The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Tiago Silva: Bypassing the messenger: Candidates' campaign on the Social Networking Sites in four first-order elections

Tiago Silva, European University Institute

This paper addresses the unclear and puzzling responsibility of both traditional media and political actors for the absence of substantial political issues in the news coverage of political elections. The news coverage of political campaigns is a crucial aspect in political communication’s research (see Kaid, 1996). Since modern campaigns have been essentially disputed on traditional media, the news coverage of campaigns is also one of the most important links between politicians and the electorate (see Norris et al., 1999). However, the literature has been observing, especially since the early 90s, an increasing tendency of the press and television, when reporting politics, to emphasize conflict, strategy, horse-race and other entertaining and controversial aspects, instead of presenting relevant policy information to the citizens. This trend of framing political events, by the traditional media, is worth of studying since it can threaten the well functioning of modern democracies in two ways: by making the citizens less informed; and by affecting citizens’attitudes towards politics, increasing not only citizens’political cynicism but also reducing their sense of political efficacy. It also raises the following question: Why does the traditional media coverage of elections emphasize the strategy/horse-race and conflict in the campaigns and lacks other important aspects, as the candidates and parties’positions on relevant political issues? There are two possible answers.

The first puts the responsibility on the media, with a large amount of literature blaming the messenger, stating that the uninformative news coverage results from the media distortion of the ‘real’campaigns. The ‘media logic’hypothesis suggests that the candidates’attempts, during campaigns, to convey and discuss substantial political issues are, somehow, neglected and reframed by the journalists in order to get attention (rather than to provide information). In this perspective, the highly controversial and uninformative news of electoral campaigns result from the commercial principles that nowadays rule traditional media.

The second one asserts that the accusations of lack of interest in reporting policy issues by traditional media might be, somehow, unfair or exacerbated. The news coverage by the traditional media may, in fact, reflect new political campaigns where candidates are more concerned with strategic and mass marketing ideals and less worried about presenting substantial policy information to the electorate. Theories of political mass-marketing strategies make us questioning how fair in fact are the accusations of the media’s lack of interest in political issues. According to some authors, political actors might be the ones to blame for the lack of content in media’s news coverage of political campaigns. In this scenario, the candidates avoid political issues in order to not alienate the electorate and focus instead, during their campaigns, in more controversial and entertaining aspects. To put it simple, traditional media news coverage might be controversial, entertaining and lack substantial political issues simply because the main campaign actors prefer to avoid those issues and produce hollow campaigns. In this sense, it is reasonable to ask ourselves how informative the political campaigns would be if all the parties and candidates had their own newspaper and television channel.

The Internet and Social Networking Sits (SNS) arise, in this context, as an important instrument for political parties and candidates to bypass the traditional media and easily reach voters, presenting their ideas and positions directly to them at a relatively small cost. I argue that most of the literature that studies the role of the Internet in political campaigns, by focusing almost exclusively on the electoral impact of the Internet, the potential to targeting voters and its interactive features, is neglecting the potential of the institutional communication made in the Internet as, perhaps, a more informative and less negative way for political actors to communicate with voters during electoral campaigns.

By examining the differences in the frames used by journalists in traditional media and the campaign made by political parties on the Social Networking Sites (SNS), where nowadays politicians and parties can bypass journalists and present their messages directly to the electorate, I analyze to what extent a media logic is hindering the electoral competitors from producing more informative and less conflict-driven campaigns.

In order to examine this question, I carried out in this paper a substantial frame analysis of traditional media news coverage and political actors made in the SNS in four first-order elections (US 2012, Italy 2013, Brazil 2014 and Portugal 2015). Two national newspapers of each country and all the main candidates’posts in three popular SNS (Twitter, Facebook and Youtube) were manually coded during the four weeks before the election-day.

The results suggest that, despite some differences between countries, media and candidates, the most controversial aspects of the campaigns (e,g, conflict between candidates and scandals) are more salient on the traditional news media, when compared to the campaign made by the political candidates on the Internet. Our findings also show us that substantial political issues are, in general, more salient in the candidates’SNS campaigns than in the news media coverage of those campaigns. In sum, the results suggest the SNS not only became a central arena in the candidates’campaign, but also that these platforms have the potential to produce more informative (and less ‘negative’) electoral campaigns.

Tiago Silva