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Digital archive of theses discussed at the University of Pisa


Thesis etd-03022022-125742

Thesis type
Tesi di dottorato di ricerca
Thesis title
Citizen engagement through social media platforms: The role of Facebook in crisis management and its potential as a tool for dialogic accounting
Academic discipline
Course of study
tutor Prof.ssa Gori, Elena
  • citizen engagement
  • crisis management
  • dialogic accounting
  • public engagement
  • social media
Graduation session start date
Release date
The public sector is pursuing the ongoing objective to involve citizens in public decisions and public life (Agostino and Arnaboldi 2016); as Piqueiras, Canel, and Luoma-aho (2020) underline, public institutions exist to serve the common good and, hence, cannot exist in an environment in which they do not interact with citizens. This practice, known as ‘citizen engagement’ (e.g. Bonsón, Perea, and Bednárová 2019) or ‘public engagement’ (e.g. Metallo et al. 2020), plays a crucial role in all public activities, from planning and designing public policies to implementing service co-production (Bovaird 2007). Effective citizen engagement processes also increase public transparency and accountability and, accordingly, strengthen the social legitimacy of public actions (Kim and Lee 2012) and people’s trust in public institutions (Nabatchi 2010). Citizen engagement also contributes to sustainable development (Naranjo-Zolotov et al. 2019). Indeed, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights the importance of participatory processes, particularly in Sustainable Development Goals target 16.7, which calls for ensuring ‘responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels’ (UN Organisation 2020).
Against this backdrop, the advent and rapid diffusion of social media (SM) platforms have opened new opportunities for interaction between public actors and citizens (Stone and Can 2020). Indeed, such platforms have revolutionized communication processes (Castells 2009), as they have facilitated the transition from ‘one-to-many’ interactions, typical of traditional media (e.g. press, radio, and TV), to ‘many-to-many’ interactions, thereby making communication ‘multi-directional’ (Chen et al. 2020) and fostering participatory dialogue (Lovari and Valentini 2020).
Over the last two decades, SM platforms have led to the ‘virtualisation’ of public debate (Metallo et al. 2020) and have become among the most widespread tools of public engagement (Manetti, Bellucci, and Bagnoli 2017) by fostering a two-way dialogue between citizens and public actors for the purposes of communication, consultation, or even collaboration (Reddick, Chatfield, and Ojo 2017).
Based on the abovementioned considerations, this doctoral thesis develops around three studies. The first paper (see Chapter 1) systematically reviews the literature on the use of SM platforms as a means of promoting citizen engagement. Indeed, comprehensive efforts to map and systematise contributions published on the topic have, to date, been lacking (Medaglia and Zheng 2017; Rodríguez-Bolívar, Alcaide-Muñoz, and Cobo 2018), although literature reviews may help to depict a better picture of the research and provide paths for future research (Naranjo-Zolotov et al. 2019). In this vein, the first paper aims to address two fundamental research questions – ‘What has been done?’ and ‘What could be done?’ (Broadbent and Guthrie 2008; Mauro, Cinquini, and Grossi 2017) – about SM sites and their use for citizen engagement. More specifically, this paper is the first study that offers a systematic review that, in line with suggestions provided by Tranfield, Denyer, and Smart (2003), is designed to contribute to the current body of knowledge by exploring (i) how previous articles have addressed the topic under study and (ii) what the main themes investigated to date are, while outlining new research questions to be addressed in future research. Additionally, this first paper provides a theoretical framework that synthesizes the process of engaging citizens in the public decision-making process through SM platforms, as well as its antecedents and determinants.
