RESEARCH: People want to hear from police and the council in their Facebook group but politicians who talk politics? Nah

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Facebook groups have become part of the landscape but the question still remains should the public sector connect with them? 

The answer is yes, but please don’t go on about politics.

All over the country, it’s great to see people from the public sector starting to use Facebook groups to connect with their audience. It makes sense. Go to where the eyeballs are. Always.

Data says that the eyeballs are in Facebook groups. Overall research shows community groups are booming with numbers surging by 121 per cent over over the past two years.

Intrigued , I surveyed people to see how the public sector could use them. More than 100 people took part and 91 per cent were members of community Facebook groups.

Community Facebook groups are useful places for members

If you have a favourite Facebook group there’s a strong chance you’ll find them useful.

For me, the Saltwells Clean and Green group with more than 200 members tells me when there are litter picks in the green space near my home. The  Stafford Remembered group which celebrates my hometown has 14,000. Both play a different role as the digital Parish pump in my timeline.

Fig 1 – In general, how useful do you find the community Facebook group you most use?

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Overall, Facebook community groups can be useful places. Almost 90 per cent of users described them as varying degrees of ‘useful’.

Facebook group users would most like to see the police in their group

Of all the broad categories of public sector it is the police that topped the charts for the ones who would be made most welcome. A total of 79 per cent would like to see police in their group.

Second place was the council which some may find surprising. But as councils offer up to 1,200 services from potholes and schools to bins there shouldn’t be too much amazement at the request for council staff.

Third place is NHS on 58 per cent with Fire and Rescue 4th on 47 per cent. Politicians did less well with 42 per cent wanting to see a councillor and just 25 per cent the Member of Parliament.

Fig 2 Which organisations or people would you most like to see as members of a community Facebook group?

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But politics is a huge switch-off in Facebook groups

With the General Election fresh in the memory a set of questions in the survey focused on how engaged people were with politics.

Just over 50 per cent of Facebook groups had political discussion with 35 per cent not allowing them.

“People attempted to start political discussions before the election in a number of the community groups I belong to. In every case, the discussions rapidly descended into unpleasantness and abuse and were eventually deleted by moderators and admins. Communities are deeply divided on politics atm, and the groups reflect that.” – survey respondant.

It’s clear to see why those groups that banned political debate did so. Very few in the survey spoke about friendly political discussion. The overwhelming feedback was the political debate was unfriendly and a cause of argument and division.

“I try to avoid local groups with a political bent as they always descend into abuse. I would however appreciate updates from local community representatives about local issues.” – Facebook survey respondant.

Fig 3. In the run-up to the 2019 General Election were there discussions about politics in the community Facebook group you most use?

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People did not like political discussion.

Overall, more than 70 per cent said the political discussion was not useful compared to 11 per cent who thought they were useful.

Talking to Facebook group admins, the toxic nature of online debate was to blame for people not getting much out of them.

“I steered clear of discussions about politics as it was the usual vociferous suspects instructing me how to vote- which I don’t appreciate.” – Facebook group user.

All this does ask the question of how Councillors can connect with Facebook groups. The answer remains guidance I’ve given to the LGA and the Improvement Service in Scotland.  In short: don’t talk about politics. The post on social media that starts: ‘Whatabout Marr, then?’ sees you talk to other political anoraks not the people who put you there. Talk about day-to-day things, the park in good weather, your dog walk through the nature reserve or what you’ve done about fly-tipping.

Picture credit: US National Archives / Flickr



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