Governments using Social Media to Inform the Public (Summary)

Diverse forces impact the world at a consistently increasing speed, obliging us to rethink many concepts and relationships we thought given. Many phenomena are becoming more closely linked and a web of interdependence characterizes many contemporary events. Government and the state are still of great academic and practical importance to citizens that live in them, but their role as sovereign actors is increasingly being called into question (Nye & Keohane, 1971; Sassen, 2008; Detomasi, 2006).

Emil Ziebell, 2020

But not just the influence of governmental institutions is being called into question. An obvious effect of the current pandemic is that media is increasingly consumed digitally, which is a straightforward topic for a blog on digital media and society. As I have read in various posts, many of my peers are increasingly concerned with how the digital impacts their lives, especially during Corona. I have thought about this topic before and will use this opportunity (given to us by the organizers of the Digital Media and Society course) to give a brief summary of a study I made in another course. Additionally, I want to use this, content wise, open environment to reflect on my investigation.


My research question is: How does the use of Facebook by government institutions influence the content of government information? So does the content from the same source differ depending on if Facebook or a more trditional platform is used? Facebook has become an increasingly important and widely used platform for information sharing, both by individuals, corporations and governments.

Globally over two and a half billion people are active monthly users of Facebook (Clement, 2020). Facebook has become an integral part of the lives of many people around the globe (Zell & Moeller, 2018), by enabling users to communicate globally with various features like video chats, to share pictures and videos, and to receive an endless amount of content, such as news, posts, friend suggestions, and advertisement for all sorts of products.

Emil Ziebell, 2020

The case of the Corona pandemic increased both the volume of information consumed via Facebook, as well as the importance this platform presents. The article goes on by critically examining general effects that the spread of information over Facebook has on the content of the information, due to Facebook specific functions and features.

The algorithms used by Facebook solely privilege engagement (Andrews, 2019). This means that content is most actively circulated and suggested to most people if it provokes reaction, positive or negative (Andrews, 2019).

Emil Ziebell, 2020

The point is, Facebook changes not only the practice of how we obtain information and communicate generally but it also influences the content, thereby influencing public debate and public opinion.

There exist a variety of interesting studies on this topic: Andrews, 2019; Müller, Schneiders, & Schäfer, 2016; Vishwanath, 2014; Benkler, Farris, & Roberts, 2018; David, San Pascual, & Torres, 2019. In times of Corona, but also in general, the importance of information provided by the government to the people can not be overstated. The government generally has the duty to inform its citizens about basic information, measures, recommendations and laws, especially when matters concern public health. Previous literature suggests that especially in times where public health is at risk the government has a strong incentive to keep the public well informed, for reasons reaching from democratic legitimacy to power preservation (Baccini, Sudulich, & Wall, 2016). Below are my two hypotheses which result from the insights that, on the one hand information on Facebook does generally differ, but on the other hand governmental information concerning public health are especially important and is therefor expected to not differ substantially across different media platforms.

H1: Government information spread via Facebook is more simplistic and emotionally laden than on more traditional platforms.


H2: Government information spread via Facebook does not differ from information on other platforms when matters concern public health

Emil Ziebell, 2020

The study then qualitatively compares content shared by the German Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) on Facebook with info shared on the official website of the BMG in a time frame at the beginning of the corona pandemic in Germany. I will here skip the detailed explanation of methods and data selection and get straight to the results, split into three main findings. Firstly, the format of the information on the two platforms does not differ substantially. On both platforms the preferred way to share information is video. Secondly, the tone of the information is almost identical. The information is characterized by a very personal appeal by Jens Spahn (German Health Minister). Thirdly, information on international cooperation that is taking place in the context of Corona is more detailed on the website, especially regarding German cooperation with the EU and EU members. Information regarding international efforts for finding a vaccination are absent on the Facebook site.

The results lead to the rejection of H2 and the tentative acceptance of H1: information on the platforms differs, and information spread over Facebook is more simplistic and emotionally laden than on more traditional platforms, namely the official website. The Facebook site emphasizes, to a great degree, the national implications of the virus, while the website puts these in a more complex, global context.


Retrospectively, one point of critique seems to become increasingly important: can the two platforms be regarded as independent and therefor be compared meaningfully? The influence of Facebook on the sharing of information and “news” has been substantial for quite a while and this could already have affected more traditional platforms to adjust their content in order to reach a younger generation which uses Facebook a lot. I have not found studies investigating this specific topic, but traditional media has, at least in my view, also changed and has become more lurid and polarizing. What do you think? Have traditional main stream media platforms become more lurid and emotional? And could a cause be that Facebook and co. are so influential that other platforms had to adjust to not lose their consumers?

List of References

Andrews, L. (2019). Facebook, the media and democracy: Big tech, small state? London, England: Routledge. Benkler, Y., Farris, R., & Roberts, H. (2018). Network propaganda: Manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Baccini, L., Sudulich, L., & Wall, M. (2016). Internet effects in times of political crisis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 80(2), 411-436. doi:10.1093/poq/nfv055

Benkler, Y., Farris, R., & Roberts, H. (2018). Network propaganda: Manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics. Oxford University Press.

Clement, J. (2020, April 30). Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 1st quarter 2020. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from

David, C. C., San Pascual, M. R., & Torres, M. E. (2019). Reliance on Facebook for news and its influence on political engagement. PLOS ONE, 14(3), e0212263. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0212263

Detomasi, D. A. (2006). The multinational corporation and global governance: Modelling global public policy networks. Journal of Business Ethics, 71(3), 321-334. doi:10.1007/s10551-006-9141-2

Müller, P., Schneiders, P., & Schäfer, S. (2016). Appetizer or main dish? Explaining the use of Facebook news posts as a substitute for other news sources. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 431-441. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.09.003

NyeInternational Organization, 25(3), 329-349. doi:10.1017/s0020818300026187, J. S., & Keohane, R. O. (1971). Transnational relations and world politics: An introduction.

Sassen, S. (2008). The state and the global city. In P. Levitt, S. Khagram (Eds.), The transnational studies reader: Interdisciplinary intersections and innovations (pp. 64-71). New York, NY: Routledge.

Vishwanath, A. (2014). Habitual Facebook use and its impact on getting deceived on social media. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(1), 83-98. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12100

Zell, A. L., & Moeller, L. (2018). Are you happy for me … on Facebook? The potential importance of “likes” and comments. Computers in Human Behavior, 78, 26-33. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.08.050