Category Archives: Political campaigns

Fake news – an optimistic take

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Nobody likes fake news, whether produced for profit or for political purposes, and irrespective of how it has been disseminated.

It clearly exists, whether propaganda or churned out by the now infamous Macedonian teenagers.

But how much of an issue is fake news, narrowly understood as news that is factually wrong and/or fictitious while masquerading as news and is knowingly produced as such?

The first rule of writing about fake news is to admit that we do not really know what is going on: how much is there, produced by whom, who uses it, why, and how much does it influence them?

That said, here is an optimistic take on the fake news discussion–based on three points.

  1. Are there in fact likely to be significant effects of being exposed to fake news? Before jumping to the conclusion that people are in fact influenced by fake news, consider the following possible objections. First, most people are exposed to many different messages, pieces of information, and news stories every day, and research suggests that the effect of any one of these messages (like a fake news story) is likely to be very limited and short-lived, unless exposure is consistent, sustained, and very one-sided. Second, when people navigate news online, they rely in part on what their own browsing behaviour and various algorithmic filters lead them to, but also on source affiliation and social endorsements for cues on what to believe. Third, when they do in fact engage with news (some of which may be fake), they may do so in a whole lot of ways and for a whole lot of reasons that are more ritual and do not involve them actually believing that the information contained is necessarily true—think of this by analogy as being amused by a tabloid or gossip site, sharing something on Twitter or commenting on Facebook without actually having read it, etc.
  2. Everybody seems to think other people are fooled by fake news, few seem to think that they themselves have been fooled. The discussion around fake news seems to reflect at least in part what media researchers call “third-person effect”, the fact that people generally see media and communication “as having a greater effect on others than on himself or herself”. Often, these “others” happen to people who are (a) poor and have low levels of education and (b) with whom those worried about the effect disagree politically, adding a bit of classism and partisan polarization to the discussion. (BuzzFeed and Ipsos did one of the most interesting and important empirical studies of fake news in the US back in December, and found that 33% of survey respondents—a clear minority—recalled seeing fake news headlines during the election (57% recalled real news headlines). Of those who did recall fake news headlines, a majority (especially amongst Republicans and Trump supporters), rated those headlines as “very accurate” or “somewhat accurate”—though keep in mind as is clear from the topline data, in most cases, most respondents answered “somewhat accurate”).
  3. Of course, fake news is likely to be important for some. Selective exposure to partisan fake news (we tend to seek out information that reinforces our pre-existing views while avoiding information that contradicts it) and motivated reasoning (we tend to process information so that it fits with our existing beliefs) means that for a minority of very highly partisan people, fake news probably shore up and even further polarize their political views. But here fake news is arguably (unless empirical work can find that there is a lot of it and people pay a lot of attention to it) a small part of a larger story of partisan polarization in some countries (including notably the US) and of a media industry that has moved from providing mostly middle-of-the-road, he-said/she-said news committed to some version of attempted objectivity to a situation where more and more media are clearly partisan or perhaps deliberately and for largely commercial reasons peddle moral outrage. Fake news may intensify this development, but if so clearly builds on a much broader and long-standing development.

There are no doubt a group of people who are fooled by fake news and who in fact are influenced by it.

And it seems clear that fake news is not only cheaper to produce (and monetize) today, but also easier to disseminate online than ever before.

But until someone provide evidence to the contrary, I suspect most people are exposed to relatively little fake news (and a lot of other stuff) and are not very much influenced by it.

Point one and two above, building on decades of empirical media research, suggest that, until there is evidence to the contrary, we should expect only a minority of people to be both (a) exposed to fake news, (b) fooled by it, and (c) in fact influenced by it. Point three of course suggests that there is another minority who may rely in part on fake news as they maintain partisan identities, but, as said, this is arguably a broader point about political (partisan polarization) and media (move from mass to niche, including partisan niche).

None of this means that we should not take fake news seriously or that there aren’t reasons to be concerned when people produce fake news, either for profit or for political purposes. Nor does it mean that we should not be concerned about the question of whether technology platforms including Google and Facebook enable the production and dissemination of fake news (though they also enable a whole lot more, and any call for change, intervention, and/or regulation needs to keep this in mind, and to think about whether the cure is sometimes worse than the disease).

But what this optimistic take on fake news does mean is that we should not let the passionate and heated (and sometimes largely evidence-free and polemical) discussion distract us from a set of arguably more fundamental challenges concerning news and the role of news in contemporary politics and public life.

These include—

  • Do non-fake news in fact serve society well in terms of how they have dealt with issues including Brexit and Donald Trump? The loud discussion around fake news risks obscuring a critical discussion of (real) news and how well different (real) news organizations handle their public role. Some news organizations did a valiant and principled job. Others did not. Research on rumours both offline and online suggest people turn to “improvised news” (often inaccurate, sometimes outright falsehood) especially in times of crisis when conventional news may be scarce or do not answer the questions people have.
  • Why is it that so many people (in the US almost 40%) do not trust (real) news and in some cases don’t accept that (real) news is much different from fake news, or much more trustworthy than fake news? As a media researcher and as someone who personally believes in the public value of much of journalism, warts and all, I am concerned that the focus on one easy target of moral approbation—fake news—distracts from the fact that many people think of much of news, sometimes justifiably so, as less than trustworthy, and often out of touch with their problems, values, and concerns.
  • Are the political outcomes of political processes like the UK referendum on the European Union and the US Presidential Election perhaps first and foremost political in nature? Blaming Macedonian teenagers making things up for a living, Russian propaganda, and the opaque algorithms of powerful and profitable technology companies for an election result draws attention away from whether in fact these outcomes were primarily driven by more fundamental political, social, and economic processes (and that these in turn vary by country).

An optimistic take on fake news may thus (perhaps pessimistically) suggest that the most important questions we face around media and democracy today concern real news, and how real news—often on an eroding resource base—can cover highly partisan politics, reach more people, and connect societies that in some cases seem more and more polarized in terms of both social values and relative affluence.

(Many thanks to David Levy and Richard Fletcher for comments on this piece. I wrote this in part because Gina Neff effecitvely told me to.)

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“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” Social science and the 2016 elections

Dewey Defeats Truman NewspaperThe most important thing about November 8 is of course the result itself, but as a professional social scientist, I want to put out a few thoughts on what the 2016 elections might mean for social science.

For the last year, I have repeatedly told colleagues and friends I thought there was no chance Donald Trump would be elected president. Yesterday, I told a colleague I thought Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote by maybe 3 percent and it could be an early evening if she won Florida or North Carolina.

I was wrong.

My view was based on three things, all tied in with my core belief that while imperfect, social science is better than guessing— 

  1. Long-term trends: extensive political science research suggesting that economic and political fundamentals, and underlying demographic shifts, are more important than the campaign itself. Much of this research suggested any Democrat running in 2016 would start the race ahead of any Republican.
  2. Month-by-month measures of performance: immense amounts of public opinion polling and detailed analysis of it both by academic political scientists and by data journalists, which almost consistently showed Hillary Clinton ahead nationally and in key states.
  3. The campaign itself: the sense—impressionistic, but linked to my own qualitative research and the five years I lived in the US—that while Donald Trump clearly spoke to deeply held grievances amongst many (especially White) Americans, a billionaire member of 1% with a history of personal and professional scandals who did not have the support of his party was unlikely to make major gains during the campaign itself, especially as his organization itself seemed disorganized and inefficient.

Again, I was wrong. We were wrong. Very publicly, both in terms of academics who have had the courage and sense of citizenship to publish their predictions along the way and in terms of data journalists working in large part on the basis of social science data and methods, only doing so in real time with running commentary.

It is a humbling moment. The scientific response is to re-examine our assumptions, methods, and data, and see what we can do better.

One result, however important and high-profile, does not disprove everything we thought we knew as scientists about politics and everything we thought we knew about how to study politics scientifically.

Science is hard. We are in the dark, poking at the world with different sticks.

But we shouldn’t trivialize just how important this is, and I think addressing it will take more than tweaking and paradigm repair.

