PCR 29: Letter from the Editor

“Emerging Challenges and New Approaches in the Study of Elections and Campaigns”


Letter From the Editor


Curd Knüpfer, Freie Universität Berlin


2024 might be termed a global super-election year. Important elections are being held in around 80 countries, including some of the world’s oldest and most populous democracies. Meanwhile, campaign messaging tools are shifting rapidly as we move into a more high-choice social media environment, and new methods of cheap and easy content generation proliferate. It’s safe to state that this puts considerable strain on democratic systems. But it also puts our discipline under pressure: because our objects of study are in flux – but also because of increasingly manifest structural crises in academia and beyond.

All this comes at a time when democratic processes are deliberately targeted by political elites, public trust is low, and novel tools for enabling misleading or falsified information abound. Political Communication, as a field, is uniquely situated to make sense of such development and inform both policy decisions as well as public understanding of the ongoing shifts. Yet at a time when it is increasingly crucial that we do our jobs well, it has also become increasingly difficult to do so: Access to data is being barred, open APIs are shut down, public repositories are shuttered. And while we don’t yet know what impacts of the use of generative AI for campaigning will have, it seems more than plausible that this will complicate things further, creating new privately operated black boxes.

On these fronts, state interventions and regulations are slowly being implemented, but this currently seems to be primarily an EU-led initiative, potentially exacerbating not only digital divides but also epistemic ones. Meanwhile, researchers and academic institutions are being singled out for political attacks, often in cases where their research focus has previously highlighted activities by those seeking to undermine democratic processes. Add this on top of the already existing structural inequalities by which the increasingly difficult-to-bear burdens of academia are distributed and an overburdened peer-review system, under which we struggle to remain both timely and rigorous.

But: all is not doom and gloom! In fact, there are major steps made in various right directions as we continue to learn with and from one another across national contexts and institutional settings. As many of the essays of this issue of the Political Communication Report argue, there is also a lot of potential progress in how the field has already started to adapt. And: much of what we consider to be new has actually been around for quite a while, often just taking on slightly different forms. Recognizing this makes it easier to learn from the past.

All of this is also the point of this publication format: a self-reflexive space, where we can come together and jointly reflect and identify problems, but also to speak to one another and to reassure ourselves that we are not alone and that we grow together, as a field. On this note, I am once again, deeply indebted to the contributors for this issue, all of which have taken time out of their busy schedules to contribute to this conversation. So check out these essays and perhaps consider reaching out to these colleagues, in case you—like me—appreciate the work they do and what they share with us here:



The last of these wonderful contributions also builds a direct bridge to the planned Fall issue of the Political Communication Report. Here, we’ll be taking a closer look at the normative foundations of the discipline in updating our collective understanding of what Political Communication is and what it stands for. Please consider reaching out to me, in case you feel like you want to speak to this topic.

Just like the previous issues, this one also features an interview section, highlighting the work of some of our award-winning division members. These offer insights into how these projects took shape and provide updates on where the research will be heading next. This issue’s featured winners are Dan Hopkins, Jianing Li, Rachel Smilan-Goldstein, and the team of Rune Slothuus, Rasmus Skytte, & Martin Bisgaard.

Happy reading – and please consider distributing these texts via social media and other channels!


Curd Knüpfer, Spring 2024




Dommett & Power: The Shock of the Old?

The Shock of the Old? The Value of Looking Back When Studying the Mercurial World of Political Campaigning[1]


Kate Dommett, University of Sheffield

Sam Power, University of Sussex

http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-43527; PDF

‘Disinformation on steroids’ (Leingang, 2024), ‘An evolution in propaganda’ (Robins-Early, 2023) and ‘Deepfakes pose ‘perfect’ threat to next election’ (Dathan, 2024). These are a few of many examples of the often sensationalist coverage of the effect that AI will have on elections in 2024. With more voters headed to the ballot box in countries around the world than has happened in recent history (Ewe, 2023), scholars are increasingly in demand to offer our expertise on how and why this technology is being used, and what impact it will have on elections and wider society.

There is, unfortunately, no easy answer to these questions. Whilst journalists are often keen to reach out and learn from our expertise, our capacity to generate rapid, evidence-based answers is severely curtailed. Data is often not available, access for interviews and observation can be challenging, and researchers themselves are increasingly subject to threats of litigation for conducting this kind of research. By the time we have been able to marshal scientific evidence, public ideas around the impact of new technologies have often been shaped, and public and policy-making attention has frequently moved on to consider new technologies (Orben, 2020).

Recognizing this incessant demand for knowledge and the challenges of generating evidence-based responses, in this piece we consider how scholars can respond. Reflecting on our own recent experience of studying data-driven campaigning (Dommett et. al., 2024a), we assert the importance of establishing clear conceptual boundaries about the precise meaning of any new technological phenomena and suggest that efforts to draw lessons from the past can play an important role in shaping our understanding of the new. Advocating a methodologically pluralist approach, we seek to steer debate away from a recurring focus on transformation or threat, to consider the more nuanced and even mundane impacts that technologies can also exert.


The Study of Digital Elections

Innovation in election campaigning is a longstanding topic of public and academic interest. Looking back over recent history, the focus has been on new developments and their significance for campaign practice and success. From the impact of radio and television to more recent attention towards websites, social media, and online advertising, we recurrently think about how these new tools may affect elections. We’ve seen particular interest in the impact of online microtargeting, data-driven campaigning and, most recently, artificial intelligence. Each of these technologies has been seen to transform and threaten the practice of elections, inspiring extensive coverage of each development.

Take, for example, data-driven campaigning. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 there was wide-ranging interest in the significance of data for electoral politics, and the potential threat posed by the ‘Digital influence machine’ (Nadler, Crain and Donnovan, 2018). Numerous stories emerged profiling the accounts of whistle-blowers (The Guardian, no date) and there was a desire to know more about the use of data to advance a campaign’s electoral fortunes. Looking back at this question now, we have a range of evidence about the use of data in election campaigns.

Scholars have studied the practice of data collection and analytics to look at the precise way in which data is being mobilized in campaigns (Dommett et al. 2024b; Kefford, 2021; Walker and Nowlin, 2022) and a body of work has interrogated the impact that seeing targeted political content online has on voter’s attitudes towards campaigners and their voting intentions (Aggarwal et al., 2023; Coppock et al., 2020; Haenschen, 2023; Decker, 2023; Lavigne, 2020; Tappin et al., 2024; Zarouali et al., 2022). At the time however, whilst there was some relevant research (e.g. Anstead, 2017; Kruikemeier et al., 2016), there was little on which journalists could draw to assess the prevalence, impact, and significance of these tools. It was therefore common to see stories such as Time Magazine’s article ‘Facebook’s New Controversy Shows How Easily Online Political Ads Can Manipulate You’ (Ghosh and Scott, 2018) which claimed that:

‘The real story is about how personal data from social media is being used by companies to manipulate voters and distort democratic discourse. In this regard, it appears the Trump campaign had a decisive and ill-gotten advantage in the quest to exploit personal data to influence voters. And they used it to the hilt.’

In many instances, academic evidence was absent from these stories. Early coverage of data-driven campaigning was therefore often characterized by a lack of empirical evidence. This meant there was little clarity about exactly what was meant by the term data-driven campaigning and which aspects of this activity were the cause of concern – something only addressed several years later (Dommett et al. 2024c).  

Observing such trends, academics can often be frustrated by the claims made in journalistic coverage and policy debates. The prevalence of speculative and sensationalized depictions of the power new technologies have to fundamentally transform the electoral landscape can be out of kilter with our own expectations. Our capacity to generate timely evidence to test these claims is, however, limited. Whilst serendipity can sometimes lead our research agendas to align neatly with the latest technological development, more often new technologies gain coverage before scholars have had the chance to gather empirical evidence. This means we’re often reliant on gathering it after the fact, and often in ways shaped by the prevailing emphasis on transformation and threat. Indeed, we are incentivized by funding competitions to design projects assessing the threats and democratic challenges that have gained popular attention. Whilst such interventions are important, academics can reinforce prevailing narratives, which can often be overstated. Or, as political scientist Phillip Cowley put it, “[t]here is an inverse relationship between the importance of any election campaign technique and the amount of attention devoted to it” (Cowley, 2010).

Looking to the past

Observing these tendencies, we identify two potential ways in which academics can shape early public discourse. First, we argue there is a vital role for scholars to play in establishing clear conceptual boundaries about the precise meaning of any new technological phenomena. If we can better conceptualize and situate certain developments, we can better understand exactly what is new and where commonalities with old practices lie. In the realm of data-driven campaigning, for example, conceptualizing this activity as “A mode of campaigning that seeks to use data to develop and deliver campaign interventions with the goal of producing behavioural or attitudinal change in democratic citizens” (Dommett et al., 2024b), helped to reveal the longstanding antecedents of data collection by campaigns. By showing this history, and that techniques were often facilitated by the free provision of state data, we raised more acute questions about the precise forms of data collection and analytics that were occurring and why these more novel practices were substantively different to, for example, the segmentation and targeting of voters using direct mail. Clear conceptualization of new technology and its relationship to pre-existing phenomena can therefore help to contextualize the novelty of any new approach and often leads to a more nuanced and frankly mundane assessment of new technologies.

Second, we contend that scholars can highlight lessons from past technologies in efforts to shape understanding and generate expectations about the latest innovations. This approach helps to build upon existing theories and empirical research and foregrounds material considerations that affect how new technologies are likely to be adopted and employed, helping to counter technological myths (Aagaard & Marthedal, 2023). Previous research on data-driven campaigning, for example, shows that political campaigns are often reticent about employing new technologies, are cautious of risks, and are also materially constrained in their capacity to exploit new tools (Dommett et al., 2024b). Elsewhere, work on ‘fake news’ shows that exposure is more likely to reinforce partisan priors than have a radical effect on voting behavior (Sindermann et al., 2020). Thinking about these lessons for current debates around AI, these findings suggest that AI tools are unlikely to be rapidly adopted or used by these organizations to their full capacities for some time to come. Likewise, they indicate that AI-generated ‘deepfakes’ are likely to reinforce pre-existing viewpoints as opposed to fundamentally reforming people’s political viewpoints. By drawing on existing theories and findings generated in other, cognate areas, scholars can help to shape expectations about effects prior to new empirical research emerging.

In recommending efforts to establish contextual boundaries and to look to the past, we also assert the value of studying campaign activity and technologies in a longitudinal perspective, seeing new developments within the context of existing practices. We acknowledge, however, that the task of studying previous campaign activity is far from simple. Over recent years, analyzing electoral practice has become increasingly challenging and scholars now find many of the methodological tools we have historically deployed to be insufficient. For those working in the qualitative tradition, access for interviews and ethnographic observation has often become harder as campaigners become more cautious about sharing their campaign approach. Additionally, campaigners can be wary about sharing documentation about party practices or are subject to non-disclosure agreements. There are also risks for researchers studying political campaigns, especially when looking at those employing controversial tactics or advancing radical ideological agendas (Brown and Searles, 2023).

For those conducting observation of campaign output, other challenges have emerged. The capacity to systematically gather data has been frustrated by successive changes in data availability, with well-documented restrictions to APIs (de Vreese and Tromble, 2023), withdrawal of other monitoring infrastructure (such as Crowdtangle) and a tendency for digital platforms to litigate against academics reportedly breaking terms of service to gather data via scraping or addons (Adler and Maréchal, 2023). Even where data is available, this infrastructure is also limited and unreliable, placing constraints on our ability to research what is happening online (Edelsen et al., 2018; Leerssen et al., 2018). Cumulatively, these developments have made the process of generating data on campaign practices and impacts harder, something that, in turn, makes it challenging to predict future developments based on past insights.

Tackling these challenges is by no means simple. Within our own research, we have countered them by taking an adaptive and methodologically pluralist approach. As primarily qualitative scholars, we were trained in the art of interviews, documentary analysis, and coding frameworks, with specific expertise in interviewing elite and grassroots campaigners, and scrutinizing publicly available documentation. Over the past few years, however, we have experienced the challenges described above, and so have broadened our methodological toolkit, using interdisciplinary collaboration with computer scientists to access available datasets and monitor the practice and shape of campaigning. We have also reconsidered existing data sources and have repurposed them to gain new insights. Taking this approach, we have been able to generate different forms of insight, helping us develop a longitudinal and contextualized conception of election campaigning in the UK (Dommett et al., 2024a). This approach can help to overcome the challenges encountered with any one method and can help to build an understanding of technologies deployed at past elections that can inform our expectations of newly available tools.


Studying digital elections is hard and countering the prevailing tendency to emphasize the transformational or threatening potential of new technologies is by no means easy. Yet we argue that it is essential to resist this tendency and to make more nuanced, if mundane, interventions in attempts to shape public discourse. We suggest that by conceptualizing and situating new technologies, and by drawing lessons from previous research and theory, scholars can produce important work. In advancing this approach, we note the many methodological challenges faced in attempts to generate such knowledge and welcome an increasingly (and genuine) pluralistic approach to inquiry. As technology continues to evolve and transform, looking to the past can help as much as imagining the future. Especially when studying the mercurial relationship between elections and technology.



Aagaard, P., & Marthedal, S. (2023). Political microtargeting: Towards a pragmatic approach. Internet Policy Review, 12(1), 1-22.

Aggarwal, M., Allen, J., Coppock, A. et al. A 2 million-person, campaign-wide field experiment shows how digital advertising affects voter turnout. Nat Hum Behav 7, 332–341

Adler, W. and Maréchal, N. (2023). To Protect Elections, Protect Researchers, Centre for Democracy and Technology. https://cdt.org/insights/to-protect-elections-protect-researchers/.

Anstead, N. (2017). Data-driven campaigning in the 2015 United Kingdom general election. The International Journal of Press/Politics22(3), 294-313.

Brown, D. K., & Searles, K. (2023). “New” Methods,“New” Challenges “New” Methods,“New” Challenges. Political Communication Report, 27, http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-39043.

Coppock, A., Hill, S. J., & Vavreck, L. (2020). The small effects of political advertising are small regardless of context, message, sender, or receiver: Evidence from 59 real-time randomized experiments. Science advances6(36), eabc4046.

Cowley, P. (2020). ‘Out with the new, in with the old’. Electionblog2010. https://electionblog2010.blogspot.com/2010/04/out-with-new-in-with-old.html.

Dathan, M. (2024). ‘James Cleverly: Deepfakes pose ‘perfect’ threat to next election. The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/james-cleverly-deepfakes-threat-next-general-election-bwmjcdfpm.

Decker, H., & Krämer, N. (2023). Is personality key? Persuasive effects of prior attitudes and personality in political microtargeting. Media and Communication11(3), 250-261.

de Vreese, C., & Tromble, R. (2023). The data abyss: How lack of data access leaves research and society in the dark. Political Communication40(3), 356-360.

Dommett K, Power S, Barclay A, Macintyre A. (2024a) ‘Understanding the Modern Election Campaign: Analysing Campaign Eras through Financial Transparency Disclosures at the 2019 UK General Election’, Government and Opposition. 1-27, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2024.3  

Dommett, K., Kefford, G., & Kruschinski, S. (2024b). Data-driven Campaigning and Political Parties: Five Advanced Democracies Compared. Oxford University Press.

Dommett, K., Barclay, A., & Gibson, R. (2024c). Just what is data-driven campaigning? A systematic review. Information, Communication & Society27(1), 1-22.

Edelson, L., Sakhuja, S., & McCoy, D. (2018). An analysis of Facebook’s archive of ads with political content. In Unpublished manuscript. https://c3media. vsos. ethz. ch/congress/2018/slides‐pdf/35c3‐9419explaining_ online_us_political_advertising. pdf.

Ewe, K. (2023). The Ultimate Election Year: All the Elections Around the World in 2024. Time Magazine. https://time.com/6550920/world-elections-2024/.

Ghosh, D. and Scott, B. (2018) ‘Facebook’s New Controversy Shows How Easily Online Political Ads Can Manipulate You’, Time Magazine, https://time.com/5197255/facebook-cambridge-analytica-donald-trump-ads-data/.

Haenschen, K. (2023) The Conditional Effects of Microtargeted Facebook Advertisements on Voter Turnout. Polit Behav 45, 1661–1681

Kefford, G (2021) Political Parties and Campaigning in Australia: Data, Digital and Field, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Kruikemeier, S., Sezgin, M., & Boerman, S. C. (2016). Political microtargeting: relationship between personalized advertising on Facebook and voters’ responses. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking19(6), 367-372.

Lavigne, M. (2020) ‘Strengthening Ties: The Influence of Microtargeting on partisan attitudes and the vote’, Party Politics, 1-12, Online first.

Leerssen, P., Ausloos, J., Zarouali, B., Helberger, N., & de Vreese, C. H. (2018). Platform ad archives: Promises and pitfalls. Internet Policy Review, 8(4).

Leingang, R. (2024). ‘Disinformation on steroids’: is the US prepared for AI’s influence on the election?’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2024/feb/26/ai-deepfakes-disinformation-election.

Nadler, A., Crain, M., & Donovan, J. (2018) ‘Weaponizing the digital influence machine’, Data and Society, https://datasociety.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/DS_Digital_Influence_Machine.pdf.

Orben, A. (2020). The Sisyphean cycle of technology panics. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(5), 1143-1157.

Papakyriakopoulos, O., Hegelich, S., Shahrezaye, M., & Serrano, J. C. M. (2018). Social media and microtargeting: Political data processing and the consequences for Germany. Big Data & Society, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951718811844.

Robins-Early, N. (2023). An evolution in propaganda: A digital expert on AI influence in elections. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jul/20/artificial-intelligence-us-elections.

Sindermann, C., Cooper, A. and Montag, C. (2020). A short review on susceotibility to falling for fake political news. Current Opinion in Psychology, 36(1): 44-48.

Tappin, B. M., Wittenberg, C., Hewitt, L. B., Berinsky, A. J., & Rand, D. G. (2023). Quantifying the potential persuasive returns to political microtargeting. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences120(25), e2216261120.

The Guardian. (no date) ‘The Cambridge Analytica Files;, The Duaridan, https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/cambridge-analytica-files.

Walker, D., & Nowlin, E. L. (2021). Data-driven precision and selectiveness in political campaign fundraising. Journal of Political Marketing20(2), 73-92.

Zarouali, B., Dobber, T., De Pauw, G., & de Vreese, C. (2022). Using a personality-profiling algorithm to investigate political microtargeting: assessing the persuasion effects of personality-tailored ads on social media. Communication Research49(8), 1066-1091.



Katharine Dommett is Professor of Digital Politics at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on digital campaigning, data and democracy. She has published extensively on these topics, including her latest co-authored book Data-Driven Campaigning in Political Parties: Five Advanced Democracies Compared, published by Oxford University Press. Professor Dommett works closely with electoral regulators, and was recently appointed to the Irish Electoral Commission’s Research Advisory Board. More details can be found at http://www.katedommett.com


Sam Power is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on political financing, electoral regulation, and political campaigns. He has published widely on these themes and regularly provides expert commentary to the media and policymakers.


[1] Copyright © 2024 (Kate Dommett & Sam Power). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at https://politicalcommunication.org.



Karpf: Back to Basics

Back to Basics: Studying Digital Campaigning While Our Objects of Analysis Are in Flux[1]


David Karpf, George Washington University

http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-43528; PDF

It seems to me that 2024 will be a year when we, as a research community, get back to basics. Three interlocking trends are undermining the foundations of empirical research. There is a lot that we simply do not know, and there are a number of once-stable assumptions that we may now need to revisit.

We have been through similar moments before. In fact, it calls to mind the bygone years when my career was just getting started.

This was back in the mid-to-late aughts, the peak of “Web 2.0” enthusiasm. Not a lot of people studied digital campaigning back then. It was not yet clear that digital tools mattered to any of the behaviors or outcomes that we, as a research community, tended to study.

But what made it an exciting time was the sheer rate of change in the digital media environment. One could make a strong argument that digital campaigning circa 2000 had little-to-no impact. (In fact, Bruce Bimber and Richard Davis did make such an argument in their 2003 book Campaigning Online, and it was strongly supported by empirical evidence.) But the Internet of 2004 and 2008 was not the Internet of 2008. We had to keep returning to descriptive questions – “what are these tools?” and “how are campaigns, journalists, and the public even using them?”

I still recall one of my first paper presentations. It was at a special conference on “YouTube and the 2008 election.” I asked my assembled peers why no one in the room had conducted any studies of YouTube in the 2004 election. An awkward silence descended for a moment before I delivered the punchline: YouTube did not even exist in 2004. We were dealing, in a nontrivial sense, with an N of 1.

The point I was trying to make, back then, was that this was the new normal. Platforms that had not existed in the previous election cycle could prove critical to the current cycle… with no guarantee that they’d even be around for the next one. We researchers were operating at the mercy of “internet time” (Karpf 2012). The ceteris paribus assumption that undergirds our primary research paradigm was routinely being violated. Both campaign organizations, news organizations, and the mass public were in a state of flux.

I innocently suspected it would forever be thus.

Instead, what followed was a decade of relative stability. We transitioned from the Web 2.0 era to the platform era. Google/YouTube, Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp, and Twitter all solidified and defended their niches in the information ecosystem. Campaigns got used to relying on them. Digital campaign professionals stopped behaving like a strange avant-garde community and started to seem like… well, like an industry. And we researchers began to develop sophisticated tools for gathering data on how the campaigns, the news orgs, and the mass public used these platforms.

There were still plenty of interesting changes. Disinformation in the 2012 election, for instance, was not much of a topic of study because there simply wasn’t enough of it for researchers to notice. But the critical shift was that the platforms and structures became stable enough that we could develop and rely upon sophisticated empirical methods for studying and analyzing those changes. We knew enough about the platforms and behaviors to know what we did not know.

Once again, innocently, I suspected as recently as four years ago that it would forever be thus. The digital platforms were trillion-dollar companies. They were barely-regulated quasi-monopolies. It certainly did not seem as though they were going anywhere.

And times, once again, seem to be changing.

There are, as I see it, three significant changes underway right now: (1) platform researcher access is declining, (2) the decreasing centrality of digital platforms to news and campaigning, and (3) the frontier-moment with generative AI.

Platform researcher access

Empirical study of the platforms was on shaky ground even during the best of times. I used to remark that we were generating mountains of Twitter research and molehills of Facebook research, not because of their relative importance, but because Twitter data was much more accessible. This has been a fracture point between how we studied 20th-century broadcast media and how we study algorithmic social media: CBS cannot prevent you from performing a content analysis of the nightly news.

The trouble with studying platformized political communications is that the platforms are private companies, with lots of lawyers. It is not in their proximate corporate interest for independent scholarly researchers to gather data and potentially generate findings that negatively impact the company’s reputation.

And yet, for much of the past decade, these companies at least had an interest in appearing transparent. They were in the business of recruiting social scientists. They partnered with members of the research community on specific projects. This was particularly true in the early ‘10s, before the “techlash” years when tech journalism and public opinion took a hard critical turn against the platform companies (Weiss-Blatt 2021). Back when the platforms enjoyed broad popularity, they reasonably expected academic research would help make the case for their (positive) social impact.

Likewise, at the peak of the techlash, the platforms were at least reticent to shut down researcher access, since that could lead to a slew of uncomfortable questions when their CEOs were next summoned before Congress to testify about the latest controversies.

In recent years, the platforms have collectively become more hostile to researchers. There are still some high-level partnerships, but unless you work at a major research lab and spend years developing a relationship with Google or Meta, it is quite likely that the data you might have gathered 5-10 years ago is simply no longer available. This is to say nothing of Elon Musk’s attack on the research community, or the members of Congress who have launched a partisan assault against disinformation researchers.

Alongside those high-profile, direct attacks, we are also seeing a ton of indirect erosion of research tools. Meta is set to shut down CrowdTangle before the 2024 U.S. election, replacing it with a new Meta Content Library that will be less publicly accessible. All of the platforms have reduced the size of their Trust and Safety teams, and are providing fewer resources to engaging with the research community.

European researchers are in a better situation than their U.S.-based peers, thanks to provisions in the E.U.’s Digital Services Act. (My kingdom for a well-functioning regulatory state!) But the platforms are all U.S. companies, and the degradation of data access here is a strong signal of their behavior worldwide.

The research community is collectively stuck trying to cobble together novel solutions and workarounds just to keep apace with the sort of data access we had in the 2010s.

The status quo was bad-but-pretty-stable. The trendlines are much, much worse.

The Secular Decline of Social Media

We have reduced visibility into online political behavior on social media platforms. But, simultaneously, social behavior on those platforms is less central than it used to be.

X/Twitter stands out as the most obvious example. It is bad that many of our empirical tools for studying Twitter have been shut down. It is outrageous that Elon Musk has launched nuisance lawsuits aimed at silencing members of the research community. But also, X/Twitter is a platform in steep decline – not yet completely irrelevant, but obviously trending in that direction.

It’s not just Elon Musk being terrible at running a social media platform though. Meta’s various properties – Facebook, Instagram, and Threads – have all decided to algorithmically de-emphasize political news and conversation. Contentious politics, it appears, is no longer good for business.

The research community spent the past decade developing our collective understanding of these platforms that intermediate public discourse and political campaigning. And, today, it certainly appears as though these platforms are becoming less central than they once were. It is not yet clear what, if anything, will replace them. Perhaps this is an interregnum, and these or other centralized platforms will again become the main intermediaries between electoral campaigns, news outlets, and the voters they seek to reach. Perhaps not.

But as I look ahead to the still-forming 2024 election, here in the United States, what stands out is that Facebook and Twitter are likely to be less central to campaign communication strategies than in recent elections.

Think of this as a blessing-in-disguise. We have less access to the platforms. But it’s like being denied entry to a club that no one goes to anymore. All the most interesting stuff is probably happening somewhere else anyway.

Generative Artificial Intelligence

The hype surrounding Generative Artificial Intelligence (hereafter, “AI”) has not yet peaked. This is clear, here in the U.S., based on the number of political campaigns that have successfully grabbed cheap news cycles by introducing some AI gimmick into their campaign communications.

I personally suspect that it is a bit early for AI to have a significant, direct effect on campaign behavior or election outcomes. But it is poised to exacerbate the two previously mentioned phenomena. It will be harder to monitor online political behavior, because of an ocean of synthetic sludge. And the platforms – who, collectively, seem to be treating AI less as a problem-to-be-mitigated than as a race-to-be-won – will become less central to actual interpersonal political communication among human beings as they gallop toward AI as the next big thing.

It may, in other words, have substantial indirect effects. I personally worry it will exacerbate the “Liar’s Dividend” (Chesney and Citron 2019) by increasing the baseline mistrust of all political information and political institutions. Early empirical research (Weikmann et al 2024) certainly points in this direction – even if synthetic media lacks direct persuasive impact, its spread undercuts institutional trust.

It will, absolutely, be an area of testing and experimentation. Both legitimate electoral actors and less-legitimate external campaign organizations will see what they can do with it. It will accelerate some of the good, some of the bad, some of the necessary, some of the nonsense. We will see Cambridge Analytica-level overhyping from campaign consultants. We will not know until long after the election which of their claims were based in any semblance of reality.

AI, in other words, looks an awful lot to me like a destabilizing force. It will, most likely, eventually reshape how electoral campaigns function. But not right away, and not all at once. It is new enough that we don’t quite know what to make of it yet – and neither do elected officials, or campaigns, or journalists, or voters.

Which, in turn, reminds me an awful lot of the state of digital campaign research in the mid-aughts.

Back to Basics

I received some career-defining advice early in the dissertation process. I was interested in the political blogosphere, and was trying my best to fashion a dissertation proposal that would be empirically rigorous, methodologically sophisticated, and deeply enmeshed in the (still nascent) literature.

It wasn’t working. I was trying my best. I was not pulling it off.

After a long meeting, my (extraordinarily patient) dissertation advisor said to me, “well, it sounds like you want to study the blogosphere. So why don’t you study them.

He was inviting me, in essence, to go back to basics. There was a lot that we didn’t understand about the internet and political campaigning. This thing was new, and we didn’t have a handle on how it worked. So go observe political practitioners, figure some things out, and gather data that helps explain to the rest of the field what I had learned.

That advice led me to become a descriptivist, qualitative scholar. Scholarship of this sort is particularly valuable to the research community during times of chaos and change. When the underlying phenomena that we are used to measuring are in flux, when our standard measures of political behavior could use a bit of reevaluation, it is useful to the research community to go out and collect observations.

I suspect, as Gagrčin and Butkowski argued in a previous issue of Political Communication Report (2023), that we are reentering a period where this sort of descriptive research will be deeply useful. All three factors that I have discussed in this essay point in such a direction. We have less access to platform data. The platforms are declining in relevance – people are going elsewhere. I, for one, don’t know where that is, or what they are doing there. And Generative AI is being incorporated into a lot of communication activities, unevenly and with unclear impacts (de Vreese and Votta 2023).  The stability of the past decade seems to be coming apart.

So my recommendation to my fellow scholars is this: Take a look at some of the research from the late aughts (much of it published in the early teens, due to the glacial pace of scholarly publishing). (Re)read Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s Ground Wars and Daniel Kreiss’s Taking Our Country Back and Jenny Stromer Galley’s Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age and Jessica Baldwin-Philippi’s Using Technology, Building Democracy. Take a look at their methods, but also take a look at the theories they produced and see whether there is anything that deserves to be revisited.

These are interesting times to study digital campaigns and elections. There is, once again, so much that we do not know.



Baldwin-Philippi, J. (2015). Using Technology, Building Democracy: Digital Campaigning and the Construction of Citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bimber, B., & Davis, R. (2003). Campaigning Online: The Internet in U.S. Elections. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chesney, B. & Citron, D. (2019). “Deep Fakes: A Looming Challenge for Privacy, Democracy, and National Security.” California Law Review, 107, 1755-1819.

de Vreese, C., & Votta, F. (2023). AI and Political Communication. Political Communication Report, 2023(27). https://doi.org/10.17169/refubium-39047

Gagrčin, E., & Butkowski, C. (2023). Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Qualitative Methods in Political Communication Research. http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-39042

Karpf, D. (2012b.) Social science research methods in Internet time. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 636–661.

Kreiss, D. (2012). Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, R. K. (2012). Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stromer-Galley, J. (2014). Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Weikmann, T., Greber, H., & Nikolaou, A. (2024). After Deception: How Falling for a Deepfake Affects the Way We See, Hear, and Experience Media. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/19401612241233539

Weiss-Blatt, N. (2021). The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communications. New York, NY: Emerald Publishing.



David Karpf is an Associate Professor in the George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs. He teaches and conducts research on political campaigning in the digital age.


[1] Copyright © 2024 (David Karpf). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at https://politicalcommunication.org.



Sharma: Professionalization of Political Communication in Developing Countries

Professionalization of Political Communication in Developing Countries: Methodological Perspectives from India’s Election Campaigns[1]


Amogh Dhar Sharma, University of Oxford

http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-43529; PDF

How does one study a “social media election”? What does fieldwork during a “WhatsApp election” entail? Does researching a “data-driven campaign” demand new data collection techniques? Over the last decade, scholars of political communication in India have had to grapple with some of these questions as successive general elections in the country have come to be appended with prefixes (‘social media-’, ‘WhatsApp-’, ‘Big Data-’, ‘data-driven-’) that index the valence of technological innovations in the campaigning process. 3D hologram rallies, hashtag wars, deepfake videos, custom-made smartphone apps for party workers—in the last few years, the Indian electorate has seen it all. But, insofar as election campaigns in India have undergone a dramatic facelift, these technological gambits only represent the tip of the iceberg. In my forthcoming book, The Backstage of Democracy: India’s Election Campaigns and The People Who Manage Them, I argue that the rapid developments in the landscape of India’s political communication also represent the ascendant power of a new professional salariat class of technocrats who have emerged as the secret movers and shakers of political affairs (Sharma, 2024). Understanding India’s election campaigns, thus, demands studying shadowy actors like political consultants, spin doctors, pollsters, social media mercenaries, and ‘troll farm’ operators who increasingly provide services to political parties and politicians. Seen in this light, the task for contemporary scholars is not merely to ascertain how visible forms of political communication can be studied, but also how one might be able to analyze the hidden, behind-the-scenes organizational structure of modern election campaigns.

To be sure, the phenomenon of the professionalization of politics is in no way limited to India. Since the early 2000s, scholars have predicted that the professionalization of political communication witnessed in North America and Western Europe represents the future of democratic politics writ large (Farrell, 1998; Mancini, 1999; Negrine, Holtz-Bacha, Mancini, & Papathanassopoulos, 2007). Although many of these teleological accounts were premature in predicting the demise of ‘retail’ forms of politics (Norris, 2000), which remain popular and prominent throughout the world (see Paget, 2019), there can be little doubt that much of the techniques and styles of political communication around the world are showing signs of convergence. Campaign professionals in different countries have been quick to identify and draw upon global best practices, which leads to an adaptive imitation in the style of campaigning from one country to another.

While campaign styles are converging, the research strategies of studying them may not see a similar pattern. This is because scholars embarking on the study of the professionalization of politics in developing countries face a unique set of methodological challenges that I believe has been insufficiently appreciated thus far. Critiques of ‘Western bias’ and calls for ‘de-colonizing’ the study of political communication have already contributed to the conversation on how scholars should approach the study of politics in the developing world (Neyazi, 2023; Waisbord, 2023). However, the challenges that I refer to here are not epistemological (serious though those are), but relate to more mundane and pragmatic (but no less serious) questions of methodology and the attendant problems of evaluating the validity, credibility, and rigor of the research design. Simply put, the methodological choices that scholars in the Global North have hitherto adopted to study the professionalization of political communication may neither be possible nor desirable to replicate in the Global South in a straightforward fashion. This, in turn, has implications for comparative scholarship that seeks to integrate insights from both the Global South and the Global North.

Measuring Professionalization

Let me illustrate the aforementioned point through a brief example. One question that many scholars have been concerned with relates to measuring and comparing levels of professionalization across countries and/or across political parties within the same country. In this context, one approach has been forwarded by Gibson and Römmele (2009) who have created the CAMPROF index, which offers a standardized way of measuring and comparing the extent to which parties rely upon professionalized techniques of campaigning. Their 30-point index relies on evaluating whether a political party uses tools like telemarketing, public relations/media consultants, opinion polling, computerized databases, etc. Notwithstanding the considerable merit of such indices, operationalizing them remains dependent on the ability of scholars to collect adequate data on the inner life of campaign teams. This is made possible either through first-hand data collection (if direct access to intra-party activities can be secured) or through reliable and verifiable second-hand information (such as that found in news media reports or grey literature produced by parties themselves). But it is precisely the difficulties associated with collecting either first-hand or second-hand data in developing countries that frustrates the attempt to study professionalization through indices such as the CAMPROF. This is where the structural factors of politics in developing countries come in.

Political parties in the Global South tend to be characterized by poor levels of institutionalization and weak organizational structure (Kitschelt & Wilkinson, 2009). One implication of this is that decision-making within parties tends to be controlled by a very narrow segment of political elites and there is a generalized absence of transparency in how intra-party affairs are conducted. In the absence of genuine intra-party democracy, it has been noted that party bosses in India have tended to nominate those candidates who can self-finance their own campaigns (Sircar, 2018). In such scenarios, the real locus of campaigning is not solely at the level of the national/regional party headquarters. Rather, each candidate tends to operate an individual and dispersed campaign and many innovative aspects of campaigning communication are to be observed at the constituency level. What, then, is the appropriate level of analysis at which an index such as CAMPROF may be constructed in India? How can we aggregate individual constituency-level campaigns to produce a picture of professionalization at the level of the party?

Another implication of the weak and oligarchic organizational structure is that the institutional memory within political parties has become severely limited and there is a dearth of archival records that helps scholars study the longitudinal evolution of campaign strategies. For instance, in my research on the historical roots of professionalization in Indian politics, after a painstaking perusal of an eclectic range of documentary sources, I was startled to find evidence that indicated that as early as the 1980s the Indian National Congress (INC, the grand old party of India’s independence and currently the largest national-level opposition party) was adopting techniques that one might associate with high-levels of professionalization as measured by CAMPROF index (Sharma, 2022). In the lead-up to the 1984 General Election, the INC had embarked on a radical program of combining large scale data gathering, using advertising professionals, opinion polls, and computerized decision making. Some of these claims were readily verifiable—for example, the work done by advertising professionals for the Congress party was evidenced by the flurry of political advertisements that appeared in different newspapers of that period. On some of the other questions, such as claims that the selection of candidates was done based on ‘objective’ computerized analysis, it was harder to verify the details. It was interesting to note that accounts of these incipient experiments with professionalization were nowhere to be found in the annual reports produced by the Congress party itself. Rather, to reconstruct these developments in political communication I had to rely on extremely brief and fleeting reportage in periodicals and then triangulate them with oral history interviews and memoirs written by Congress politicians decades after these events transpired.

Because political parties in developing countries operate in an environment marked by a lack of transparency, this has prevented the development of a research culture where all scholars could access and observe intra-party activities on a fair and equitable basis. Instead, it becomes nearly impossible to negotiate access without leveraging personal connections or quid pro quo favors. Scholars based in ‘reputable’ universities of the Global North also tend to have an advantage in obtaining access. The ability to conduct first-hand fieldwork remains critical because news reports on professionalized campaigning are usually pitched in grandiloquent terms, which makes it difficult to sift fact from hyperbole.

This realization became apparent more recently when conducting fieldwork in the run-up to the 2024 Indian General Election. Many media reports have noted that in this election, all political parties are investing considerable sums in state-of-the-art ‘war rooms’ for campaign coordination and that ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘big data’ is set to play a massive role (Raj, 2024; Sundaram, 2024). There is much evidence to indicate that the Bharatiya Janata Party has built up the organizational capacity to undertake such a venture (Christopher, 2020; Singh, 2019; Ullekh, 2015). But, upon visiting the headquarters of another leading political party in New Delhi, I found that their much vaunted ‘war room’ was little more than a ramshackle conference room where a team of a dozen volunteers congregated to telephone booth-level workers and obtain brief updates on the ground-level campaign. This emphasized to me, how misleading it can be to use secondary sources on campaigning in the absence of quality control and the uneven results this produces. In such a situation, the parsimony offered by indices like CAMPROF obscures more than it reveals about the pattern of professionalization in countries like India.

The Qualitative Challenge

Prima facie, it might appear that the problem at hand could be solved by selecting a suitable qualitative research design instead of relying on a quantitative index. Perhaps an ethnographic approach (see for instance, Banerjee, 2014)—with emphasis on immersion, holism, and in-depth and contextualized study of a small number of cases—can allow us to study the professionalization of campaigning in developing countries more comprehensively? While there are some advantages that a qualitative design can offer, here too, the solution is far from straightforward. The problem of securing access to political elites that I noted above also remains salient when relying on elite interviews or participant observation. Above all, however, the unique spatial and temporal properties of election campaigns in an era of professionalization demand that qualitative approaches also need to be rethought to suit our analytical purpose.

Firstly, the widely dispersed and fragmented nature of a professionalized election campaign upsets the geographic parameters that usually makes qualitative data collection feasible. For instance, these days in any given Indian election, a political party’s campaign personnel are likely to be split across, inter alia, a central headquarters (often dubbed as the ‘war room’) that is managed by the senior party bosses, specialized cells devoted to social media and data analytics, independent constituency level campaign teams run by candidates, get-out-the-vote campaigns being organized by polling-booth-level workers, employees of political consulting firms and pollsters spread throughout key constituencies, social media influencers based in different parts of the country, and other petty vendors managing various aspects of publicity and promotion. The geographic dispersion of modern campaigns is staggering. Some scholars have rightly problematized the valorization of ‘place’ and being present in the ‘field’ as uncritical standards of ethnographic richness (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997a, 1997b). Nevertheless, wanting to study the professionalization of election campaigns ethnographically raises a difficult question about selecting the appropriate site that can help provide a birds-eye view of the different moving parts of the campaign. Unlike a traditional multi-sited ethnography where scholars can follow the movement of a person, commodity, or information from one location to another, what we require here is a way of studying the geographically dispersed components of a campaign that are being executed simultaneously at any given moment.

