was used as a push strategy: to serve, inform, and alarm citizens about opening hours of libraries, water issues, and other service functions, date and time of events, and when the departments carried out services like repairs or snow ploughing (Fredriksson et al., 2018). After 2015, it was possible to note declines in all of these most commonly used words expect for “water”, indicating continuous use of status messages to both inform and alarm about water issues such as broken pipes or unusable water.

To summarise, media usage stabilised after 2014, apart from increases in video and events, though “stable” may be an ambiguous word to use here, especially when situated within a media sphere that has developed rapidly. However, considering posting patterns and formalisation of Facebook use through policies and guidelines, it may reflect how municipalities have professionalised their Facebook usage and practices to some extent. The data suggests that municipalities, in general, have understood the importance of visual material to enhancing engagement and exposure. From 2014 to 2017, the combined use of visual media, photos, and videos increased from a combined 44 per cent to 58 per cent, a large share of which occurs between 2014 and 2015. Finally, while links to the municipal web pages decreased over time in both absolute and relative terms, they still indicated high levels of information recycling in 2017. Such information recycling should be understood in the light of principles guiding communications work in Swedish municipalities (Fredriksson et al., 2018). In particular, the principle of serving and informing may be presented as links to the municipal homepage where information and e-service are available. The principle of uniforming may strengthen such a relation, as it conforms information to be similar over different platforms.

Interaction

In 2009, 39 per cent of Swedish Internet users (aged 12+) visited a social networking site, and in 2013, it was 66 per cent (Findahl, 2013). In 2011, daily use of social media sites was at 37 per cent, and infrequent use was at 63 per cent; in 2017, it was 53 per cent and 74 per cent, respectively (Davidsson & Thoresson, 2017). Figure 3 illustrates increases in interactions over time. Gains can be understood both as an effect of more municipalities creating Facebook pages and an overall increase in social media usage.

Figure 3

Mean interactions per post, 2009–2017

Comments: The figure illustrates changes in mean values. Standard deviation formula on sample population indicates large variations within these values.

The increase in interactivity from 2015 to 2016 is less rapid and may, to some extent, depend on an increasing number of posts. Without downplaying the effects of a growing number of followers on interaction levels, professionalisation may also play a role (Mergel & Bretschneider, 2013). As explained in the previous section, most municipalities have formulated guidelines or handbooks concerning social media usage (e.g., Arvidsjaur municipality, 2012), with some even developing flow charts for handling incoming comments and opinions (Tyresö municipality, 2010). Over time, user interaction increases were consistent with the relative input they required from users and with previous findings (Bonsón et al., 2015, 2017). While 50 per cent of the total posts contained ten or fewer likes, it was by far the most likely action taken by a user. In general, interaction took off in 2012, but it was unevenly distributed across media types. In particular, visual material garnered most and increasing amounts of interaction over time (see Table 1).

Mean interaction per post type, 2012–2017

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Event
  Comments 0.43 (0.88) 0.48 (1.81) 0.22 (0.70) 0.73 (3.37) 0.58 (1.80) 0.58 (1.31)
  Shares 0.48 (1.26) 0.53 (1.56) 0.08 (0.29) < 0.01 (0.08) < 0.1 (0.08) < 0.01 (0.09)
  Likes 6.55 (10.50) 8.70 (20.93) 10.36 (19.59) 23.71 (72.47) 22.99 (53.64) 19.69 (35.96)

Link
  Comments 0.86 (2.94) 0.83 (2.78) 1.04 (3.30) 1.78 (5.19) 2.24 (6.19) 2.43 (7.50)
  Shares 0.60 (1.56) 1.10 (3.14) 2.88 (10.52) 4.95 (10.64) 6.52 (19.55) 6.64 (16.45)
  Likes 5.8 (13.41) 10.32 (24.47) 18.96 (53.79) 33.67 (74.08) 40.64 (75.85) 48.64 (84.72)

Photo
  Comments 4.57 (15.85) 4.42 (12.33) 3.22 (7.71) 5.16 (19.40) 4.40 (10.69) 5 (15.87)
  Shares 8.09 (114.28) 7.89 (43.98) 6.84 (18.24) 11.67 (71.24) 11.43 (33.74) 10.22 (30.41)
  Likes 69.89 (675.24) 75.9 (225.92) 80.09 (158.70) 128.44 (456.83) 128.88 (289.38) 112.29 (234.26)