The second work, included in Chapter 2, examines the use of Facebook (FB), one of the most popular SM sites worldwide (We Are Social & Hootsuite 2021), in crisis management, where the term ‘crisis’ refers to all the different types of events that threaten social, institutional, and organisational interests and structures (Rosenthal, Hart, and Kouzmin 1991). It thus includes, among others, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, international conflicts, civil unrest, and health emergencies. Public engagement is particularly crucial in times of crisis, as it improves the capacity of the community to successfully face the different phases of emergency management (Gálvez-Rodríguez et al. 2019). In this respect, SM platforms have become a critical channel for quickly disseminating critical and sometimes life-saving messages to the citizenry during an emergency, offering citizens operational and emotional support, and encouraging the adoption of recommended behaviours (Al-Saggaf and Simmons 2015; Panagiotopoulos et al. 2016). The use of SM applications also allows public institutions to provide citizen with accurate and verified institutional information, thus battling against rumours and misleading information (Vraga and Bode 2018). In this way, SM platforms have changed the way people experience a crisis (Azer, Blasco-Arcas, and Harrigan 2021). During the COVID-19 pandemic, SM platforms have been a leading player as engagement tools (Chen et al. 2020) and one of the non-pharmaceutical interventions carried out to contain the spread of the coronavirus (Landi et al. 2021). Grounded on the above considerations, the research question that guides the second paper is the following: ‘Can Facebook really be a tool for supporting citizen engagement in crisis management?’ To do this, the study focuses on the FB social activity of the Italian regions and their presidents before and during the COVID-19 crisis. The context of analysis is particularly relevant, as Italy was the first Western country to experience the onset of the epidemic (Landi et al. 2021), and the regions and their presidents have had a crucial role in managing the emergency (Viola et al. 2021). More specifically, this study investigates (i) whether the levels of social activity and citizen engagement changed during the pandemic, and (ii) which determinants affected the levels of engagement achieved by each profile. To do so, it first collects some quantitative data to construct an engagement score for each FB page and then adopt the engagement matrices proposed by Agostino and Arnaboldi (2016) to delve into the different levels of citizen engagement obtained by each FB page before the pandemic and in COVID-19 times. Subsequently, it employs OLS linear regressions models to identify the main determinants that influence the levels of public engagement on SM sites. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to explore the use of SM platforms as tools for encouraging citizen engagement in sub-national divisions other than municipalities, as well as being the first to examine the personal pages of elected representatives as well. Indeed, the literature has so far taken into account only the social profiles of governments, but SM users (i.e. citizens) may prefer to interact with ‘real’ and identifiable people (Mickoleit 2014), especially in times of crisis (Gálvez-Rodríguez et al. 2019), such as the COVID-19 pandemic (Chen et al. 2020; Landi et al. 2021).
The third and last paper of the thesis (see Chapter 3) investigates whether the use of FB represents an effective citizen engagement mechanism in terms of supporting an authentic system of dialogic accounting. Indeed, when used as a tool for public participation (Agostino and Arnaboldi 2016), SM applications not only become meaningful instruments for public engagement but also potentially support dialogic accounting systems (Bellucci and Manetti 2017). More precisely, a dialogic accounting system goes beyond the mere notion of ‘communication’ and refers to iterative mutual learning processes that characterize accountability relationships between organizations and stakeholders, facilitate more participatory forms of decision-making, and stimulate social changes (Manetti, Bellucci, and Bagnoli 2017). While several studies have explored the use of SM applications as tools of dialogic communication (Wang and Yang 2020), scant research has been conducted to explore the potential of SM sites from a dialogic accounting perspective, especially in the public sector. The sole contributions have focused on public transportation agencies (Manetti, Bellucci, and Bagnoli 2017), public universities (Bellucci, Biagi, and Manetti 2019), and public health agencies (Landi et al. 2021). This paper therefore addresses the following research question: ‘Is FB a tool for supporting dialogic accounting in public institutions?’ To do so, it focuses on the institutional FB pages of the Italian regions and investigates (i) the most discussed and engaging topics on their social pages, (ii) which level and which type of interaction is effectively reached for every topic, and (iii) whether regions reply to citizens’ comments to guarantee an interactive dialogue. To do so, this study adopts a mixed methodology. Indeed, it first collects some quantitative data to construct an engagement index for each FB page (Bonsón, Royo, and Ratkai 2017), and then it performs a content analysis of some posts while also examining the tenor of the related comments and the level of interaction between regions and citizens. To the best of our knowledge, this paper is the first to analyse the potential of SM from a dialogic perspective focusing on sub-national divisions such as regional entities, which are important public actors in implementing politics and policies and ensuring efficient delivery for the benefit of the citizens (OECD 2020; Rubinelli 2020).