Public Legitimation by “Going Personal”? The Ambiguous Role of International Organization Officials on Social Media

New Journal Article from Centre Researcher Matthias Ecker-Ehrhardt

Senior Researcher Matthias Ecker-Ehrhardt has recently published an article in Politics and Governance, which reflects his activity in the research group 'Legitimation and Delegitimation in Global Cooperation' and relates closely to research conducted for the (De-)Legitimation Survey (DLegS)Public Legitimation by “Going Personal”? The Ambiguous Role of International Organization Officials on Social Media offers a problematization of IOs' use of 'personalization' to communicate and interact with a wider public using various social media platforms.

Key to the discussion is an evaluation of the personalized methods that IOs use to affect the popular legitimacy of global governance, that is, 'the extent to which citizens consider an IO's authority to be appropriately exercised'. IOs are no longer impersonal, faceless, and monolithic, but rather have extended various, real personas and personal faces into the public sphere. Social media communications of this or that official can reach an ever-wider population, but not without nuanced implications. This is a move away from the classic press release model of IOs and toward a 'constant stream of news and images that gets their users closer to how officials across ranks do international governance every day'. 

Users' reactions to statements of policy is today more or less immediate, a fact which complicates the matter of evaluating consensus. A mountain of data can be collected which would show the plurality of contradictory impacts made by a given official's statement on a variety of actors. Officials find themselves having to perform their roles on social media to create emotive affect – a procedure that Ecker-Ehrhardt likens to a kind of emotional labour which can be effective, but can also fall flat.

The article carefully outlines the stakes of this process, highlighting some of its stumbling blocks in the sections: 'depoliticizing trivialization', 'populist temptation', rhetorical entrapment', and 'organized hypocracy'. Modern IO communication is personal, ubiquitous, and certainly problematic. Ecker-Ehrhardt delves into its intricacies and invites further research on the topic and how it helps (or hinders) legitimacy processes.


International organizations increasingly use social media to target citizens with an abundance of content, which tends to stylize officials across ranks as the “personal face” of institutional processes. Such practices suggest a new degree of access to the every day of multilateralism that has traditionally taken place on camera and with the aid of diplomatic discretion. What is more, in these practices the intuitive truth of images on social media often blends with a more credible expression of emotional states—such as enthusiasm, sympathy, anger, or shame—which facilitates the legitimation of international organizations as credible agents of shared values and norms. At the same time, however, such personalization arguably suggests a problematic dependency on the credible conduct of international organization officials as it might undermine institutional claims to depersonalized “rational-legal” authority in international politics and local arenas of implementation alike. Also, it aggravates existing problems of decoupling action in global governance from its political symbolism, because international organizations use social media by and large to communicate “top-down,” despite claiming a more personal mode of communication among peers. To illustrate this argument, the article takes on content shared by leading officials of the UN, the IMF, the WHO, and the WTO on Twitter.


Read the article here.


Politics and Governance (ISSN: 2183-2463) is an internationally peer-reviewed open access journal that publishes significant and cutting-edge research drawn from all areas of political science.



Ecker-Ehrhardt, Matthias (2023). 'Public Legitimation by “Going Personal”? The Ambiguous Role of International Organization Officials on Social Media'. Politics and Governance, 11(3). doi: