Category Archives: digital politics

New article out “Political communication research: New media, new challenges, and new opportunities”

A new special issue of MedieKultur has just been published.  It includes an article by my based on a keynote lecture I gave in November 2012 at the Danish Association of Media Researchers’ Annual Meeting.

The talk and the article deals with how the field of political communication research might benefit from embracing the theoretical and methodological diversity that characterize the broader field of media and communications research, including intellectually adjacent and overlapping “sibling” fields like journalism studies and audience research.

It builds on the same line of thinking I’ve developed with David Karpf and Daniel Kreiss elsewhere (including our chapter in this book, based on our paper from ICA 2013) and that was part of the motivation for the preconference on the role of qualitative methods in political communication research that we organized with Matthew Powers for ICA in 2014.

As always, I’m grateful for our ongoing conversations.

Abstract below–full text (PDF) here.

Political communication research: New media, new challenges, and new opportunities

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen


The rise of new media and the broader set of social changes they are part of present political communication research with new challenges and new opportunities at a time when many think the field is at an intellectual impasse (e.g., Bennett & Iyengar, 2008). In this article, I argue that parts of the field’s problems are rooted in the way in which political communication research has developed since the 1960s. In this period, the field has moved from being interdisciplinary and mixed-methods to being more homogenous and narrowly focused, based primarily on ideas developed in social psychology, certain strands of political science, and the effects-tradition of mass communication research. This dominant paradigm has contributed much to our understanding of some aspects of political communication. But it is struggling to make sense of many others, including questions concerning people’s experience of political communication processes and questions concerning the symbolic, institutional, and technological nature of these processes—especially during a time of often rapid change. To overcome this problem, I argue that the field of political communication research should re-engage with the rest of media and communication studies and embrace a broader and more diverse agenda. I discuss audience research and journalism studies as examples of adjacent fields that use a more diverse range of theoretical and methodological tools that might help political communication research engage with new media and the new challenges and new opportunities for research that they represent.

Keywords:political communication, new media, digital politics, theory, method

Most people still ignore most politicians online…

The great open access journal International Journal of Communication just published a paper I’ve written with Cristian Vaccari called “Do People “Like” Politicians on Facebook? Not Really. Large-Scale Direct Candidate-to-Voter Online Communication as an Outlier Phenomenon”.

In the paper, we analyze the presence of 224 major-party candidates for the House of Representatives across the 112 most competitive districts in the 2010 U.S. Congressional Elections across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their campaign websites and find that attention is highly concentrated with just a few candidates attracting vastly more supporters, followers, video views, and website visitors than everyone else.

Though a few politicians stand out, the median candidates count their followers etc in the hundreds or at best the low thousands. It is a hit economy out there, and most politicians are not a hit with the wider population, at least in the U.S. (I’ve blogged about this data before, and TechPresident wrote a bit about it back in 2010—the article had a tortured review process, so it has taken a bit of time to get this simple but I think pretty important argument out there in its final form.)

Are our findings still relevant three years after the data was gathered, three years in which the spread of smartphones and tablets and the growing popularity of new social media have changed the web?

I very much thing so—the four basic patterns we identify seems stable. They are:

(1) limited reach in terms of the number of people who follow most campaigns on various platforms; (2) high levels of concentration of attention across all platforms, with a few politicians drawing many people, and most drawing few; (3) considerable correlations between visibility on each platform, where candidates who do well on one also tend to do well on the others; and (4) noticeable growth in the total number of people following candidates in the course of the campaign period without any change in the overall pattern of highly skewed distributions.

Data from our follow-up work on 2012 confirm all four basic patterns (here for a first cut of that data), and several of them are familiar from earlier work by Matt Hindman and others on “web 1.0” online politics.

As we write in the paper,

The few candidates with significant online audiences are not as much ahead of the curve as they are on top of the curve. If the limited number of politicians in our sample who attracted a lot of attention were distinguished by being early adopters of particular platforms, perhaps others could do likewise and achieve similar results. But with adoption rates of the four platforms considered here ranging between 91% and 100% among candidates [in 2010], and large parts of the adult population already using them regularly [again, in 2010], the highly uneven distributions are clearly not the outcome of uneven levels of use.