Secondly, related to the question of location are the dynamics of duration. Long-term immersion in a field site has often been considered the key that helps unlock participant observation’s ability to yield rich empirical insights and produce holistic descriptions However, as modern election campaigns operate in a ‘permanent campaign’ mode (Dulio & Towner, 2009), their start and end points have become progressively fuzzy, which makes it difficult to optimally plan the time frame of a research project. Furthermore, it is exceedingly rare to find campaign professionals in India who remain tied to a single party or politician for long. Most of the professionals who provide substantive inputs have an exceedingly limited association with the world of politics—the contribution to campaigns can take place over time spans as short as a few days to just a few weeks (Sharma, 2024). How are scholars to identify such fleeting actors and what does building long-term trust in such a dynamic landscape mean?

Thirdly, qualitative researchers are also confronted with the limits of conducting participant (or non-participant) observation in campaign teams that are practicing ethically problematic tactics such as spreading disinformation or employing deepfakes. Here, again, research in developing countries poses a unique problem, since there is a general absence of substantive regulatory oversight over campaign practices, while data protection laws remain weak or simply non-existent, thereby opening ample opportunities for malpractices and offenses. In such contexts, scholars cannot be guided by the local country’s legal code to ascertain the ethically permissible boundaries of their own fieldwork. University ethics review boards (especially those located in the Global North) may also fail to provide adequate guidance on such matters.

I raise these questions here not to offer a ready-made prescriptive answer of my own, but rather in the hopes of building an appreciation of the uncertain terrain that scholars studying the Global South find themselves in. Rigor in qualitative research has often been determined by a scholar’s immersive familiarity in a field site, the holism of their empirical analysis, the contextual granularity of their findings, inductive theorizing, and the ethical considerations they bring to bear on their object of study. While there is no reason to dismiss these values as the benchmarks of good scholarship, what holism, immersion, and ethical negotiations mean when studying a professionalized campaign is still in the process of revealing itself. 


The discussion above should make clear that the challenges of studying professionalized election campaigns in the developing world are not about adjudicating between quantitative versus qualitative methods, parsimonious indices versus in-depth descriptions, or large-N versus small-N approaches. It is the unique structural conditions of politics in developing countries that requires us to go back to the methodological drawing board. Unlike in advanced industrial democracies, the absence of organizational coherence in political parties means that the unit and site of analysis to study political communication is far from obvious. The lack of transparency and regulatory oversight in how parties operate and their ad-hoc policies of granting access to academic researchers also have a bearing on what data can be collected, how, and under what terms. The upshot of this discussion is that research emerging from the Global South is likely to deviate from established models and paradigms and its methodological choices will appear messier and more chaotic (Badr, 2023)—a necessary result of data collection that is characterized by serendipity than clear sampling, contingent access than coherent planning. The risk here, then, is that comparative research on election campaigns will omit or under-represent perspectives from the Global South—not because of an inherent bias or epistemological blinkers, but because country case studies that deploy divergent methodologies, data sources, and descriptive styles are often perceived to be incompatible for comparison in the current landscape of academic publishing and research funding. In addition to the call for decolonization and methodological pluralism in the field of political communication, there remains the need to accept some degree of incommensurability in how political communication may be studied in different parts of the world.



Badr, H. (2023). It is epistemic, folks! Why our knowledge from WEIRD contexts is limited and what we can learn from Arab contexts. Political Communication Report(28). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-41237

Banerjee, M. (2014). Why India Votes? London: Routledge.

Christopher, N. (2020). We’ve Just Seen the First Use of Deepfakes in an Indian Election Campaign. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgedjb/the-first-use-of-deepfakes-in-indian-election-by-bjp

Dulio, D. A., & Towner, T. L. (2009). The Permanent Campaign. In D. W. Johnson (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Political Management (pp. 83-97). Abingdon: Routledge.

Farrell, D. M. (1998). Political Consultancy Overseas: The Internationalization of Campaign Consultancy. PS: Political Science and Politics, 31(2), 171-176. doi:10.2307/420246

Gibson, R. K., & Römmele, A. (2009). Measuring the Professionalization of Political Campaigning. Party Politics, 15(3), 265-293. doi:10.1177/1354068809102245

Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (1997a). Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (1997b). Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Kitschelt, H., & Wilkinson, S. (Eds.). (2009). Patrons, Clients, and Policies: Patterns of Democratic Accountability and Political Competition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mancini, P. (1999). New Frontiers in Political Professionalism. Political Communication, 16(3), 231-245. doi:10.1080/105846099198604

Negrine, R., Holtz-Bacha, C., Mancini, P., & Papathanassopoulos, S. (Eds.). (2007). The Professionalisation of Political Communication. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Neyazi, T. A. (2023). Moving Beyond Western Dominance: Rethinking Political Communication Scholarship. Political Communication Report(28). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-41235

Norris, P. (2000). A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paget, D. (2019). The Rally-Intensive Campaign: A Distinct Form of Electioneering in Sub-Saharan Africa and Beyond. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 24(4), 444-464. doi:10.1177/1940161219847952

Raj, S. (2024, April 18). How A.I. Tools Could Change India’s Elections. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/world/asia/india-election-ai.html

Sharma, A. D. (2022). ‘Mr. Clean’ and his ‘Computer Boys’: Technology, Technocracy, and De-politicisation in the Indian National Congress (1981-1991). Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 60(1), 50-73. doi:10.1080/14662043.2021.2001252

Sharma, A. D. (2024). The Backstage of Democracy: India’s Election Campaigns and the People Who Manage Them. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singh, S. S. (2019). How to Win an Indian Election: What Political Parties Don’t Want You to Know. Gurgaon: Ebury Press.

Sircar, N. (2018). The Role of Personal Wealth in Election Outcomes. In D. Kapur & M. Vaishnav (Eds.), Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India (pp. 36-73). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sundaram, R. (2024, April 17). Inside the Political War Room. The Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/inside-the-political-war-room/articleshow/109362430.cms

Ullekh, N. P. (2015). War Room: The People, Tactics and Technology Behind Narendra Modi’s 2014 Win. New Delhi: Roli Books.

Waisbord, S. (2023). De-westernizing Political Communication: Why? How? Political Communication Report(28). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-41232



Amogh Dhar Sharma is a Departmental Lecturer at the Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford. He is the author of a forthcoming monograph, The Backstage of Democracy: India’s Election Campaign and the People Who Manage Them, and his research has also been published in Commonwealth and Comparative Politics and International Journal of Communication. His research explores the interface between politics and technology, cultures of datafication, and electoral and party politics in South Asia.


[1] Copyright © 2024 (Amogh Dhar Sharma). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at https://politicalcommunication.org.



