A couple of weeks ago we presented some of the Voter Ecology Project’s preliminary findings at the ECREA Communication and Democracy annual symposium in Munich, Germany. Among the many questions raised in the Q&A session, one went right at the heart of the challenges with which we have been getting to grips in the past couple of months, which led us to be wary of applying traditional political communication research methods in the context of a new media ecology. In particular, someone asked how exactly we were planning to “disentangle” what Internet users were interested in because they had seen it on TV from what traditional news media covered by responding to a rise in popular demand for information on a certain topic or event. At first, this may sound like a chicken and egg question. However, this is not really an issue of causation, but rather one that speaks to the challenge of mapping and understanding increasingly complex informational trajectories in a context in which online content and that of ‘legacy’ media are ever more intertwined.
Since writing about the need to develop a citizen-centric approach to study electoral information flows in our first blog update, we spent quite a bit of time dealing with methodological riddles. Having hypothesised the existence of a “search agenda” populated by issues that reflect the “true” interests of Internet users, a key problem was to find a viable system to map and compare that set of issues against those that dominated news media coverage of electoral affairs and official campaign messages respectively. As media scholars, our first intuition was to use content analysis to produce a comprehensive overview of the news content and campaign literature surrounding elections in each of the countries under scrutiny (the UK, the U.S., Italy and Egypt). However, we soon realised that this would have been not only extremely time-consuming and resource-intensive, but would have constituted also a potentially distortive application of old research frameworks in a new context.
As it is often the case in social science research, a breakthrough occurred when we realised that in fact we were asking the wrong question, starting from what was ‘old’ rather than what was ‘new’ in the informational environment that typically surrounds electoral contests. This newly found awareness inspired us to ‘reverse’ the traditional research process, using Google Trends data to identify the moments in which demand for online political information was particularly intense and then carry out an in-depth analysis of these informational ‘junctures.’ For example, we found that, although British Internet users were relatively uninterested in Gordon Brown during the campaign for the UK 2010 general election, search levels for information related to the then prime minister and Labour party leader suddenly exploded towards the end of April to then decline just as sharply a couple of days later. As it turned out, this search peak coincided with the ‘bigot-gate’ episode, which was arguably a watershed moment in the 2010 UK general election campaign and some described as one of the most over-reported stories of that year. Similarly, search levels for information related to Mitt Romney went through the roof in conjunction with the ‘binders full of women’ gaffe he made during the second televised debate in which he and Barack Obama took part during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign.
Such extreme search patterns invited further investigation to expose in full the informational transactions that surrounded each of these sharp rises in voter interest in political content. Indeed, shining the spotlight on such intensely mediated political events while at the same time hypothesising the existence of a specific – but not necessarily independent – ‘search agenda’ may sound rather paradoxical. However, a true contradiction in terms would arise here only if one were to mistake this for the arrival point in the research process, when in fact it is quite the opposite. Identifying the moments in which citizens are most likely to be interested in political information with Google Trends constitutes a first level of investigation that ought to be followed by a number of other questions. In this framework, finding that the same episodes had generated a vast amount of interest across both online and traditional mass media did not necessarily mean that each of these events also occupied exactly the same position on the ‘search agenda’ as it did on the agenda of traditional news media. Rather, as researchers and innovators our job is to go beyond the tip of the iceberg, reaching underwater to identify the deep ramifications of key socio-political events.
Thus, for each of the episodes listed above as well as for others, we are in the process of asking what role(s) they played and how long they featured in the agendas of search engine users, traditional news media, and campaign managers respectively. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, we are also testing whether voters used such seemingly trivial episodes as ‘springboards’ to complete “thematic leaps” (that is, to start researching or spreading information on a policy issue connected to the events in question). Although this is still very much work in progress, it has been interesting to see how Google Trends provides opportunities for researchers to revisit events that have become crystallised in the academic literature on the mass media and elections with a view to finding different angles from which to interpret them.
To browse the complete series of presentation slides from the ECREA Communication and Democracy 2013 conference click here: