Political communication research in the age of digital campaigning

Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society Andrea Römmele co-edits special issue of Political Communication.

As social media have taken on a leading role in Western electoral campaigns, elections have been plagued by disinformation and voter mistrust, often to the benefit of illiberal parties. A reason for political communication research to shift its focus, say Hertie School Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society and Dean of Executive Education Andrea Römmele and her co-authors Karolina Koc-Michalska, Ulrike Klinger, and Lance Bennett. 

The article, “(Digital) Campaigning in Dissonant Public Spheres”, is an introduction to a special issue on political campaigning in Western democracies co-edited by Römmele. It was published in the journal Political Communication in April this year.

Shifting the focus in political communication research

Misinformation campaigns, one-sided reporting and mood-mongering – social media platforms are full of emotionally charged content. According to Römmele and her co-authors, “hybrid media systems and the political actors who manipulate them often create disconnected publics and affective polarization”, across which it is difficult to communicate and find common ground. In the field of political communication, these disconnected platforms of discussion are called dissonant public spheres. 

While political communication studies have traditionally focussed on well-functioning political systems, the researchers argue for shifting the gaze toward dissonant public spheres. In their view, the change of perspective:

  • helps to overcome the idea that the problems democracies face and the dysfunction of public discourse were mainly caused by new technologies;
  • shows that disinformation, fragmentation and affective polarisation may not be a direct result of new technology, but instead that they are taking shape under changed circumstances; and
  • enables scholars to account for the dysfunctionalities and the dark side of public communication without assuming that technology will solve the problem.

Social media are not the culprit

Although it is easy to hold social media responsible for democratic backsliding, Römmele emphasises that social media as such are not the problem. “Technologies are embedded in social contexts, and their impact on society is moderated and shaped by these contexts,” she explains. “It’s important to remember that the technologies mobilising illiberal political mobs are the same ones that bring together movements for equality and climate justice.”

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More about our expert

  • Andrea Römmele, Dean of Executive Education and Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society