Sunday, 27 January 2013

Local government and online networks of influence

Paul Hepburn is from the Institute for Social Change, Manchester University, you can contact him at 

Questions about researching the Internet are as old as arguments about its potential for democratic renewal. A case study into how the online network was used by those contesting the Manchester Congestion Charge referendum hits both these nails on the head.

Using an innovative research approach this study explored the question: Can online engagement enhance local democracy or will it be another route ‘… for the sad, the mad, the bad and the very, very rich’ to exert their influence on the policy making process?

The research design drew upon both quantitative and qualitative analysis to explore the online network in question. Firstly the web crawling software VOSON ( was used to capture the online hyperlinked network of interest. The network was then mapped and analysed using a variety of statistical techniques, such as Exponential Random Graph Models, associated with Social Network Analysis (SNA). This revealed websites of prominence in the network and an interesting pattern of online connections. Here a network ethnography approach was applied to illuminate how civic and political activists use the online network and to explain why this pattern of connections should have prevailed.

This approach identified a number of actors associated with sites that were prominent on a series of basic SNA metrics. In all 17 actors were interviewed. Their narratives served to explain the pattern of connections in the online network. They revealed a lack of trust in the leading local governance and most authoritative site in the network. This was mirrored by an almost sclerotic local government institutional anxiety about use of the social media fuelled partly by the anonymity of much online engagement. This contrasted with the innovative, and risk-averse, use of the new media by the traditional media. They also provided evidence of how powerful economic interests could influence politics online but they also showed how some civic activists were able to use the network to get their voices heard as well.

These findings whilst underlining the local democratic potential of the Internet also point to a requirement for policy intervention if this potential is to be fully realised. Local government in seeking to empower communities should act to ensure that local citizens’ voices can be heard in these online networks above those that have traditionally dominated political discourse. Issues of trust and civic identity should be tackled in ways that encourage participation but also preserve the integrity of local representative democracy.

For more details on this case study and the particular methods used please see:

Hepburn, P. (2012) Local Government and the online networked public sphere- A case study. Journal of Information Technology and Politics Vol 9(4) 370-387

Hepburn, P (2012) Is this local e-democracy? How the online sphere of influence shaped local politics. Empirical evidence from the Manchester Congestion Charge referendum. Journal of e-Democracy and Open Government 4 (1)