As powerful as I believe quantitative analysis and survey research can be, I can’t help but feel that part of the problem is that many of us as social scientists have lost track of what politics means for many people. For me, the 2016 UK Brexit result and the 2016 US election results both illustrate this wider problem.

It is easy to look back and identify prescient observations, but in terms of trying to make sense of November 8, I can’t help but feel the most insightful books might have been Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Neither of them aimed to predict the election outcome. Neither of them focused on the kinds of large quantitative data sets, detailed polling, or scraped digital trace data that most social scientists work with.

Instead of looking at the numbers, Cramer and Hochschild went and talked to people to find the feelings, emotions, and meanings that are hard to get at with the most widely used social science methods.

I want to be clear this is not about qualitative methods being good and quantitative methods being bad. They are good at different things and should compliment each other. We need to capture both stories and numbers to understand the world (and in the social sciences, to understand how people understand the world, and act on their understanding).

But I think that, beyond re-examining what can be done incrementally with existing approaches to improve the models, the samples, the assumptions about who will vote, this (along with the Brexit result in the UK) is also a moment where we have to confront a more basic issues—

We as social scientists do not have a good, evidence-based understanding of how most people understand and relate to politics and the world around them. And if we don’t have that qualitative understanding, it is very hard to develop quantitative analysis and methods that will capture it. We know a lot about what people do, but very little about what it means for them.

And no, “big data” scraped from digital media or other sources will not solve this problem by itself. Facebook and Google, who have more of this data than probably anybody else, are very conscious that behavioural data does not in itself reveal what things mean, and as a consequence invest heavily in qualitative research. I think the social sciences should walk on two legs, quantitative and qualitative, too. (And have written about that, with colleagues, before.)

As Stephen Coleman has written in his study of How Voters Feel, “the sustainability of any social practice depends to a large measure on how it feels to participate in it.”

I think it is clear we don’t know how most people feel about politics and how it ties in with other aspects of their lives and identities. Yes, we may know that some of them are not very interested, don’t like it very much, or a quite partisan. But what does that actually mean? I don’t think we know.

Historically, I think it is fair to say social scientists have simply assumed we knew, and primarily asked qualitative questions about the lived experience and perspective of groups that were considered minorities.

In my view 2016 shows we need to start qualitatively researching the (diverse, fractious, fascinating) majority to, and see whether a better, evidence-based understanding of how people relate to politics and public life can help us get it right next time.

Doing this might mean more social scientists have to actually talk to and spend time with the people they study. As John le Carré has noted, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

APSA 2016 Political Communication Preconference Agenda

Very happy to have been involved in organizing the American Political Science Association 2016 Political Communication Preconference this year. Programme below.

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APSA POLITICAL COMMUNICATION PRECONFERENCE

AGENDA

 

DATE:                       Wednesday August 31st

LOCATION:             Temple University’s Center City campus at 1515 Market Street, Philadelphia PA, 19102.

SCHEDULE:

  • 8:AM to 8:45AM:             BREAKFAST & REGISTRATION (Rm. 222)

 

  • 8:45AM to 9:00AM:             WELCOMES (Rm. 222)

 

  • 9:00AM to 10:15AM: PANELS

 

  • Gender, Class & Age (Chair: Diana Owen, Georgetown University) (Rm. 420)
    • Computer Silence: Gender Differences in Online Comment Sections. Natalie Jomini Stroud (The University of Texas at Austin), Emily Van Duyn (The University of Texas at Austin) and Cynthia Peacock (The University of Texas at Austin).
    • Visual Communication and Candidate Evaluation: Testing the Influence of Images on Support for Male and Female Candidates. Nichole Bauer (University of Alabama) and Colleen Carpinella (Disney Research).
    • Class Opinion Alignment: The Influence of Poverty Discourse on the Political Attitudes of Low-income Citizens. Lori Young (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania).
    • The Gender Gap and Online Political Activity in Canadian Politics. Tamara A. Small (University of Guelph), Harold Jansen (University of Lethbridge), Frédérick Bastien (Université de Montréal), Thierry Giasson (Université Laval) and Royce Koop (University of Manitoba).
    • Political Information Usage and Sources for Young Citizens: Comparison of Electoral and Non-Electoral Periods. Andrius Suminas (Vilnius University).