Status
  Comments 3.33 (9.86) 3.39 (8.58) 2.57 (7.35) 2.39 (6.88) 2.39 (5.99) 2.81 (10.89)
  Shares 0.97 (4.13) 3.43 (13.01) 4.96 (19.17) 7.40 (43.73) 7.56 (28.35) 10.60 (68.42)
  Likes 14.90 (55.39) 21.94 (70.64) 22.95 (84.91) 22.97 (58.17) 22.43 (57.79) 50.08 (560.17)

Video
  Comments 1.57 (5.25) 1.63 (3.93) 2.45 (8.72) 4.70 (15.24) 6.97 (18.44) 8.63 (51.53)
  Shares 1.61 (3.59) 5.18 (29.76) 13.51 (141.92) 17.60 (111.42) 31.67 (170.03) 29 (396.33)
  Likes 8.54 (13.12) 22.28 (40.84) 50.38 (141.72) 81.43 (138.64) 133.19 (327.61) 120.85 (392.21)

Comments: Standard deviation (in parentheses) illustrate variation within each post type.

While visual media types attracted most interaction overall, the interaction was, as seen above, very unevenly distributed across posts. A possible way (besides an increasing number of followers) to explain increasing interactivity is that municipalities have become better at “going viral”. From 2015 onwards, most municipalities in the dataset have, as part of their Facebook repertoire, what we may term “likeable local images”. A big red moon rising over a city centre or a 400-year-old castle upon on a hill are aesthetically pleasing images that allow citizens to rejoice over their beautiful city. Such images are often accompanied by more symbolic pull messages like “isn’t it nice?” or “isn’t this view fantastic?”

While these images, at face value, seem to have little to do with a municipality's core mission, they appeared amongst the most liked posts in all municipalities. A post from Örebro municipality (2017) portraying a governmental employee riding a homemade hovercraft serves as an example and provides some explanation: the video was the single most shared (13,753) and commented on (1,685) post in the material. Posts following a similar trajectory were in the majority amongst the most commented, liked, and shared. These kinds of posts can be understood through a social media logic of popularity (Van Dijck & Poell, 2013). They constitute a way to drive up likes, which then is reinforced by techniques and logic of “lifting popular items” inherent to social media (Olsson & Eriksson, 2016: 192). Following Van Dijck (2013: 51), Facebook can then be understood as a space for municipalities to “create a self-image and popularising this image beyond intimate circles”, and further, as a possible way for them to position themselves against other municipalities (Fredriksson et al., 2018). The hovercraft post is particularly interesting when viewed through this lens: as the post gained popularity, Örebro municipality updated it with English subtitles to adapt it to an international audience very much beyond the “intimate circle”.

Commenting on posts seemingly driven by popularity consisted to a significant extent of users tagging other users in their comments. It seemed like a way of sharing content between users and possibly inflating comments as a measure of dialogue. In the ten most commented posts from each municipality, one in every five comments consisted of users tagging other users, and in the case of Örebro municipality, the number was more than half. These comments illustrate that interaction is driven in part by actions that are easy for a user to take, which calls for a certain carefulness and awareness of the messiness when measuring interaction (see Bonsón et al., 2015; Karpf 2012).

Finally, the local governments’ use of pull messages was somewhat consistent over time. They increased in line with posts and interactions in general, but there were no clear indications that pull messages drove interaction. One possible explanation is that pull messages such as “share your opinion” or “what do you think?” often consisted of a link to the municipal homepage or information about an event where citizens could participate. If pull messages did lead to interaction on Facebook it seems, in many cases, to be an unintended effect. One of Skellefteå municipality's most commented posts can serve as an example. In this post, a video – where the local government presented a possible future structure for schools and preschools to their followers – contained suggestions for merging many smaller schools into larger units as well as strategies for attracting teachers. Here, some citizens viewed the video as an intention to shut down many of the more rurally located schools, and they expressed their concerns in the comment section to the video. Important to note is that Skellefteå is a northern municipality with approximately 75,000 total inhabitants, half of which live in the urban area and the other half in smaller rural centres. The municipality's posted this first message in the commenting section as citizenry comments piled up:

We do not have resources to answer comments on our Facebook-page around the clock […] we cannot answer all comments, and there are too many, we have no other choice but to sum up and answer the questions we perceive most people to pose [translated].

(Skellefteå municipality, 2016)

The statement in itself suggests that the municipality was insufficiently staffed and resourced to hold dialogue with its citizens. As indicated by “answering questions”, the actual dialogue consisted mostly of defending, nuance, and providing complementary information to the video. Meanwhile, the citizens criticised the local government and had in-depth discussions on school policy, strategies to recruit teachers, governing, and even encouraged each other to join protest movements. This example reflects how governments may utilise software such as Facebook to narrate, without paying proper attention to its social aspects (Norris & Reddick, 2013; Picazo-Vela et al., 2016). From a user perspective, this video – laden with the question “have you ever thought on why we are investigating the school structure?” – may also be interpreted as a call for participation and for citizens to express their opinions (see DePaula et al., 2018; Lappas et al., 2018). While the video's result most likely was not what the local government hoped for, it shows that Facebook can in fact serve an important function and provide a genuine opportunity for governments to listen to various interactions and interests.

Conclusion

This study aimed to explore nine years of Facebook data from Swedish local governments. I asked how interaction and media use developed over time, what kind of links local governments shared, and whether they indicated high information recycling levels. What is most striking during this period is how Facebook use becomes an ordinary life practice for many citizens (Davidsson & Thoresson, 2017) and how it reflected a substantial increase in municipal Facebook activity. The municipalities’ posting habits indicated that they were embracing a more visual approach, with images and videos gaining primacy over texts and links, a development consistent with findings in previous research (e.g., Bonsón et al., 2015; Lappas et al., 2018). Image and video content is an essential driver for interaction, which social media managers surely have noticed; however, cross-posting from other social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram was rare and often only accessible via a link through the municipalities’ websites.

The many links to municipal web pages suggests substantial recycling of information, indicating high levels of pushing information (Mergel, 2017; Wukich & Mergel, 2016). Furthermore, a close reading of policy material indicated a common view that information on Facebook should always have its equivalent on the homepage. A central finding is that Facebook had a remediating function and, at times – especially from 2010 to 2013 – Facebook pages could even be seen as extensions of the homepages (see Lidén & Larsson, 2016). This result is not surprising, as many municipalities are service-oriented organisations and have a responsibility to reach all their residents with important societal information (Fredriksson et al., 2018). Social media provides ample opportunities to reach “the unreachable”, anchoring its role as a complementary channel to informational hubs such as a government web page. We must also understand high levels of push information in the context of the absence and decreased resources of local news media, resulting in a more extensive – and problematic – responsibility being put on local government organisations to report “the news”.

In line with previous research (e.g., DePaula et al., 2018; Gao & Lee, 2017; Reddick et al., 2017; Mossberger et al., 2013), many posts seemed to be push messages about events and meetings or service issues like water leaks. Facebook, as a medium, perhaps shows its most significant strength in these latter – and what may be perceived as more trivial – matters; updating citizens via Facebook is easy, with instant access for citizens in a space were they already direct much of their attention (Davidsson & Thoresson, 2017). Push messages also included ritualistic communication geared towards identity, branding, and communal discourses and symbolical acts (DePaula 2018). As exemplified by the earlier discussion of the red moon post, push communication in a ritualistic configuration appealed to a sense of shared community and local pride, thus drawing citizens together (Carey, 2008) and seeking their approval (Van Dijck, 2013). These messages were often filled with visual representations of local symbols such as historical sights, city centres, or other beloved local monuments or places. Following Van Dijck (2013), we can also understand these posts as part of the construction and popularisation of a self-image. Facebook's software may help move this image to an external public by the inherent logic of lifting popular items (Bucher, 2012; Olsson & Eriksson, 2016). For many municipalities, Facebook and other social media are important channels for positioning themselves against the outside world and towards other municipalities. For many, and especially the demographically smaller municipalities, positioning is increasingly an existential issue – where to endure and thrive depends on the ability to attract visitors and human capital, and by extension, a tax base to finance welfare.

To conclude, social media, and particularly Facebook, seems to continuously play an important role for municipalities in more and more areas of their communication. Today, the chat function provides a fast and easy customer-service channel, and targeted ads give new opportunities to pinpoint hard-to-reach audiences and spread the image of the organisation across time and space. In recent developments, the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 has highlighted the value of using social media as a channel for informing and alarming citizens in a space where they already direct much of their attention. Further research should take more in-depth, longitudinal, and qualitative approaches to how local governments use social media as a space for discussions and listening, and to the role it may play in the local political system. There are ample opportunities for both politicians and public servants to propose suggestions and listen to the discourse. In the context of a larger political system, social media – and in particular centralised Facebook pages with large followings – can serve an important epistemic function if they are taken seriously as a forum for discussion and listening. In the end, it is a question of finding traces where people leave them.

