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Turning the Pyramid Upside Down

By Filippo Trevisan, 6th Aug. 2013

Joe Trippi, campaign manager for U.S. presidential hopeful Howard Dean in 2003-4, once explained that in the era of online campaigns “What you’ve got to do, is you have to have two-way communication. It’s the bond, to be able to talk to each other about you, that is important.” At the time, such words may have sounded like heresy to those used to traditional “top-down” campaigns. Ten years on, they make instead for basic textbook remarks on democratic electioneering. Campaigning has come a staggeringly long way in a very short amount of time. Politicians want citizens to get in touch through online media because it helps them build a winning campaign. Yet, can we be sure that citizens are equally as eager to hear from politicians as Trippi’s remarks seem to imply? Couldn’t it rather be that today’s voters, with so many online resources at their disposal, are building their own “election agenda” instead of relying on “managed” campaign information? After all, one could be forgiven for thinking that being able to track Barack Obama’s favourite dining spots in real time can only prelude to a better-than-ever-informed citizenry.

The idea of emancipated voters who make the most of their technological proficiency to break free of electoral information hegemony is a captivating one, but the truth is that we still don’t quite know whether this actually happens. In fact, doubts on the pluralising effects of online campaigning started to emerge in the very early days of Web 2.0 technology. Shockingly for cyber-enthusiasts, scholars such as Philip Howard (2006) pointed out that by “redlining some constituents and communities and then narrowcasting political content, hypermedia campaigns diminish the amount of shared text in the public sphere” (p. 183). In other words, personalised information feeds and tailored messages would restrict, not enhance, pluralism and participation. From a pragmatic point of view, this is perhaps not as much as a surprise as it may seem at first. As Kreiss (2012) explained in his work on the Dean and Obama campaigns, “campaigns simply are not designed to be the training grounds of radical democratic participation that many desire” (p. 183). Thus, “many supporters not only accept but embrace this, given […] the objective is to defeat rivals, not remake democracy” (ibid.). That said, our knowledge of information flows at election times remains confined to what Lilleker and Vedel (2013) have termed “supply-side studies,” which focus on campaign messages rather than asking where else citizens get their information from before heading to the polls.

To use a metaphor, it’s time for researchers to turn the pyramid upside down. That means, start by asking how voters navigate and interact with the virtually limitless “sea” of online information, as well as mapping those practices against campaign messages and traditional news coverage of election issues more broadly. To this effect, some have analysed how people use Twitter before, during and after televised debates and current affairs programs. That has yielded some interesting results, but at the same time it’s a bit like putting the cart before the horse or preparing the icing before even looking for a cake recipe. Despite increasing in numbers, being particularly vocal and arguably influential, Twitter users remain a minority among internet users. What, then, about the broader picture? Some have sounded internet users through traditional surveys, but one has to wonder whether there are better ways of capturing informational practices in the digital age. We believe that a good place to start in this process could be mapping user-interests using Google Trends: What types of information do voters search for in times of elections? How do they search? Are they guided by established mass media templates and official campaign messages, or capitalise on the relative freedom provided by search engines to create their own “search agenda”? And finally, what role does search occupy in the nascent “new media ecology”?

As search contends with email to be the most popular online activity in the U.S. and remains the primary way through which British users access information on the internet, acquiring a detailed overview of search patterns would ensure as representative a base as possible for comparing the interests of online citizens to the agendas of both politicians and traditional mass media outlets, which can be mapped using more traditional methods. For example, Google Trends suggests that British internet users became increasingly interested in knowing about a “hung parliament” as the 2010 general election approached despite politicians doing their best to avoid talking about this issue.

Fluctuations in search volume for “hung parliament” on Google.co.uk, March-April 2010

Fluctuations in search volume for “hung parliament” on Google.co.uk, March-April 2010

Was it traditional mass media coverage that inspired voters to search for information on this possible scenario, or were they rather using search to remedy the lack of information on this issue in mainstream channels? Indeed, unravelling this type of issues is bound to throw up some important methodological challenges, as I discussed recently in a dedicated paper, and require an inductive approach, as search trends are likely to be uncovered by testing for a wide range of potentially relevant keywords rather than merely anticipated on the basis of theoretical assumptions. That said, this promises to be an exciting journey in which, once overarching trends as well as standout search “events” have been identified through Google Trends, multiple methods can be employed to map how key messages are generated, shared, and re-framed across different media platforms in times of elections in a process that could be conceptualised as “nexus analysis.”

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References:

  • Howard, P. (2006). New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kreiss, D. (2012). Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lilleker, D. and Vedel, T. (2013). “The Internet in Campaigns and Elections,” in Dutton, W. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 401-420.
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