COVID-19 Communication Management on Facebook Pages of Local Governments

Published date01 August 2023
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/00953997231165258
AuthorDiego Ravenda,Maika M. Valencia-Silva,Josep M. Argiles-Bosch,Josep García-Blandón
Date01 August 2023
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/00953997231165258
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(7) 1290 –1333
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
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DOI: 10.1177/00953997231165258
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Article
COVID-19
Communication
Management on
Facebook Pages of
Local Governments
Diego Ravenda1, Maika M. Valencia-Silva2,
Josep M. Argiles-Bosch3,
and Josep García-Blandón4
Abstract
We examine how Italian municipalities manage COVID-19 communication
on their official Facebook pages. For this purpose, we apply an automatic topic
modeling procedure on a sample of 76,139 posts published on the official
Facebook pages of 103 Italian provincial capital municipalities from 1 March
2020 to 26 March 2021 of the COVID-19 pandemic period. We identify two
topics related to COVID-19 consisting of restrictive measures and support
measures. Using regression models with municipality and year-week fixed
effects, we find that the prevalence of the topic on COVID-19 restrictive
measures negatively affects the tone of the communication, computed
through a sentiment analysis procedure, and it is negatively associated with
the number of COVID-19 positive cases in the municipal area. In contrast,
the prevalence of the topic on COVID-19 support measures positively
affects the tone of the communication and it is positively associated with
the number of positive cases. These associations are moderated by ideology,
1TBS Business School, Campus Barcelona, Spain
2EAE Business School, Barcelona, Spain
3University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
4Universidad Ramón Llull, IQS School of Management, Barcelona, Spain
Corresponding Author:
Diego Ravenda, TBS Business School, C/Venezuela, 116, 08019 Barcelona, Spain.
Emails: dravenda@hotmail.com; d.ravenda@tbs-education.es
1165258AAS0010.1177/00953997231165258Administration & SocietyRavenda et al.
research-article2023
Ravenda et al. 1291
age, and political incentives of incumbent mayors. These results may reveal
a strategic communication of municipalities to induce positive perceptions
about the performance of municipal incumbents in responding to the
pandemic and, therefore, enhance political consensus among voters. Finally,
these findings may have practical implications for public regulators, public
managers, and other followers of local governments on social media.
Keywords
COVID-19 communication, sentiment analysis, social media, topic modeling
Introduction
Recent studies document an increase of the usage of social media (SoMe) by
local governments for several purposes, including engaging citizens in public
affairs, restoring confidence in institutions, enhancing transparency and
accountability, and improving public services (Bonsón et al., 2017; Guo
et al., 2021; Knox, 2016). An additional purpose s is disaster and crisis man-
agement (Chen et al., 2020; Guo et al., 2021; Tang et al., 2021). In such deli-
cate situations, SoMe may allow governments and public agencies to
effectively and timely enhance citizens’ understanding and engagement,
assess the evolving stages of the disaster, provide emotional support, reduce
uncertainty, and prevent/correct false rumors (Guo et al., 2021; Hughes &
Palen, 2012; Kaewkitipong et al., 2016; Lin et al., 2016; Mori et al., 2021;
Reuter et al., 2018).
The recent COVID-19 pandemic represents an unprecedented setting for
assessing how local governments have been managing their communication
through SoMe to deal with the emergency. In this study, we initially seek to
identify the COVID-19-related topics addressed by the main Italian munici-
palities on their official Facebook pages. Then, we assess how these topics
affect the tone of the communication and how much they are discussed online
in accordance with the pandemic’s severity, expressed by the number of
COVID-19 positive cases in the municipal area.
Among other conclusions, this information may allow inferring whether
political incentives and, more specifically, the quest for political consensus,
play a role in the municipal COVID-19 Facebook communication. In this
regard, previous studies provide evidence of an opportunistic usage of
Facebook by local governments of Western European countries for self-pro-
motion and political marketing through one-way communication (Agostino &
Arnaboldi, 2016; Bonsón et al., 2017; Silva et al., 2019). These opportunistic
1292 Administration & Society 55(7)
aims may at least partially undermine achieving more desirable objectives
such as engaging citizens in political and social issues and, more importantly
in our study, effectively using Facebook to manage the pandemic (Löffler &
Bovaird, 2019; Mori et al., 2021; Picazo-Vela et al., 2016).
Italy represents an interesting setting given that it is among the first
European countries to record one of the highest numbers of infections in the
world. In addition, Italy is among the first countries to react positively to the
pandemic (Mori et al., 2021). It should be noted that in Italy communication
by public administrations using Facebook is not mandatory and, therefore, it
could be considered as a form of voluntary e-disclosure.1 Studies document
the increase of Facebook use for communication between local governments
and citizens in Europe, Australia, and the US (Bonsón et al., 2017; Lev-On &
Steinfeld, 2015; Omar et al., 2014). Facebook is the favorite SoMe platform
of local governments to interact with citizens and engage them due to its
greater popularity relative to other SoMe platforms like Twitter, among oth-
ers (Bonsón et al., 2017; Guillamón et al., 2016; Larsson & Skogerbø, 2018;
Silva et al., 2019). For example, Haro-de-Rosario et al. (2018) find that the
80 largest Spanish municipalities engage citizens more with Facebook than
with Twitter. In Italy, as of March 2021, Facebook was the social network
with the highest penetration rate with 36 million users, while Twitter ranked
only fifth with 11.2 million users (AGCOM, 2021). In this line, the usage of
SoMe like Facebook by Italian municipalities has significantly grown in
recent years (Guillamón et al., 2016) and it is recognized by several laws
starting from Law 150/2000. This Law states that Italian public administra-
tions can use a wide variety of suitable tools for their communication and
information activities including digital media (Mori et al., 2021).
That said, to extract latent topics from posts published on Facebook, we
apply an automatic topic modeling procedure called latent Dirichlet alloca-
tion (LDA) (Blei et al., 2003) on a sample of 76,139 posts published on the
official Facebook pages of 103 Italian provincial capital municipalities dur-
ing the COVID-19 pandemic period from 1 March 2020 to 26 March 2021.
This analysis allows us to identify nine main topics, of which two are related
to COVID-19. More specifically, based on the most likely associated terms,
we label the first COVID-19 topic as COVID-19 restrictive measures and the
second as COVID-19 support measures. Using regression models, including
both municipality and year-week fixed effects, we find that the prevalence of
the topic of COVID-19 restrictive measures negatively affects the tone of
communication; this was determined through a lexicon-based sentiment anal-
ysis procedure that considers contextual valence shifters in the polarity com-
putation. In contrast, the prevalence of the topic of COVID-19 support
measures positively affects the tone of communication.

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