My Testimony on Digital Media and Democracy at the House of Lords

IMG_7059On 29 October, I had the pleasure to testify for the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee of the UK House of Lords. Together with Helen Margetts and Martin Moore, we discussed the ways in which digital media are changing the way our democracies function and what governments around the world are doing, and should be doing, to reap the greatest benefits and prevent the most troubling harms resulting from the process.

The transcript of the session is now available on the Committee’s website. During the session, I drew on research on misinformation conducted as part of Loughborough University’s Online Civic Culture Centre, on work on the role of UK tabloids in spreading misinformation coauthored with Andrew Chadwick and Ben O’Loughlin, on research on social media and political participation I have been doing with Augusto Valeriani for the past five years, on a wide-ranging literature review on social media, polarization and disinformation commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation to which I contributed, and on work I have done on the prevalence, or lack thereof, of echo chambers online. I also relied on many colleagues’ work and insight, and I hope I have done justice to at least some of them in my answers.

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Many thanks to Kate Dommett, who serves as Special Advisor to the Committee, and to the Committee for inviting me. It was a thorough and interesting conversation.

 

New Article Out on Parties’ Strategies in the 2017 UK General Election

Image result for west european politicsIn a new article just published in West European Politics, my former colleagues at Royal Holloway Kaat Smets, Oliver Heath and I combine survey data and content analysis of tweets by the main parties and their leaders to investigate whether the strategies of the main British parties matched their voters’ issue positions during the 2017 UK General Election.

Leveraging the fertile framework of issue yield, proposed by Lorenzo De Sio and Till Weber, we ask whether and how parties tried to square the circle between satisfying the preferences of their loyal supporters, attracting voters from the other parties, and addressing issues that the general population cares about.

To learn what we found, you can read our blog post on the British Politics and Policy Blog of the London School of Economics and Politics Science, where we write:

The results from our analysis indicate that the Conservative campaign did not fully exploit the opportunities for expanding support that were open to them had they presented a broader agenda than the one they ultimately ran on. Our analysis indicates the Tories went overboard in their rhetoric on ‘getting on with the job’ of Brexit (which risked alienating their more moderate supporters who were uneasy about it) and ‘strong and stable leadership’ (which, repeated relentlessly during the campaign, ended up opening the door for mockery of May’s rigid communication style).

By contrast, Labour played a better hand and tapped into most of its electoral strengths. There is a clear left-wing anti-austerity constituency in Britain, and rather than being out of touch with the public mood, as many New Labour grandees feared, our analysis shows that Labour’s message under Corbyn resonated both with party supporters and the wider public. By offering its supporters policies they strongly agreed with, Labour also thwarted the electoral threat potentially inherent in its vague position on Brexit.

The article is part of a special issue on the study of party strategy and voting behavior in Western democracies through the lens of issue yield theory, titled “Conflict Mobilization or Problem-solving? Issue Competition in Western Europe”, guest edited by Lorenzo De Sio and Till Weber. You can find the other contributions in the “Latest Articles” section of West European Politics‘s website.

New Open Access Article on Digital Political Talk and Participation across Established and Third Wave Democracies

Sage Open, an interdisciplinary open access journal, has recently published an article, coauthored by myself and Augusto Valeriani, in which we explore the relationships between different forms of online political talk and different modes of political participation across seven Western democracies. We have written this paper for a special issue, currently under development, edited by Pablo Barberà that will present research on social media and politics by members of the SMaPP Global Network, a great interdisciplinary initiative sponsored by New York University that I am honored and grateful to be part of.

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In the article, we distinguish between online political talk that occurs on social networking sites (SNS) (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), where users interact with broad audiences across public, semi-public, and private spaces, and mobile instant messaging services (MIMS) (such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat), where users interact with narrower audiences in mostly private spaces. We also distinguish between institutional political participation, which occurs in and around the structures of representative democracies (elections, parties, and public officials), and extra-institutional participation, which occurs outside of the representative circuit and involves protest repertoires. Finally, following Samuel Huntington, we distinguish between established democracies (Denmark, France, United Kingdom, and United States) and “Third Wave” democracies (Greece, Poland, and Spain). The key theoretical difference for us is that levels of political trust are generally higher in established than in Third Wave democracies.

We find that use of both SNS and MIMS for political discussion is positively associated with institutional political participation. However, while political talk on SNS is positively associated with extra-institutional participation as well, political talk on MIMS is not. Finally, we show that the positive relationship between political talk on SNS and institutional participation is significantly stronger in established than in Third Wave democracies, while there is no significant difference between these groups of countries when it comes to the relationship between political talk on MIMS and participation. The chart below summarizes these latter findings:

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As we discuss in the article, there are three key take-away points from this study. First, online political talk is a relevant piece of the puzzle of political participation. Secondly, technologies and their affordances matter, as different types of online environments create better or worse opportunities for types of informal political talk that may be conducive to participation. Thirdly, institutional legacies shape the relationship between online political talk and participation, which is stronger in high-trust, established democracies than in low-trust, Third Wave democracies. Thus, we argue in our conclusions, “technology interacts with
individual predispositions and political institutions—including the legacy of those that are now history—in shaping political outcomes.”

Here is the full citation and abstract:

Vaccari, C., & Valeriani, A. (2018). Digital Political Talk and Political Participation: Comparing Established and Third Wave DemocraciesSAGE Open8(2), 2158244018784986.

We investigate whether and how informal political talk on digital media contributes to citizens’ political participation with unique surveys based on samples representative of Internet users in seven Western democracies. We show that political talk on both social networking sites and mobile instant messaging platforms is positively associated with institutional and extra-institutional political participation. However, the relationship between talk on social networking sites and both types of participation is significantly stronger in established democracies (Denmark, France, United Kingdom, and United States) than in “third wave” democracies (Greece, Poland, and Spain). By contrast, the strength of the relationship between political talk on mobile instant messaging platforms and participation is not significantly different when comparing established and more recent democracies. These findings suggest that informal political talk on digital platforms can contribute to citizens’ participatory repertoires and that different institutional settings, in combination with different technological affordances, play an important role in shaping these patterns.

New Article on Dual Screening, Public Service Broadcasting, and Political Participation

The International Journal of Press/Politics has just published a new article that I coauthored with Augusto Valeriani on the relationship between dual screening and political participation across eight Western democracies (Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

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In this article, we make three contributions.

First, we find that political dual screening — that is, combining television and social media in attending to and engaging with political issues and events — has a strong positive association with political participation, which we define and measure by including both face-to-face and online behaviors aiming at influencing public officials, elections, and other citizens’ opinions. This contribution builds on previous work on the UK case that I did with Andrew Chadwick and Ben O’Loughlin.

Second, we show that the positive relationship between dual screening and participation is relatively stronger among citizens with low levels of interest in politics than among citizens with high levels of interest in politics. In other words, political dual screening may contribute to closing the participation gap between low- and high-interest voters.

Third, the relationship between political dual screening and participation is stronger in countries with strong Public Service Broadcasters (Denmark, Germany, and the UK in our study) than in countries with medium PSBs (Italy, Greece, Poland, Spain) and in countries with weak PSBs (the United States). Thus, we argue, the combination of television and social media may be helping Public Service Media perform one of their key functions of keeping citizens involved in politics.

Here is the full abstract.

We investigate the relationship between political dual screening—that is, watching political contents on television while reading and commenting on them on social media—and political participation across eight Western democracies: Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Based on custom built online surveys conducted between 2015 and 2016 on samples representative of the adult population with internet access in each country, we test hypotheses on both intra-country and cross-country direct and differential effects of political dual screening on various forms of offline and online political participation. We find a positive correlation between the frequency with which citizens dual screen political content and their overall levels of participation. Such correlation is stronger among respondents with lower levels of interest in politics, suggesting that dual screening has the potential to bridge participatory gaps between citizens who are more and less politically involved. The relationship between dual screening and participation is also significantly stronger in countries whose media systems feature the strongest Public Service Broadcasters. Our findings suggest that dual screening makes a positive contribution to democratic citizenship and political equality, and that it can also help public service media fulfill some of their key functions.

If you are interested in the article or have any questions, please get in touch!

What do We Know about Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation?

The Hewlett Foundation has just published a report that provides an overview of the current state of the literature on the relationship between social media, political polarization, and political disinformation. The report was coordinated by Josh Tucker and features contributions from Andrew Guess, Pablo Barberá, Alexandra Siegel, Sergey Sanovich, Denis Stukal, Brendan Nyhan, and myself. Importantly, the report also identifies key gaps in our knowledge of these phenomena and the kinds of data we need to overcome them.

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 10.38.28.pngI wrote the section on “Online Content and Political Polarization“, where I focus on the kinds of contents, spread across traditional and digital media, that have been shown to contribute to, as well as mitigating, different forms of political polarization. Here is the executive summary:

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The full report can be downloaded for free at the Hewlett Foundation website and on the Social Science Research Network. Thanks to the Hewlett Foundation for funding this project and to Josh Tucker for bringing me on board.

What Have Italians Been Searching on Google During the 2018 General Election Campaign?

A few weeks ago, I complied some data from Google Trends on the keywords and topics Italians had searched during the first three weeks of the general election campaign. Now that the campaign is drawing to a close, it is time to go back to the data and see what, if anything, has changed.

Before we do that, let me repeat the caveats on using these data I discussed in the first post:

  1. Not all citizens or voters are internet users (in Italy, only about 65% are).
  2. Searching for something on Google cannot be taken as a simple indication of preference, or intention to act upon that preference. It is more an indication of curiosity.
  3. Those who act upon that curiosity and search for information on Google may not be representative of the whole group of internet users who share that curiosity.
  4. Google’s affordances (such as suggestions and related results) may change the incentives to perform certain searches.
  5. Working with data generated by users’ free searches mean we have to creatively identify search terms that we believe correctly represent a certain object of interest, and that is no easy task.

Still interested? Great.

The data I retrieved from Google Trends is publicly accessible. It captures searches conducted in Italy from January 7th, the first business day after the Christmas holiday, until February 28th, 2018. By clicking on the charts below, you can access Google Trends and tweak those searches in any way you like. Data are normalized from 0-100, where 100 represents the temporal unit when any of the search terms under comparison in a given chart reached its peak in the period of analysis. Given how Google Trends works, there is no way to know precisely the real numbers of searches these values correspond to. Comparisons can be made within the charts presented below, but not across them, as the 0-100 ranges represent different quantities of searches depending on the keywords and topics being compared.

Party Leaders

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Overall, searches for the main party leaders have grown as election day neared, signaling increased interest among voters. Center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi still leads the pack, as he has for all the campaign. In the final stretch, populist right leader Matteo Salvini, who is allied with Berlusconi, and Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio are catching up. The center-left Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi has struggled to attract comparable levels of attention. In the final weeks of the campaign, interest has grown for Emma Bonino, leader of a pro-European integration party that is allied with the Democratic Party. The leader of the new left-wing electoral cartel Free and Equal (“Liberi e Uguali”) and President of the Senate, Pietro Grasso, has been the target of the fewest searches. If we average search volumes throughout all the campaign, the most searched leaders are from the center-right coalition, the Five Star Movement is in close contention, and the least searched leaders are from the progressive camp.

Parties

The scenario looks less politically lopsided if we compare searches for the main political parties. The Five Star Movement is by far the most searched-for party, followed at some distance by the Democratic Party, interest in which peaked when the party announced its candidate lists at the end of January. The two main center-right parties were much less searched for and, just as its leader, Liberi e Uguali was by far the least searched party. Given how common it is to Google anything we do not know about these days, it is puzzling that a new party that polls credit with more than 5% of the popular vote has failed to attract a sizable volume of searches for itself and its leader.

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Similar to what I had noted in my previous post, when we compare searches for parties and leaders, Berlusconi is much more searched than his party, Forza Italia, as is Salvini compared with Lega Nord. By contrast, Di Maio is less searched than the Five Star Movement. Searches for Renzi track those for the Democratic Party pretty closely, and exceed searches for current Prime Minister and Democratic Party member Paolo Gentiloni.

Issues and Proposals

When it comes to the policies and proposals Italians Googled, comparisons are difficult because many issues have been discussed in the campaign, but I have chosen six that seem to me to have been the most relevant:

  • immigration;
  • the flat tax, proposed by the center-right coalition;
  • the law Fornero that reformed (and in many cases restricted access to) pensions, which all the parties apart from the Democratic Party propose to change or abolish;
  • the 80 Euro monthly fiscal bonus that the Renzi government granted to lower-salaried workers, and that the Democratic Party now proposes to extend to other categories of beneficiaries;
  • the property tax (“patrimoniale”) that Liberi e Uguali proposes to introduce;
  • and, alas, Fascism, as the campaign has been marred by many episodes of violence, including a drive-by shooting by a former Lega Nord candidate who calls himself a Fascist and injured seven African migrants in Macerata, as well as various clashes between far-right and anti-Fascist groups.

Because the daily fluctuations in search volumes are larger for these searches than for those on leaders and parties, to simplify the picture I calculated weekly averages. As a result, the maximum value is no longer 100, which is the maximum daily volume as returned by Google, but close to 80.

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As the figure shows, the flat tax has been the most searched issue in the final stretch of the campaign. Immigration has also been a constant presence, with the pensions law trailing closely. Together, these issues suggest the center-right agenda has attracted most Google searches. The key proposals from the center-left and left register substantially lower interest, as their leaders did. (The Democratic Party leader had proposed to abolish the license fee for the public service broadcaster in January, but the official party manifesto only talks about “reforming” it. A notable peak in Google searches for the license fee was recorded on February 19, when the government issued a decree that exonerated low-income over-75s from paying it. Liberi e Uguali proposed to abolish university tuition fees at the beginning of the campaign, but this issue generated even fewer searches than the property tax.)

Finally, searches for Fascism achieved a sizable volume, which grew during the campaign and especially after the Macerata shootings. In general, though, searches for Fascism in Italy exhibit a seasonal pattern, as they tend to grow each year between April (when commemorations celebrating the fall of the Fascist regime take place) and June-July (when high school final exams take place and many students flock to Google in search of potential topics and answers on one of the cornerstones of the country’s history). From 2004 to this day, however, the yearly peaks have tended to yield lower volumes year after year. Interestingly, however, searches for “Fascism” and “Mussolini” are higher this year than they were at the same point one year ago. 

Politics and Everyday Life

Finally, and similar to my previous post on the subject, it is always instructive to compare searches for political and campaign terms to searches related to people’s everyday lives and popular culture. When we plot keyword searches for Berlusconi against searches for porn, the weather, Sanremo (a popular televised music festival broadcast every year in February), and the national lottery, all the nonpolitical search terms are much more popular than the most popular political keyword.

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In particular, Italians seem to be understandably worried about the weather. Which may, indeed, have important repercussions on who gets to turn out on the fourth of March.

How Prevalent are Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers on Social Media? Not as Much as Conventional Wisdom Has It

A few days ago, a tweet by Rasmus Nielsen inspired me to think about the widespread idea that most social media users only engage with political viewpoints they already agree with. The argument that social media are “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles” often looks like a truism in public discourse across Western democracies, chiefly but not only the United States.

Rasmus’s thread pointed to several studies showing that political echo chambers are by no means the norm on social media. Research by Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel, and Justin Rao finds that use of search engines and social media “are associated with an increase in an individual’s exposure to material from his or her less preferred side of the political spectrum”. A study by Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Nielsen himself found that people who come across news while using social media for other purposes “use significantly more online news sources than non-users”. An extensive review of the literature by Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, Damian Trilling, Judith Möller, Balázs Bodó, Claes de Vreese, and Natali Helberger concludes that “at present there is little empirical evidence that warrants any worries about filter bubbles“.

To those one may add a three-country study by Pablo Barberá which finds that “most social media users are embedded in ideologically diverse networks” and research by Matthew Barnidge showing that “social media users perceive more political disagreement than non-users” and that “they perceive more of it on social media than in other communication settings”. Just days after Rasmus’s tweet, Elizabeth Dubois and Grant Blank published an article titled “The echo chamber is overstated“.

Yet, as Rasmus points out, conventional wisdom seems to be stuck with the idea that social media constitute filter bubbles and echo chambers, where most people only, or mostly, see political content they already agree with. It is definitely true that there is a lot of easily accessible, clearly identifiable, highly partisan content on social media. It is also true that, to some extent, social media users can make choices as to which sources they follow and engage with. Whether people use these choice affordances solely to flock to content reinforcing their political preferences and prejudices, filtering out or avoiding content that espouses other viewpoints, is, however, an empirical question—not a destiny inscribed in the way social media and their algorithms function.

To contribute to this conversation, here I present some data from online surveys conducted in 2017 in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom immediately after each country’s general elections. (A few days ago I published an article in the Italian newspaper la Repubblica where I presented data on Italy telling a similar story.) The surveys were fielded as part of a comparative project on social media and political participation, funded by the Italian government, for which I serve as Principal Investigator. We commissioned Ipsos to interview samples of 1,750 respondents per country. We constructed these samples to be representative of internet users in each country based on gender, age, education, region of residence, and occupational condition. The research design is the same as the one employed in other research we have published, which you can check out here, here, here, and here. Augusto Valeriani and I are writing a whole book about this and other topics, which will include data from nine Western democracies including the three this post is about. Surveys are imperfect instruments, but (as we argue in the publications linked above) they are still among the best tools to measure users’ experiences across different environments, media, and digital platforms. This is relevant to the question that sparked this post: to understand whether social media function as filter bubbles, we need to know how prevalent filter bubbles are both on social media and in other environments. Surveys allow to gauge differences and similarities between these spaces.

To find out whether users encounter political content and views they mainly agree and/or disagree with, we asked respondents two simple questions: “How often do you agree with the political opinions and messages published on social media platforms by the people you follow?” and “”How often do you disagree with the political opinions and messages published on social media platforms by the people you follow?”. To compare users’ experiences across different environments, we asked a similar pair of questions focusing on face-to-face conversations (the phrase we used was “the opinions of others you speak with about politics, excluding online contacts”) and mass media (where we asked respondents to focus on “the political opinions or political contents you see in the news on television or newspapers”). To each question, respondents could answer “Always or very often”, “Often”, “Sometimes”, “Never”, and “I don’t know”. The chart below shows the percentages who answered either “Always or very often” or “Often”, excluding “Don’t know” answers. The questions on social media were asked only to those respondents who claimed to use at least one social media platform (90% of our sample).

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In all three countries, the percentages of users who claim to often agree with the political content they see on social media are substantially lower than the percentages of users who claim to often disagree with those contents. There are country variations, with more balanced results in Germany (29.3% disagreement, 24.8% agreement) and more lopsided patterns in the UK (32.3% disagreement, 21.6% agreement) and, especially, France (32.9% disagreement, 17.9% agreement). Still, the overall finding is clear: social media users are more likely to disagree than agree with the political contents they see on these platforms.

Moreover, citizens are much more likely to encounter disagreeable views on social media than in face-to-face conversations, as we can see by comparing the left and center pane of the figure above. The patterns that emerge for offline discussions are the mirror image of those observed for social media, with substantially more users claiming they often agree with other people they talk to compared with those who claim they often disagree with them. The difference between agreement and disagreement in face-to-face conversations is of about 10% in France and the UK, and a whopping 36.8% in Germany (58.1% agreement, 21.3% disagreement). Thus, social media augment political pluralism when compared with face-to-face political talk.

However, television and newspapers are the most important vehicles for political pluralism, as you can see by comparing the left and right panes in the figure. In both the UK and France, twice as many respondents claim they often disagree with the political views expressed in TV and newspapers than those who claim they often agree. In Germany, the difference is still quite large (36% disagree, 26.5% agree) and larger than for social media. Consistent with research by Diana Mutz and Paul Martin from nearly two decades ago, in general, the mass media are the main source of exposure to counter-attitudinal political information.

Assessing the frequency of political agreement and disagreement on social media in isolation from one another is helpful, but how much overlap there is between them? Do people who report often agreeing with others also feel they often disagree with others, or are these separate groups of people, some of whom are in echo chambers while others are constantly battling against others they disagree with? To find out, I combined the answers to the questions on agreement and disagreement. The math is pretty simple, as you can see from the illustration below. Respondents who answered “Never” to both questions were classified as engaging with “No content“.Respondents who agree more often than they disagree with the content they see are classified as seeing “Supportive” messages, and those who disagree more often than they agree are confronted with “Oppositional” messages. Finally, respondents who gave the same answers to both questions were classified as seeing “Two-sided” content. (Of course, there can always be more than two sides to any political conflict, especially in European party systems; I use this term to echo John Zaller’s classification of campaign messages, which I find helpful to think about these issues.)

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Most users claim to agree as often as they disagree with the political content they see on social media, so I classify them as encountering two-sided messages. Among respondents who identify a one-sided tendency in the content they see, users who predominantly see oppositional content greatly outnumber those who predominantly see supportive content. There are, again, some country variations, with French respondents more likely to see oppositional content (29.5%) than British (26.1%) and German ones (25.8%), and, conversely, German respondents more likely to see supportive content (20%) than British (16.1%) and French ones (12.8%).

Overall, the picture is clear: if you ask social media users to evaluate their levels of agreement and disagreement with the political content they see, ideological echo chambers and filter bubbles on social media are the exception, not the norm. Being the exception does not mean being non-existent, of course. Based on these estimates, between one in five and one in eight social media users report being in ideological echo chambers. However, most social media users experience a rather balanced combination of views they agree and disagree with. If anything, the clash of disagreeing opinions is more common on social media than ideological echo chambers.