 

  • Media and Political Engagement I (Chair: Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Oxford University) (Rm. 421)
    • WhatApp..ening to Political Discussion in Europe? Instant Messaging Services and Political Engagement in Italy, United Kingdom and Germany. Augusto Valeriani (University of Bologna) and Cristian Vaccari (Royal Holloway, University of London and University of Bologna).
    • Fly My Pretties: John Oliver, Net Neutrality, and Comedy as an Agent of Political Activation. Leticia Bode (Georgetown University) and Amy Becker (Loyola University Maryland).
    • Digital Politics and the Political Community. Michael J. Jensen (Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra).
    • The Instagram Election: The Role of Visual Social Media in the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Terri Towner (Oakland University).

 

  • Partisan Media (Chair: Bruce Hardy, Temple University) (Rm. 422)
    • Media Issue Ownership: Reconciling Partisan News and Issue Ownership. McGregor, Shannon C. (University of Texas – Austin).
    • Media Choice and Moderation: Evidence from an Experiment With Digital Trace Data. Andrew Guess (New York University).
    • The Impact of Partisan News Exposure on Perceptions of the Opposing Party and Public Confidence in the Electoral System. Hye-Yon Lee (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania).
    • Self and Contextually Activated Networks: An Expanded Approach to Selective Exposure. Benjamin Lyons (University of Pennsylvania)

 

  • 10:15AM to 10:30AM:    BREAK
  • 10:30AM to 11:45AM:    PANELS

 

  • Campaigns & Elections (Chair: Michael X. Delli Carpini, University of Pennsylvania) (Rm. 420)
    • Online Interaction: Do Candidates Still Avoid It? Jennifer Stromer-Galley (Syracuse University), Patricia Rossini (University of Minas Gerais, Brazil), Lauren Bryant (University at Albany, SUNY), Bryan Semaan (Syracuse University), Jeff Hemsley (Syracuse University), Kate Kenski (University of Arizona) and Feifei Zhang (Syracuse University).
    • The Promise of Social Media Intelligence: Leveraging Consumer Analytical Tools to Understand Voters Online in 2016. Sarah Oates (University of Maryland College Park) and Wendy Moe (University of Maryland College Park).
    • Oh Snap: Chat Videostyle in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign. Eisa Al Nashmi (Kuwait University) and David Painter (Rollins College).
    • Tipping the Balance of Power in Elections? Voters’ Engagement in the Digital Campaign. Diana Owen (Georgetown University).
    • Relational Labor in Candidates’ Social Media Presence. Shannon C McGregor (University of Texas – Austin) and Nancy Baym (Microsoft Research).

 

 

  • Disagreement, Negativity & Incivility (Chair: Dannagal Young, University of Delaware) (Rm. 421)
    • Liberal and Conservative Political Incivility. Ashley Muddiman (University of Kansas).
    • How Personality Traits Affect Voters’ Campaign Tone Perceptions and Responses. Annemarie Walter (School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham), Travis Ridout (School of Politics and International Relations, Washington State University) and Cees Van der Eijk (School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham).
    • How Political Disagreements Lead to Participation: Comparing Less and More Experienced Voters in the Case of the U.S. 2014 Midterm Elections. Hailey Hyun-kyung Oh (George Mason University).
    • Deliberative Signals: The Importance of Incivility in Highlighting Anti-Democratic Rhetoric. Emily Sydnor (Southwestern University) and Grace Atkins (Southwestern University).

 

  • Protest, Revolution and Media (Chair: Abby Jones, Visiting Scholar, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania) (Rm. 422)
    • Revolutionary Narratives and the Future of Revolution. Guobin Yang (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania).
    • The Contagion Effects of Protest Movements – Pegida and Party Politics in Germany. Sebastian Stier (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Cologne), Arnim Bleier (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Cologne), Christoph Kling (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Cologne) and Lisa Posch (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Cologne).
    • Democracy, New Media and Social Actors in Contemporary Spanish Politics. Leocadia Díaz Romero (Murcia State University).
    • From Connective Action to Connective People: An Empirical Evidence from Egypt. Mostafa Shehata (Roskilde University).

