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U.S. Political Candidates on Facebook

The next session at ECPR 2011 starts with Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, whose interest is in the performance of politicians on Facebook. There have been a few spectacular successes, of course (most obviously, Barack Obama), and social media have now become a key tool in political campaigning, but it remains unclear how widespread such successes really are. Most politicians who use social media are largely ignored, in fact.

Rasmus’s study tracked candidates in the 112 most competitive electoral districts in the U.S. House and Senate races (who might be assumed to have the most resources at their disposal, given the strong competition); however, most of them found only a relatively small audience. Engagement with candidates is concentrated on a small number of politicians; while most people (and most politicians) are online, only a few are actually successful with their online activities. These people may not be ahead of the curve as much as on top of the curve, Rasmus suggests. We should look for the implications of using online media through different lenses, therefore: by examining the institutional and indirect effects of social media in politics.

Irish Parties Online in the 2011 General Election

The next presenter at ECPR 2011 is Matthew Wall, whose interest is on the 2011 Irish general election – with a specific focus on Sinn Féin. The 2011 elections reshaped the Irish party system (in response to the global financial crisis), and meant a further step for SF away from its close associations with the nationalist ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland and towards becoming a mainstream party in the Republic of Ireland.

SF has a mixed history in terms of online initiatives: they were the first Irish party to launch a Website, and had presences in Bebo and MySpace, but also still struggle to manage their message in conventional media as they’re regularly confronted with their terrorist links. Their candidates traditionally have poor individual Web presence (5% of candidates as opposed to 32% of other parties’ candidates had their own sites), and remain somewhat elusive to the media in general.

Towards Semantic Polling?

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Ben O’Loughlin, whose interest is in the effect of near real-time semantic analysis of public sentiments (online) on continuing political processes: in the end, we may end up with a kind of semantic polling of available social media and other electronic data, which enables political actors to target their messages to voters with unprecedented precision and speed. The 2010 election in the U.K. may have been the first rudimentary example of such a feedback loop.

Ben’s study examined the social media data used by TV and print journalists during the election, and interviewed key actors about their emerging practices in dealing with such data. Three main types of reporting were notable: anecdotal (pulling random tweets out of the timeline); quantitative (general stats on user activity as reported by various polling companies); and semantic (processing the content of social media sources).

Identifying Events from Twitter Bursts

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Andreas Jungherr, whose interest is in using Twitter data to detect events by identifying sudden bursts of activity in the continuing stream of updates. Such research is especially straightforward on Twitter, due to its convenient API access formats; additionally, the short format of Twitter messages means that key themes in messages can be more easily identified.

Twitter itself does some of this, of course, with its ‘trending topics’ (also broken down for specific geographical regions); further, it is possible to identify the links which are shared as part of tweets, of course, as well as identifying hashtags, @replies, and retweets. And tweets are exactly timestamped, allowing for close analysis of temppral developments.

Politicians' Use of Websites in the 2010 UK General Election

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Rosalynd Southern, whose interest is in the UK general election. In the first place, this examined the Web presence of the various political candidates for the six largest parties (2424 in total), from profiles on their party sites through Web-in-a-box pages solutions organised by the parties to personalised sites. This provides an indication of the role the Web plays in each candidate’s campaigning.

Tracking Canadian Political Discussion on Twitter

The final session for the day at ECPR 2011 (well, before we go and hear from the President of Iceland) has a distinct Twitter theme, and starts with Greg Elmer. His focus is on the use of Twitter in the Canadian election debate of 2008, and on the question of how Twitter contributes to intensifying the permanent election campaign.

Understanding the Communicative Flows of Collective Action

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Anastasia Kavada, whose focus is on claims that the Net leads to more decentralised forms of organising which help to unite heterogeneous participants in loose collectives. Such claims place communication in a central position, but there appears to be a lack of systematic theoretical frameworks – organisational communication may help here, she suggests.

Towards a Logic of Connective Action

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Lance Bennett, whose interest is in connective action (as opposed to collective action). Understanding the logic of such action is important, as it may mean that political organisations need to rethink their outreach activities.

There have been significant self-organising large-scale connective actions recently – from the Arab Spring to the Spanish Indignados –, with substantial media and political successes. Collective action, by contrast, has its problems: the free rider problem, for example, which can be addressed through formal organisation (but this in turn creates problems with resource mobilisation, collective identity and action framing, and other issues).

Connective action personalises communication, by relying on loose ties and choice in affiliating with organisations and others; by building on easily shareable symbolic content; and by using social media for passing along such personalisable memes. Technology becomes a network agent that changes the game, and personalised sharing overcomes the self-interest barriers to collective actions.

What Drives Issue Spill-Overs from Online to Offline Media?

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Barbara Pfetsch, whose focus is on media agenda building in online and offline media. She suggests that research is needed to assess the impact of the Net on public debate: how could one go about this work? There have been hopes that the Net may lead to greater public participation and deliberation; also, however, what is the discursive opportunity structure which is provided by the Net? What is the potential for new civil society actors to enter the debate, and how may they be included in the process?

What theoretical and empirical approaches may be suited to researching these questions? First, there is an elite bias in traditional mass media; they tend to exclude ‘outside’, non-mainstream actors, and the hope is that the Net removes such biases. Second, media agenda building depends on local contexts: the political system, the media system, and the constellation of current conflicts in a country, for example. How does traditional media agenda setting change because of the Internet, as new challengers make their views heard?

Towards an Ontology of the New Hybrid Media System

The next paper at ECPR 2011 is by Andrew Chadwick, whose argument is that old and new media scholars often talk past one another, and that political communication scholarship as well as Internet studies need to draw on one another’s ideas more effectively. The interrelationship between old and new media, in particular, needs to be examined more closely. This requires system-level perspectives and a conceptual understanding of power which can be illustrated empirically.

So, we need a hybrid media system perspective, recognising the technologies, genres, norms, behaviours, and organisations of all its components. Power relations between them are based on adaptation and interdependence, and actors create, tap, or steer information flows in ways that suit them.


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