Ultimately, the online environment, partially discounting online marketing, is a pull environment in which people opt in and self-select. And at least in the U.S., interest in politics is limited and unevenly distributed, trust and confidence in politicians is limited, and while many people talk about politics online, most people do not connect with most politicians online.

It is an open question how relevant these findings are in countries where more people are more interested in politics (many countries have far higher turnout than the U.S.) and have more faith in politicians and the political process (as in some Northern European countries, for example). (On the other hand, they may be even more true in countries with lower levels of engagement and trust, or in supra-national political systems like the E.U., where very few European-level politicians have build significant popular followings online.)

But at least in the U.S., what we wrote in conclusion about our 2010 data still seems accurate to me–

As long as competition for attention is so fierce and levels of interest so low and uneven, only a few politicians will attract large online audiences that allow them to communicate directly to the electorate to any significant degree via various social networking sites. The rest will have to find other ways, including both traditional means, such as direct mail, field operations, and television advertising, as well as new forms of push marketing online. The topology we have mapped here is one dominated by a few exceptional outliers who attract tens of thousands of supporters and viewers, but where the great majority of candidates—even in well-funded, competitive, high-stakes contests—labor in relative obscurity online.

American Political Science Association 2013 annual meeting round-up

I’m not going to try to summarize everything I went to at American Political Science Association 2013 annual meeting, nor go into details with all the great papers given by colleagues, friends, and complete strangers, but just highlight a few key take-aways for me.

Lots of laurels—

1)      At the political communication pre-conference, I was very happy to see some great work done on local news, local-level political campaigns, and the interaction between the two. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of Frankie Clogston and Joshua Darr’s doctoral work, both gave very interesting presentations. We know much about local politics from political science, but less than we ought about local news and local political communication.

2)      I found the comparative work presented by James Stanyer and others on “intimate politics”, the ways in which politicians, often initially deliberate and for strategic reasons, but in the longer run with unintended and uncontrolled consequences, seek out soft news coverage of what might conventionally be considered their “private life”.

3)      And then I was reminded how deeply engaged a subset of political communication researchers are with psychology. I’m far from fluent in this area of research, but I went to some interesting presentations based on affective intelligence theory, elaboration likelihood theory, and theories of motivated reasoning working to advance our understanding of how people process political communication, form attitudes, and ultimately act (or not) politically.

But also some darts—

1)      The study of information technology and politics is gradually infiltrating other areas of political science, as it should, as digital technologies increasingly become ubiquitous, domesticated, integrated into everyday life (mundane media rather than “new media”). This is a good thing. Digital media are far from everything, but they are increasingly everywhere. Now it would be nice if the latecomers to the party would read up on the research done by those, political scientists and others, who arrived early. A lot of people even today build their arguments against strawmen-type arguments from early digital utopians like Nicholas Negroponte or cite papers from the late 1990s and early 2000s as if the internet is still the same thing. (See Dave Karpf’s great piece on the problems of research in internet time.)

2)      Political communication scholars based on political science departments rarely read the work of media and communications scholars. (Sigh.) They should, even though they’ll find some of the theoretical and methodological vocabulary foreign, there is much to be gained from a better understanding of how media systems are changing, how audiences engage with new media, how journalism is evolving, and how digital media rarely constitute a separate dimension but are parts of cross-media use, cross-media news coverage, and cross-media strategic communication. It is called political communication for a reason.

3)      Tons of people study Twitter rather than Facebook, often because it is easier to access the data. Twitter is important, but it’s hugely problematic if we let data availability guide our overall understanding of social media in politics. It is a parallel to the tendency in journalism studies to study print media/textual news rather than broadcasting/audio-visual news, in part because it is easier. Just as we need more studies of broadcast news (also in a changing media environment where TV is increasingly intertwined with other media, but still the single most important source of news for most citizens in many countries), we need more studies of Facebook and YouTube, far more widely used than Twitter by ordinary people.

An ever-more unequal playing field? Campaign communications across digital, “earned”, and paid media

Cristian Vaccari and I will be presenting a first slice of our 2012 data on campaign communications in competitive U.S. congressional districts across digital media, “earned media” (news coverage) and paid media (campaign expenditures on advertising, canvassing, direct mail, online marketing, etc) at the American Political Science Association 2013 annual meeting in Chicago.

We show that most of these forms of campaign communication are highly unevenly distributed. A minority of candidates draw far more supporters, more news coverage, and raise more money than the rest, even when one is looking only at major party candidates (Democrats and Republicans) running in similarly competitive districts.

Contrary to the view that the internet may help “level the playing field”, we find that popularity on digital media like Facebook is in fact far more concentrated than both visibility in mainstream news media and money raised and spent during the campaign. (This is in line with Matt Hindman’s earlier work on the winner-take-all tendencies of much political communication online.)

Three key empirical take-aways from the paper—

  1. Most candidates draw limited news coverage and few supporters on social media like Facebook and Twitter, and hence remain highly dependent on paid media to reach voters, despite the fact that almost all of them use almost all the digital media at their disposal (websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc).
  2. In both 2010 and 2012, paid media is unevenly distributed, earned media/news coverage is more unevenly distributed, and digital media/social media followings the most unevenly distributed. (Social media in 2010 discussed in greater detail here.)
  3. The general (uneven) pattern is the same in 2010 and 2012. If anything the inequality increases, especially in the case of digital media. Hence the notion of an ever-more unequal playing field as digital media—the most unevenly distributed form of campaign communication we examine—becomes relatively more important.

Abstract below, full paper here. We’d be interested in comments as this is work-in-progress and we are very interested in how to best compare the apples and oranges of digital media, earned media, and paid media in a meaningful way.

 An Ever-More Unequal Playing Field? Comparing Congressional Candidates Across Digital Media, Earned Media, and Paid Media

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Roskilde and Oxford)


Cristian Vaccari (Royal Holloway and Bologna)


 In this study, we analyze patterns of digital media, earned media, and paid media performance among major-party candidates in competitive U.S. Congressional districts in the 2010 (N=112) and 2012 (N=120) election cycles. Based on standard concentration indices, we analyze the distribution of (1) interest from internet users (“digital media”), (2) visibility in news coverage (“earned media”), and (3) campaign expenditures (as an indicator of “paid media” like direct mail, television advertising, and online marketing) across a strategic sample of 464 candidates engaged in competitive races for the House of Representatives. We show that most of these forms of campaign communication are highly concentrated. A minority of candidates draw far more supporters, more news coverage, and raise more money than the rest. Contrary to the view that the internet may help “level the playing field”, we find that popularity on digital media like Facebook is in fact far more concentrated than both visibility in mainstream news media and money raised and spent during the campaign. By 2012, the most popular candidate in a district drew on average almost nine times as many social media supporters as her direct rival, compared to three and a half times as many local news stories and about four times as many dollars spent. The differences in terms of digital media and paid media had both increased since 2010, while the differences in terms of earned media had decreased. Thus, while success on the internet might occasionally benefit challengers and outsiders in US major-party politics, the overall competitive environment on the web is far from a level playing field and may in some ways exacerbate inequalities between resource-rich and resource-poor candidates. As digital media become more important parts of the overall communication environment, we may thus be moving towards a more uneven playing field.

Direct communication via social media? Not for most politicians, no

Last week, Frank Bruni from the New York Times wrote a column trotting out an old idea—that new technologies like social media allow “direct communication” between politicians and the people, circumventing intermediaries like the news media. This is an old idea because it has accompanied many other media technologies before social media, including radio and television.

Bruni asks “Who Needs Reporters?” and highlights how Michele Bachmann used a YouTube video to announce she wouldn’t seek re-election, that Anthony Weiner had taken the same route to announce that he was seeking election, and that Hillary Clinton had announced her support for gay marriage in a web video. In all cases, the politician in question clearly avoided potentially problematic questions from journalists by using YouTube to make newsworthy announcements. He writes:

“[reporters] role and relevance are arguably even more imperiled by politicians’ ability, in this newly wired world of ours, to go around us and present themselves in packages that we can’t simultaneously unwrap. To get a message out, they don’t have to beseech a network’s indulgence. They don’t have to rely on a newspaper’s attention. The Bachmann, Weiner and Clinton videos are especially vivid examples of that, reflections and harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one.”

He is arguably right to worry about the diminished importance of professional journalism overall (though the end of journalists as the main gatekeepers between news and the wider population is far from only a bad thing).
But is he right to argue that politicians as a class can circumvent the news media (and paid media, i.e., television advertising) and speak directly to the people via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter? (Even if they could, it wouldn’t really be “direct”, just through new digital intermediaries with their own biases etc.)

Together with my colleague, Cristian Vaccari, I’ve been investigating this question in a more systematic way, looking not only at extreme outliers like Bachmann, Weiner, and Clinton, who all command outsize attention both amongst journalists and on various social media platforms, but also more ordinary politicians.

In a piece of research I’ve already blogged about, we show how the vast majority of congressional candidates, even in competitive, high-stakes, well-funded races, actually reach only a miniscule audience via their various social media profiles. They don’t, in Bruni’s words, have to rely on a newspaper’s attention, for the role of newspapers in the American media landscape is eroding and many other channels are available. But they certainly cannot rely on social media to reach people either, for most people do not follow most politicians online.

Here is the paper we’ve written on the huge variations in how much attention different candidates draw (abstract below), and here is the paper we have written trying to explain the variation.

Do People ‘Like’ Candidates on Facebook? Not Really — From Direct to Indirect and Institutional Effects of Social Media in Politics.

The online popularity of a few exceptional candidates has led many to suggest that social media have given politicians powerful ways of communicating directly with voters. In this paper, we examine whether this is happening on a significant scale and show, based on analysis of 224 candidates involved in competitive races in the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, that the majority of politicians online are in fact largely ignored by the electorate. Citizens’ attention to candidates online approximates power law distributions, with a few drawing many followers while most languish in obscurity. We therefore suggest that the political implications of social media are generally better understood in terms of facilitating indirect communication and institutional change than in terms of direct communication.

Direct communication with the electorate is not what most politicians use social media for (more for influencing the news cycle, connecting with supporters to raise money and mobilize volunteers). Most politicians cannot rely on social media alone to reach voters because people do not seek them out on these “pull” platforms driven by interest. Therefore, campaigns still have to rely on “push” media including ”earned media” (news coverage), television advertising, direct mail, online advertising, and field campaigns with volunteers and paid workers going door to door or hitting the phones.

Data-Crunched Democracy

I spent the day at Data-Crunched Democracy, an excellent conference organized by Daniel Kreiss and Joe Turow focused on the increasingly important role of “big data”, quantitative data analysis, and formal modeling in US political campaigns.

It was a very rewarding day with many interesting discussions and presentations by campaign staffers, consultants, lawyers, and others who had been involved in the 2012 campaign cycle.

It’s often hard to follow what’s actually going on this space without speaking to those involved because, as Lois Beckett from ProPublica, who is among the few journalists who have covered this area, “many campaign people lie to journalists about micro targeting and data use”. So, with that warning and caveat, a few take-aways from a rich day—

Where are well-resourced US campaigns at in terms of using data? As Rayid Ghani (Chief Scientist, Obama for America) reminded us, data-based modeling is probabilistic and mostly aimed at about marginal improvements in how resources are allocated for messaging, mobilization, fundraising, etc. It’s not a magic bullet, not necessarily as powerful or nebulous as some would suggest, and generally not as developed as the use of behavioral modeling is in much of the corporate world.

Ghani explained that big data-based modeling is hard to do in politics because of the low frequency of the behavior you are trying to model (voting, for example, is not someone we do that often) and because the context is important and can change dramatically from election to election (2004 versus 2008 etc). Targeting is–and several speakers, including Carol Davidsen from Obama for America as well as Alex Lundry and Brent McGoldrick who were both involved in the Romney campaign in various roles, underlined this–certainly getting better and better in terms of predicting people’s political behavior, but it remains probabilistic, and this is too often overlooked and/or misunderstood in public discussions surrounding the use of data by campaigns.

Modeling is also hard because though much data is available in the US after more than a decade of database-building, by the standards of computer scientists, it not much. As Ghani put it—and he worked for Obama—“this is the smallest dataset I’ve worked with.” In insurance, banking, health, and many areas of marketing, the datasets are much bigger and more detailed. (And one can easily imagine why—the resources available in those sectors are bigger than even the biggest political campaigns, let alone more ordinary campaigns for Congress etc.)

Right now, campaigns still focus on modeling people’s (a) propensity to vote and (b) their likelihood of supporting one or another candidate. Ghani suggested that in the future, there will be more focus on modeling “persuadability”, in predicting not only how are people likely to behave, but also how likely they are to be susceptible to specific kinds of communication from campaigns.

It will also, and this is something in particular Carol Davidsen (Director, Integration and Media Targeting, Obama for America) talked about, increasingly work across platforms and in the future increasingly focus on evaluating the impact of the massive amounts of money spend on television advertising, an area that several campaign staffers and consultants underlined remains the biggest line item in campaign budgets, and also the least accountable and the least data-based activity. Data from set-top boxes, the rise of IPTV, etc may change that in the future. Integration is the watchword here.

Before getting carried away in discussions of how new digital sources of data from television, from social media, from cookies across the web etc, it is important to remember, as Eithan Hersh made clear in his very good talk, that “campaign targeting is largely a function of public data availability” (and of course what Alex Lundry called the “solid gold” of volunteer or paid canvassing/phonebank-generated IDs, the “who do you lean towards voting for”-type questions asked at the door and over the phone by field campaigns).

In terms of public data availability there are interesting cross-national differences between the US and for example the European Union, which has adopted a “comprehensive” approach to data protection and has privileged privacy protection and where much of the information that enable “big data”-based microtargeting in American politics is simply not available. (Eithan was foreshadowing his forthcoming book Hacking the Electorate, which I’m very much looking forward to.)

The reliance on public records makes the use of data by political campaigns very susceptible to regulation and challenge the stance of some speakers—that the rise of these tools is “a force of nature” that we simply have to adapt to—and make clear that there are political choices to be made here.

In summary, the conference (tons of tweets under the hashtag #datapolitics with other people’s thoughts and observations) provided much information about what campaigns are actually doing today and what the main contemporary legal and political issues surrounding these practices are, but also underlined that

(1) fully articulated, cutting edge big-data modeling remains far more widespread and developed in the corporate world and parts of government than in the political world and

(2) is obviously linked to the resources (time, money, expertise) available to individual campaigns, so the 2012 Obama campaign was ahead of the 2012 Romney campaign, all other US campaigns are far less sophisticated than either, and most campaigns in most other countries (where there is less money in electoral politics and often less public data available) are even less sophisticated.

Is democracy then being “data-crunched”? There was no consensus in the room. Big data and increasingly sophisticated analysis help campaigns allocate their resources more effectively, have enabled them to expand and refine their persuasion but also–importantly– their mobilization efforts, arguably increasing both volunteer participation and voter turnout. It has also increased the risk of electoral red-lining, more fragmented public debates and segmented campaign communications, and strengthened the hand of resource-rich incumbents relative to those with fewer resources (including insurgent campaigns as well as individual citizens).

UPDATE–nice piece on the NYT bits blog summarizing a talk by Kate Crawford outlining “six myths of Big Data”.

Targeting and turnout in the 2012 US Presidential Election

One of the big questions in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential Election was what the turnout would be. Would the supposed “enthusiasm gap” lead to lower turnout amongst some of the key demographics behind Obama’s 2008 victory, like African-Americans and college students? Would the absence of the extraordinary volunteer mobilization seen around the Presidents’ first campaign leave his reelection effort without the capacity to expand the electorate through large-scale voter registration efforts and an extensive and intense effort to get out the vote?

This seems to have been the conviction all the way to the top of the Republican Party. Reports suggest that Romney, Ryan, and key people around them remained confident of victory to the very end, seeing that they were “hitting their numbers” in many districts—only to realize as Election Night unfolded that turnout would exceed their expectations in most swing states, raising the bar for victory and leaving them in the unenviable position of having achieved their tactical goals but lost the strategic battle nonetheless.

