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Social media: creating a virtual environment that fosters democratic debate

Marcos Barros
Publié le
18 Novembre 2019

Social media offers a new space for debate with disagreement and individual criticism. How can organizations use these new tools, create appropriate rules and foster a positive discussion via social media?

“Our research focused on the question of public debate via social media, and more specifically, how to create new spaces on social networks to foster democratic debate,” explains  Marcos Barros.

The study was published in 2019 in the journal Organization. It analyzed how members of one of Canada’s largest consumer cooperatives reacted to what they considered to be an attack on the cooperative’s democratic values. Consumers used social media to try and resist the board of directors attempt to change the rules of governance. This analysis also highlighted a shift for companies towards new spaces that create alternative forms of debate.

Mass media versus social media

Before social networks, traditional media controlled the narrative. “Mass media” was able to create a predominant perspective on an issue without much opportunity for disagreement. “Today, social media makes it much more difficult for company leaders to control communications by individuals. External communications can greatly impact an organization if they get out of control,” highlights Marcos.

First recommendation 

The first important factor for organizations is to understand how to “format” a message that deals with sensitive topics such as ethnicity or gender issues. This will enable the organization to reduce the chances of a communication being misinterpreted and misused on social media. “A simple solution is to share a test-message with individuals who are impacted by the sensitive topic. For example, employees or customers can provide feedback before publishing a message for all to see.”

Recognize the need for expression

Public debate is built around an exchange of ideas. Social media enables everyone to express and listen to a variety of ideas. This makes for a boisterous stage for public debates. It’s an evolution that fundamentally changes how interpersonal interactions take place.

Second recommendation  

“It’s essential to recognize the need for public expression. The ability to express one’s voice, and ideally, be listened to, has become a value of fundamental importance. When the public feels that its ideas are censured or not listened to, it can have a very negative impact on an organization’s image.”

Going beyond the illusion of control

“You have to leave behind the illusion of wanting to control exchanges, even internal ones. Instead organizations have to work on their identity in order to develop coherent messaging. For example, a slogan about ‘liking the New York Police Department’ backfired when it was associated with images of New York police being violent towards African Americans.”

Third recommendation

It’s important for individuals, whether they be tied to the organization or not, to be able to express their opinions internally rather than externally. Creating a space for the expression of ideas internally enables debate with less risk of losing control of the situation, which can happen quite easily on social networks.

“The goal is to guarantee an internal discussion that is positive or at least as positive as is possible for the situation. This will help guide external discussion on social media. In unions for example efforts are being made to increase member participation through the use of virtual environments that are dedicated to debating major issues. Despite mixed results, the existence, understanding and use of virtual communications tools is essential for the survival of all organizations,” concludes Marcos.

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