 

  • 11:45AM to 12:30PM:     LUNCH (Rm. 222)

 

  • 12:30PM to 1:30PM:       KEYNOTE & DISCUSSION ON THE 2016 U.S.

PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION (Rm. 222)

 

  • Facilitator: Michael Hagen (Temple University)
  • David Nickerson (Temple University)

 

  • 1:30PM to 2:30PM:         THEORY AND THEORY-BUILDING ROUNDTABLE

(Rm. 222)

 

  • CHAIR: Regina Lawrence (School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon)
  • PANELISTS
    • Geoffrey Baym (Temple University)
    • Andrew Chadwick (Royal Holloway, University of London)
    • Daniel Kreiss (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
    • Dannagal Young (University of Delaware)

 

  • 2:30PM to 2:45PM:         BREAK

 

  • 2:45PM to 4:00PM:       PANELS

 

  • Journalism, News, and Politics (Chair: Geoffrey Baym, Temple University) (Rm. 420)
    • Platformed Publishing? The Rise of Digital Intermediaries, the Transformation of Online Journalism, and Implications for Mediated Politics. Rasmus Kleis Nielson (Oxford University) and Sarah Anne Ganter (Oxford University).
    • Analyzing PolitiFact.com: Assessments of Key Partisan Claims Regarding President Obama. Stephen J. Farnsworth (University of Mary Washington) and Robert S. Lichter (George Mason University).
    • Objective and Subjective Political Knowledge in the New Media Environment. Kylee Britzman (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).
    • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Combining Journalistic Ideals and Political Satire. John Remensperger (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania).

 

  • Issue Coverage in Comparative Perspective (Chair: Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Syracuse University) (Rm. 421)
    • Threatening or Sympathetic? The Cross-National Framing of the Syrian Mass Exodus. Abby Jones (Visiting Scholar, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania).
    • Communist Party’s Soft Power in Cross-national Persuasion Videos: Shaping China’s Image among Overseas Audiences. Kecheng Fang (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania) and Diana C. Mutz (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania).
    • Ownership, Differential Framing and Attitudes to Labor Unions: Evidence from Two Experiments. Liam Kneafsey (Trinity College, Dublin).
    • Social Media Use and Fear Levels after the Paris 2015 Attacks. A Comparative Study. Shana Kushner Gadarian (Syracuse University),
      Kari Steen-Johnsen (Institute for Social Research, Oslo) and Bernard Enjolras (Institute for Social Research, Oslo).

 

 

 

  • Media and Political Engagement II (Chair: Lance Holbert, Temple University) (Rm. 422)
    • Ask Me Anything: How Elites Trigger Political Participation on Reddit. Galen Stocking (Pew Research Center), Michael Barthel (Pew Research Center), Jeff Gottfried (Pew Research Center), and Katerina Matsa (Pew Research Center).
    • Getting to the Grassroots: How Corporate Sponsored Activist Groups Are Covered in the News. Tim Wood (New York University).
    • Explaining Constituent Calls and Online Comments: The Role of Organized Interests in Grassroots Lobbying. Kelsey Shoub (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and John Cluverius (University of Massachusetts, Lowell).
    • Skipping Politics: Measuring Avoidance of Political Content in Social Media. Leticia Bode (Georgetown University), Emily Vraga (George Mason University), and Sonya Troller-Renfree (University of Maryland).
    • Internet Campaigning in Japan and Taiwan: A Comparative Institutional Approach. Shoko Kiyohara (Meiji University) and Chen Boyu (University of Niigata Prefecture).

 

  • 4:00PM to 5:00PM: “BIRDS OF A FEATHER” SESSIONS (Facilitated Open

Discussions among Interested Scholars)

 

  • #WomenAlsoKnowStuff (Room 420)
    • Facilitators
      • Amber Boydstun (University of California, Davis)
      • Samara Klar (University of Arizona)
      • Yanna Krupnikov (Stony Brook University)
      • Kathleen Searles (Louisiana State University)

 

  • Comparative Political Communication (Rm 421)
    • Facilitators
      • Kari Steen-Johnsen (Institute for Social Research, Oslo Norway)
      • Cristian Vaccari (University of London)

 

  • Digital Trace Data (Rm. 422)
    • Facilitators
      • Deen Freelon (American University)
      • Andrew Guess (New York University)
      • Andreas Jungherr (University of Konstanz)

 

  • 5:00PM to 5:30PM:        TRAVEL TO TEMPLE’S MAIN CAMPUS

 

  • 5:30PM to 6:45PM:        RECEPTION AT TEMPLE’S MAIN CAMPUS

(Location TBD)

As pessoas curtem os políticos no Facebook? Não mesmo!

My article “Do People “Like” Politicians on Facebook? Not really. Large-Scale Direct Candidate-to-Voter Online Communication as an Outlier Phenomenon” is now out in a Portuguese translation in the Revista Eletrônica de Ciência Política (thanks to the hard work of Márcio Cunha Carlomagno and Sérgio Braga).

I wrote the article with Cristian Vaccari and we first published it in English in the International Journal of Communication in 2013. It is based on data from the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections and shows how though a few candidates have very large online followings, most do not.

On that basis (and existing research showing the limited reach of candidate websites), we suggest that large-scale direct online communication between politicians and ordinary people via social media platforms is a rare, outlier phenomenon—even in the case of high-stakes, well-resourced campaigns—and suggest that the most relevant political implications of social media take the form of (a) new forums for indirect communication about politics and (b) institutional changes in political communication processes.

Since then, (a) campaigns have begun to invest more in online advertising and social media advertising to get below their (often low) “organic” reach so it would be well-worth revisiting the issue, and (b) social media especially Facebook have changed their algorithms and grown in importance as gateways to news (as shown in the Reuters Institute Digital News Report and elsewhere), so it would be well worth revisiting the issue.

My hypothesis would remain that the majority of candidates, even in high-stakes elections, with well-resourced campaigns, and running in countries with high levels of internet use and high levels of social media use, attract very limited attention from the broader population online.

Below for basic information about the new Portuguese translation.

As pessoas curtem os políticos no Facebook? Não mesmo! A comunicação direta em larga escala entre candidatos e eleitores como um fenômeno outlier

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Cristian Vaccari

Resumo

A popularidade online de alguns poucos candidatos tem levado muitos analistas a sugerir que as mídias sociais têm dado aos políticos novas e poderosas formas de se comunicar diretamente com os eleitores. Examinando se isso está acontecendo em uma escala significativa com base na análise de 224 candidatos dos maiores partidos concorrendo em distritos competitivos para a Câmara dos Deputados dos Estados Unidos durante as eleições parlamentares de 2010, descobrimos que a maioria dos políticos online é, de fato, largamente ignorada pelo eleitorado. A atenção dada pelos cidadãos aos candidatos online se aproxima das distribuições de lei de potência, com alguns candidatos obtendo muitos seguidores e a maioria definhando na obscuridade. Como a comunicação direta online em larga escala entre os políticos e as pessoas comuns nestas plataformas é um fenômeno raro e outlier – mesmo no caso de campanhas eleitorais altamente competitivas e com candidatos com amplo acesso a recursos financeiros – sugerimos, neste texto, que as implicações políticas mais relevantes das mídias sociais assumem a forma de (a) novos fóruns para comunicação indireta sobre política e (b) mudanças institucionais nos processos de comunicação política.

Palavras-chave: mídias sociais; Facebook; candidatos; eleições

No, this won’t be the “Meerkat Election”. Or the “Periscope Election”. It’s digital politics as usual.

No, this won’t be the “Meerkat Election”. Or the “Periscope Election”. And as exciting as these new live streaming social media apps are, they certainly not “taking over” Washington, the Presidential Primary, or the 2016 elections (or any other political scene).

It’s the same old story, and we will hear it again and again over the next year and a half.