Preliminary reports on turnout suggest that the Obama re-election campaign succeeded again in shaping the very nature of the electorate through massive investments of time, effort, and money in both the technical infrastructure and the raw manpower necessary for an effective up-to-date ground game. Yet again, they have set the standard against which other presidential campaigns will be measured (the way Karl Rove and the Bush-Cheney reelection bid did in 2004). The Republican Party no doubt had a better ground game this time than in 2008, but the RNC task force created to study the Democratic campaign has plenty of work to do if the GOP hopes to close the strategic gap.

But what does the increased emphasis on a combination of old-fashioned organizing and door-to-door campaigning and increasingly sophisticated database-assisted voter targeting mean beyond the strategic level of how campaigns are waged and won? What does it mean for popular participation in American democracy?

This debate, especially concerning whether various forms of micro-targeting will lead to electoral red lining and leave people outside the democratic process is not new. It has been going on for more than a decade as the political parties have been catching up with the move towards more detailed and individual-level behavioral targeting long used in corporate communications and commercial marketing.

There have been two basic positions—

First, the pessimistic one outlined by Marshall Ganz in the early 1990s, suggesting that ever more precise targeting of voters will narrow the electorate by leading campaigns to focus their efforts on fewer and fewer people leaving others outside the process.

Second, the more optimistic one outlined by Peter Wielhouwer in the early 2000s, suggesting that more sophisticated targeting would also allow campaigns to identify more voters it makes sense to talk to and try to motivate, and thus expand the electorate as more people are turned out to vote.

Based on the evidence we’ve seen so far from 2012, who’s right? Both, in a way—at least Nate Silver’s analysis shows that turnout was steady in the swing states (and increased in several) even as it was down by about nine percent in the rest of the country. In some states, intensive and data-driven field efforts have expanded the electorate, in much of the country, only the usual suspects came out to vote.

This shouldn’t surprise us, as it is in line with the incentives that electoral campaigns face—as I wrote in my book Ground Wars based on research on previous election cycles:

Does the increasingly precise and individualized targeting possible today, then, expand the electorate, as some have suggested, or does it in fact narrow it, as others have argued? On closer inspection it turns out it does both, depending on the strategic situation. On the one hand, the new dominant targeting scheme identifies numerous new high-value persuasion and get-out-the-vote targets that were entirely invisible under the demographic and geographic targeting schemes that preceded it. The swing voter with an unusual demographic profile can suddenly be identified. The infrequently voting partisan who happens to live among supporters of the other party can be ferreted out. In this sense, the dominant targeting scheme clearly expands the universe of targets and thus enables much more ambitious persuasion and GOTV programs. But on the other hand, campaign assemblages typically only bother to contact such targets if they face strong opposition. Thus, as Marshall Ganz has warned since the early 1990s, in the vast majority of districts where elections are not effectively contested, the new political targeting may in fact narrow the electorate by helping campaigns focus on an ever more clearly defined plurality of highly motivated and highly partisan supporters who turn out on a regular basis to return the incumbent to office. But in competitive districts the new targeting scheme makes it possible for campaign assemblages to leverage their considerable resources to actually expand the electorate in significant ways, both in terms of persuasion efforts and get-out-the-vote efforts—and when the stakes are high enough, even through voter registration efforts. These have long been left for well-meaning civic associations and nonpartisan groups, but were taken up again and pursued with considerable energy and finesse by the Bush campaign among conservative Christians in 2000 and 2004, and by the Obama campaign among African Americans, Latinos, and college students in 2008 on the basis of new forms of political targeting.

The preliminary numbers on turnout from Silver and others suggests this is exactly what happened in 2012. And in the future too, we should expect to see ever more intense efforts to reach more and more potentially persuadable or potentially “mobilizable” voters in high-stakes, well-resourced, competitive elections, even as the majority of Americans who live in states and districts that are not competitive will hear less and less from campaigns as they, quite reasonably, use all available information to concentrate their resources where they think they matter.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It is published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)