Can authenticity be measured?

Catherine Needham

An issue we have covered previously on this blog is how far public servants are expected to be ‘authentic’, sharing their real selves with citizens as the basis for more meaningful interactions in a relational state. Earlier posts have been somewhat sceptical about the extent to which authentic identities and values are a requirement for effective public services.

There’s a fascinating article just out in Parliamentary Affairs looking at how ‘authentic’ are the Tweets of Scottish Members of Parliament. The authors, Mark Margaretten and Ivor Gaber, argue that it is possible to measure authenticity, defined as ‘spontaneous, unrehearsed discourse’. As they put it, ‘The search for authenticity involves identifying themes of being a genuine person, one who is unrehearsed, available and respectful.’

The article is behind a paywall so you won’t be able to read it without institutional subscription or purchasing it. Two aspects are worth picking out.

First, how can authenticity be measured? The authors’ method for defining authenticity is that the MP uses hashtags, mentions another user, or retweets another tweet. The simplicity of these assumptions allow the authors to  undertake quantitative content analysis on a vast number of tweets. However this strikes me as a fairly low bar for authenticity, and one which doesn’t get around an issue raised earlier in the same article that apparently authentic media such as blogs can be managed by staffers and communication experts rather than politicians themselves. More convincing are the article’s examples of tweets and hashtags used, which do appear to convey a sense of the politician’s personality. Tom Harris is a fan of Doctor Who; Eric Joyce likes to engage in Twitter debates about equal representation. The tweets cited to give these more detailed insights suggest to me that authenticity is something which lends itself to qualitative rather than quantitative analysis.

Second, it is interesting to see how optimistic are the conclusions of the article. Reflecting on the three Scottish MPs who are the focus of much of the analysis (as the only prolific tweeters amongst Scottish parliamentarians) the authors observe:

‘They speak candidly on a range of topics, with many people, and try to encourage their Twitter followers to act. They are engaged with constituents and have developed an apparent rapport with them unlikely to be achieved by traditional means of political communication. It is substantive and personal, and offers a different view of the misunderstood politician.’

The authors are hopeful that Twitter’s scope to be used as a tool of authentic discourse offers a corrective to the cynicism and mistrust affecting communications between politicians and citizens. They see it as a site for deliberative democracy to be enacted, and politicians to be ‘humanised’.

This optimism seems somewhat overstated, but the article remains a fascinating one, and left me wondering could/should the same yardstick of authenticity be applied to the social media presence of 21st century public servants?

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