Flows of information/influence and diversity of content within online public fora in the context of civil society
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Online public fora based on social media facilitate social interaction and synchronous online discussion. Social-media-based public fora resemble real-life political talks, and induce a larger number of and a wider variety of participants than blogs or Usenet newsgroups. By investigating two online groups centered on political discussions on Twitter, this study explores how information and influence flow, how diverse the actual discourse is, and to what extent the online groups communicate with the government. Using network analysis and content analysis/co-word analysis, this study has the findings as follows: In terms of the structural qualities, online public fora are relatively inclusive, but are centralized on a few participants and do not have a statistically significant indication of being equitable in discussion. The two-step flow of communication operates along with the presence of opinion leaders who turn out to be influentials but not content creators. Interestingly, the flow of influence is likely to be less centralized than the flow of information, which implies the importance of the reliability of a given message rather than that of the author. In terms of the actual discourse, participants turn to like-minded fellow citizens’ remarks. Discourses are more emotional than cognitive and exhibits more anger than anxiety. Influential discourses are those with negative emotion more so than with positive emotion and those that are cognitive rather than emotional. Among cognitive components, assertive and strong discourses have greater social influence than analytical discourses. In terms of the interaction with the e-government outlet, the distance between public authorities and private citizens is continuously present despite the decline of temporal and physical distance via the Internet. Based on the results, this study suggests a reconsideration of the Habermasian public sphere in online public fora. It contributes to the literature by empirically confirming the presence of the two-step flow of communication in online public fora and testing the difference between the flow of information and the flow of influence. In addition, it broadens the realm of research on political communication by exploring not only sources/ideological perspectives but also emotional/cognitive aspects in discussions. Methodologically, structure/context, multi-level, and quantitative/qualitative analyses allow this study to have a comprehensive account of online public fora. Practically, this study proposes to improve the interactivity with citizens as the next stage of e-government development.