A study by Public Relations experts based on Twitter, focusing on messages emanating from the US State Department account, shows the growing weight of new ‘social mediators’ in bridging international online public relations, with traditional news media lagging behind.

News Media Losing Out to Other Mediators of Government Policy on Twitter
It may come as a surprise to learn that traditional news media rarely figure among the most influential ‘social mediators’ – i.e. bodies or individuals that form a bridge in managing the relationship between an organisation and its various publics via the social media. Nevertheless this is precisely the finding of a group of US sociologists in a study entitled ‘A Social Networks Approach to Public Relations on Twitter: Social Mediators and Mediated Public Relations’, published recently in the Journal of Public Relations Research. The report defines the role of mediator as an account that features among the 2.5% most recognised (or active) for a given hashtag. The sociologists developed this typology for a specific study of information flows from the US Department of State.

Traditional news media not very influential on Twitter

The researchers took a particular hashtag, #SecClinton, for their international study. The idea was to look closely at the relationship which a government institution, in this case the State Department, manages to forge with its various audiences, with whom it can connect anywhere and everywhere in the world cost-free by using Twitter. The researchers saw Twitter as especially suitable for studying the influence of social network-mediated comments because of its two main features – Retweets and the uni-directional ‘Follower’ system. On Twitter, the flow of information relating to international relations between the US State Department and its public is most often curated and channelled by ‘formal’ social mediators, i.e. US or foreign government agencies. The reason why this ‘formal mediation’ channel is more likely to be used to convey US State Department messages to its audiences around the world is that in comparison traditional news media have proved extremely reluctant to follow other accounts in a two-way manner, but have been sticking to their role as uni-directional information providers without trying to stimulate any real interaction with their ‘followers’.

Social network communication hubs vary

The Middle East and North Africa region is however an exception to the general rule. Here, US State Department relations with the public tend not to pass through formal social mediators, but are bridged and curated by informal players and commentators such as NGOs and individual bloggers. The researchers conclude from this that what they term the ‘bridging hubs’ on social networks (the term the study’s sociologists give to social mediators) may come from different areas of civil society and that the distribution of social media types may differ specifically from one geographical region to another.  In their recommendations, the report’s authors therefore urge government bodies to investigate for themselves the way Twitter flows are relayed in different regions of the globe in order to obtain a better feel for some of the newly-emerging channels of geopolitical influence.
By Simon Guigue