by Sarah Wolpers

The modernisation theory presents that technological progress influences political communication. Since the 2012 US Presidential election campaign there is the impression, that politicians and political parties are doing only digital campaigning. On the one hand, current data shows that over 271 million Europeans are daily active Facebook users. On the other hand, there is a decline in newspaper circulation. This has raised the question, whether television and newspaper are still useful in election campaigns. To put it more dramatically: Is it time to say goodbye to the traditional media channels?

First of all, media functions as a bridge between politicians and the people. For that reason, media transmits political messages. However, the media can frame topics as well as the politician’s public image in a specific way. But, internet technologies have weakened the power of the so-called mainstream media, especially that of newspapers as gatekeepers and controllers of the political agenda.

Parties and its candidates have little influence on the media coverage. Furthermore, editors, who work for newspapers or TV-channels, have a limited space for political coverage. It is for this reason, that media outlets only present what would be of interest to their audience. The use of newspaper and television only allows a one-way communication. On the contrary, social media offers the possibility of interaction between the political candidate and its electorate. In addition, on social media there is no editorial control. For that, there is also a more open space for political topics. Compared to campaign advertisements on newspapers or on TV, digital campaigning has lower campaigning cost. Thanks to big data, it is also possible for political parties to get their message across to voters. Through Facebook’s special algorithms, target posts can thereby help to go viral and reach huge parts of the online community. While TV-Spots cannot address a specific voting bloc, is it via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media possible to provide an election advertising for a target group. Due to social media users can get involved in campaigns as online supports by sharing and reposting political messages.

Let’s shift from social media to the use of television in campaigning. Parties can place their campaign adverts on television. Furthermore, in nearly every European country there are TV-debates between the Spitzenkandidaten of the main political parties. On this occasion, the candidates have the opportunity to present themselves in a specific way. For example, as a person who understands the political topic or who has a policy solution in mind. The TV debate is the most important campaign event. Nevertheless, it is only once in an election campaign. If one compares the Europeans users first source for news, the TV reached 50 Percent according to a current YouGov study. It sounds quite high but if ones consider the daily television viewers there is a decline. This also applies to the newspapers recipients only 5 Percent named the media outlets as their first information source. The only news source which increased consistently was social media. About 36 percent of European mentioned the internet, including social media, as their first information source.

Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that social media has already some difficulties in politics. Firstly, because of the networking ability, so-called Filter bubbles arise. Also, social media gives radical and minor parties the space for their political messages. Because of that minor parties can appear larger and more credible online than they are in reality

It is clearly that TV, as well as the different newspapers, are getting less important in campaigning. However, digital campaigning is not yet as effective as most people believe. The biggest successes of this instrument have been noted with the electoral group, the so-called “Digital Natives”, aged thirty and younger. This youth generation is growing up with the use of Internet including social media and they are very political in the Web. For that, it is important that traditional media and social media go hand in hand to reach the best outcome in every election campaign.

Today, social media platforms have become invaluable in disseminating information, especially to the younger audiences. Instead, the print media and TV still provide millions of voters with their main source of election news. In the future, when the Digital Natives grow to become the largest electoral group, the digital world will become even more crucial to campaigning. For that reason, it is important for political campaigns to have a strategy which combines the traditional media as well as social media, to reach all constituents which their political messages.

23 April 2018
This text was published in Bullseye issue 72