Much of the hype emanates from the run-up to the US presidential primaries and general elections and wild extrapolation from a few high profile incidents or particularlly succesful outliers.

  • 2004 was called the “Meetup Election” after Howard Dean’s spectacular primary campaign used the platform as part of its effort to mobilize volunteers and raise money.
  • 2008 was called the “Facebook Election” and the “YouTube Election” as these tools grew in importance and particularly the Obama campaign used them.
  • 2012, of course, was called the “Twitter Election” (by amongst others, a purely disinterested source like the CEO of, well, Twitter) as that was the new tools of the season.
  • And 2016 in addition to having already been dubbed the Meerkat Election will probably also be called the Snapchat election and the Whatsapp election and surely more too.

Much of all this hype is driven by a combination of tech journalists and political reporters with an endless need for new content and always looking for the new thing and self-interested sources like political operatives and tech professionals who have a story to tell. (It turns out that the Smith for President social media director thinks social media may decide the election, and that social media consultant Johnson and social media CEO Williams agree.)

One is tempted to say that much of it is bullshit (in the technical sense of the term as communication designed to impress), as no one seems to care whether it is actually true in any meaningful sense of that word. Thought-provoking that even very self-consicously “serious” news outlets lend their name to this stuff.

It’s all predictable but slightly annoying, as is the tendency of some journalists in other countries to pick up on coverage of US election campaigns and assume that whatever happens (or could/will/may happen there) will eventually also decide the upcoming election in country X.

What is missing from this is the simply but important point made by everyone from serious political professionals like David Plouffe (as he has written, “balanced communications across all mediums is critical in any messaging effort today”) over scholars of political communication and media like Andrew Chadwick to historians of technology like David Edgerton: the interplay between old and new media is not either/or scenario where a succession of new media arrive, displace old media like television and inherited campaign practices like going door-to-door, and proceed to decide the election in a blaze of dazzling technology-driven power. It is an additive process where new forms of campaign communication are gradually added on to existing, well-known ones in the pursuit of victory.

So what we have today is digital politics, yes, because these tools—all these tools, including seemingly old and unsexy “mundane tools” like email, spreadsheets, databases, etc—are increasingly integral to much of what many of us do, especially in high income democracies, and hence also important parts of the political process.

But it is digital politics as usual, as old media and campaign practices remain stubbornly important and central, and elections are still won as much on the basis of policy, personality, performance, and at the mercy of events and conjecture like changes in the economy.

I know saying we have a “complicated” election ahead of us that will be decided by a combination of many different factors and where those involved will rely on a wide range of different forms of communication, most of them fairly well-known and older ones, is not very exciting. But it is the honest-to-God truth of the matter. Calling it the “app-of-the-year election” is not.

Now that is off my chest at least I will have this blog post to point to for the rest of the 2015-2016 election season and probably for the rest of my life.

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

Abstract

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

2014 Doris Graber Award for “Ground Wars”

“Ground Wars” has just been announced the winner of the 2014 Doris Graber Award, given by the American Political Science Association for the best book published on political communication in the last ten years.

This is what Susan Herbst, chair of the award committee, wrote to me.

“Our committee voted for your book unanimously, finding it to be innovative, engaging and of very high quality relative to the terrific pool of nominee books.”

I’m very proud of this. Previous Doris Graber Award winners include some of the political communication scholars I admire the most, and I’m honored to see my work in this company (especially since so many good books have come out in the last years).

The book is based on hundreds of hours spend in campaign offices (like the one below in Stamford), talking to staffers, being on the phone with volunteers, canvassing with part-timers knocking on doors for $10 an hour, talking to voters all over Connecticut and New Jersey for months on end.

Himes photo 4

As I write in my acknowledgments, “I have learned more from the people involved in campaigns than I can ever hope to teach them, and I thank them all for letting me into their world.”

That’s worth repeating—I’m grateful that people let me in, had the patience and inclination to talk about their work.

For those interested in a taste of the book, the first chapter is available for free here [pdf] on the Princeton University Press website, and the book can be found through Amazon etc.