Figure 1

Relative use of different posts, 2009–2017 (per cent)Comments: N = 85,482: 2009 (379); 2010 (2,961); 2011 (8,836); 2012 (11,057); 2013 (12,664); 2014 (12,558); 2015 (12,895); 2016 (13,986); 2017 (10,146, data collection ended on 15 September 2017). Post type here reflects only the choice made by the individual poster.
Relative use of different posts, 2009–2017 (per cent)Comments: N = 85,482: 2009 (379); 2010 (2,961); 2011 (8,836); 2012 (11,057); 2013 (12,664); 2014 (12,558); 2015 (12,895); 2016 (13,986); 2017 (10,146, data collection ended on 15 September 2017). Post type here reflects only the choice made by the individual poster.

Figure 2

Model portraying local governments’ external links on their Facebook pagesComments: N = 38,076. The threshold for nodes is set to 10, making only co-occurrences between a municipality (source) and category (target) that superseded 10 visible in the network. Through the modularity function (Blondel et al., 2008), three clusters were identified: a societal information cluster (blue; N = 31,632); a marketing and place-branding cluster (yellow; N = 4,644); and a press/publishing-service cluster (orange; N = 1,800). Node sizes indicate the number of links from a municipality (source) and line's thickness connection to a category (target).
Model portraying local governments’ external links on their Facebook pagesComments: N = 38,076. The threshold for nodes is set to 10, making only co-occurrences between a municipality (source) and category (target) that superseded 10 visible in the network. Through the modularity function (Blondel et al., 2008), three clusters were identified: a societal information cluster (blue; N = 31,632); a marketing and place-branding cluster (yellow; N = 4,644); and a press/publishing-service cluster (orange; N = 1,800). Node sizes indicate the number of links from a municipality (source) and line's thickness connection to a category (target).

Figure 3

Mean interactions per post, 2009–2017Comments: The figure illustrates changes in mean values. Standard deviation formula on sample population indicates large variations within these values.
Mean interactions per post, 2009–2017Comments: The figure illustrates changes in mean values. Standard deviation formula on sample population indicates large variations within these values.

Mean interaction per post type, 2012–2017

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Event
  Comments 0.43 (0.88) 0.48 (1.81) 0.22 (0.70) 0.73 (3.37) 0.58 (1.80) 0.58 (1.31)
  Shares 0.48 (1.26) 0.53 (1.56) 0.08 (0.29) < 0.01 (0.08) < 0.1 (0.08) < 0.01 (0.09)
  Likes 6.55 (10.50) 8.70 (20.93) 10.36 (19.59) 23.71 (72.47) 22.99 (53.64) 19.69 (35.96)

Link
  Comments 0.86 (2.94) 0.83 (2.78) 1.04 (3.30) 1.78 (5.19) 2.24 (6.19) 2.43 (7.50)
  Shares 0.60 (1.56) 1.10 (3.14) 2.88 (10.52) 4.95 (10.64) 6.52 (19.55) 6.64 (16.45)
  Likes 5.8 (13.41) 10.32 (24.47) 18.96 (53.79) 33.67 (74.08) 40.64 (75.85) 48.64 (84.72)

Photo
  Comments 4.57 (15.85) 4.42 (12.33) 3.22 (7.71) 5.16 (19.40) 4.40 (10.69) 5 (15.87)
  Shares 8.09 (114.28) 7.89 (43.98) 6.84 (18.24) 11.67 (71.24) 11.43 (33.74) 10.22 (30.41)
  Likes 69.89 (675.24) 75.9 (225.92) 80.09 (158.70) 128.44 (456.83) 128.88 (289.38) 112.29 (234.26)

Status
  Comments 3.33 (9.86) 3.39 (8.58) 2.57 (7.35) 2.39 (6.88) 2.39 (5.99) 2.81 (10.89)
  Shares 0.97 (4.13) 3.43 (13.01) 4.96 (19.17) 7.40 (43.73) 7.56 (28.35) 10.60 (68.42)
  Likes 14.90 (55.39) 21.94 (70.64) 22.95 (84.91) 22.97 (58.17) 22.43 (57.79) 50.08 (560.17)

Video
  Comments 1.57 (5.25) 1.63 (3.93) 2.45 (8.72) 4.70 (15.24) 6.97 (18.44) 8.63 (51.53)
  Shares 1.61 (3.59) 5.18 (29.76) 13.51 (141.92) 17.60 (111.42) 31.67 (170.03) 29 (396.33)
  Likes 8.54 (13.12) 22.28 (40.84) 50.38 (141.72) 81.43 (138.64) 133.19 (327.61) 120.85 (392.21)

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