Borucki: Testing the Toolbox

Testing the Toolbox: European Political Parties Embrace Digital Transformation in Election Campaigning[1]


Isabelle R Borucki, Philipp University Marburg

http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-43530; PDF

In today’s world of rapid technological advancements, European political parties are increasingly utilizing digital tools and platforms to shape and support their election campaigns (Borucki & Kettemann, 2024; Bossetta, 2018; Dommett, 2020; Gibson, 2020). In a high-choice online environment, the hybrid meshing of campaign strategies and tools from several sources for different target groups will be crucial in the upcoming 2024 European parliamentarian elections—despite the fact that it is not so new in the US context (Chadwick, 2013; Wells et al., 2016).

This essay aims to explore the various aspects of digital campaigning, focusing on the integration of digital tools and especially hybrid meshed forms of campaign interactions in the sense of exploring political parties’ toolboxes. It uses recent evidence from research on parties and their digital transformation in Germany as a case study. Moreover, potential benefits and drawbacks are discussed.

Digital Campaigning: Exploiting Opportunities with Precision Tools?

Digital campaigning heralds an era of unparalleled connectivity and engagement, empowering political parties to exponentially transcend geographical constraints and amplify their reach. Employing social media platforms and digital communication channels, parties can disseminate their messages swiftly and efficiently, fostering real-time interaction with voters—if those voters do find the parties’ informational offers. However, this comes at a cost, mostly in the forms of spending for ads and the need for specialized personnel (Votta et al., 2024). The transformative potential of micro-targeting and artificial intelligence-fueled campaigns extends further by enabling parties to tailor their messaging to distinct demographics and precise constituencies. Through data analytics and micro-targeting techniques, parties can identify key issues and concerns among different voter groups and customize their messaging to resonate with diverse audiences (Bennett, 2016; König, 2020; Matthes et al., 2022). This personalized and individualized approach to canvassing promises to enhance the effectiveness of campaign efforts with tailored messages and thus increase the likelihood of voter engagement and support. The main avenue to achieve this is by political ads, especially on Facebook since most relevant demographics to parties are still active there (Schmidt et al., 2024). However, transparency in concerns of who gets targeted and—in the end—votes for a party because of its ad is still somewhat of a black box for political communication research (Dommett, 2020).

Furthermore, digital platforms enable parties to mobilize supporters and volunteers to actively participate in campaigns more effectively, facilitating grassroots organizing and activism (Bischof & Kurer, n.d., 2023). From crowdfunding initiatives to virtual rallies and online petitions, parties can utilize digital tools to mobilize resources and rally support for their cause. The party-internal democratization of campaigning through digital channels promises to empower grassroots activists and also amplify the voices of marginalized communities, fostering a more inclusive political process. However, the other side of the coin is that not all party members get involved or want to take part in such digital activities. This is due to the fact that the same parties also drift to the pole of centralized organization, meaning that they focus and concentrate their leadership on the top instead of the base (Blanke & Pybus, 2020). To delve deeper into this topic, the following showcases some insights from a recent study.

This essay is based on the “DIPART” member survey dataset (DigiPM) (Ziegler, 2023),[2] which is an original panel survey conducted among four political parties represented in the German Bundestag: CDU (Christian Democratic Union), SPD (Social Democratic Party), Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens) and Die Linke (The Left).[3] The study includes four panel waves spanning 13 months from late October 2020 to November 2021. The third wave, which was conducted after the German general election in 2021, is the primary source of data for this study.

Evidence from the panel survey shows that people who are already active in their parties, also partake digitally. So-called social-media members or digital members are rare, but active, reinforcing the existing gaps and divides in society regarding age, gender, and resources (money, time, location, education). Regarding alternative forms of campaigning, the digital form is only employed by around 10 percent of our respondents.

About 60 to 70 percent of members are actively involved in campaigning efforts. Interestingly, half of these participants are also engaged in social media campaigning, highlighting a significant overlap between traditional and digital campaign methods – such as email-lists, online events or digital townhall meetings, mainly summarizing video conferences as a substitute to real meetings. Despite some members reporting decreased activity, their participation rates do not deviate from the overall percentages, indicating a consistent level of engagement across the board. This suggests that even those who have scaled back their involvement remain committed to the campaign’s objectives at a rate comparable to the general member base. However, those who campaigned online for their parties did so via a broad range of tools, mostly on social media for campaigns or via Zoom, to maintain internal party activity and organization of activities linked to the campaign.

In this meshed environment between online and offline, reported creative campaigning techniques entail uncommon ways of enabling contact with voters, supporters, and sympathizers. These forms primarily took place offline, where the tangible interaction with communities creates a strong foundation for engagement, i.e., having bike tours, organizing BBQs or hiking tours to interact. Despite this focus, online formats are also crucial, offering tools for reaching wider audiences and fostering digital engagement that complements physical efforts. Campaign activities are thus diverse and deeply rooted in local contexts, reflecting the unique cultures, needs, and dynamics of the areas they serve. Thus, the federal structure of the German party system is somewhat mirrored in campaign organization.

The pandemic has profoundly impacted the party members’ activity, often resulting in decreased engagement due to health concerns and restrictions. However, the crisis has also been a significant catalyst for digital campaigning, pushing political parties to innovate and adopt new technologies. This shift has been supported by the narrative of a future-oriented digital party, which resonates across party lines, appealing to a broad spectrum of members. Furthermore, hybrid campaigning and participation have emerged as crucial elements in a party’s successful transition to digital platforms, blending traditional and online methods to maintain and enhance member involvement and outreach.

These insights from the German case might serve as a blueprint and idea-giver to possible avenues of the ongoing electoral campaigns of European parties. With the caveat that the European elections are a special case, as are the party groups and families, which, in turn, has an impact on their campaigns and strategies (Bene et al., 2022; Carter & Poguntke, 2010).

The increasing commodification of personal data and the opacity of algorithmic decision-making processes have led to growing concerns regarding privacy infringement, consent violations, and algorithmic biases. These issues have become particularly salient in the context of data utilization in political campaigns, where the ethical ramifications of such practices necessitate vigilant oversight and regulatory scrutiny. Such practices and their proliferation were also discussed within the panel survey. And interestingly, most members refrain from too much data-driven campaigning but rather want to inform and interact with their audiences through social media. Transparency and accountability thus are needed to asses more responsivity in the process around elections and beyond. By doing so, we can help to ensure that the use of personal data and algorithmic decision-making processes is consistent with ethical principles and promotes the well-being of society as a whole (Bietti, 2021; Daskal et al., 2020).

Therefore, political parties must follow strict principles of transparency, accountability, and democratic governance when dealing with the ethical dilemma of data-driven campaigning. Regulatory frameworks, such as the recent European Acts (Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act, and Digital Governance Act) should be strengthened to protect the integrity of voter data, with strong safeguards against exploitation and manipulation by political actors within the EU. Moreover, concerted efforts to improve algorithmic transparency and accountability are crucial, creating an environment of public trust and confidence in the fairness of electoral processes (Bormida, 2021; Dommett, 2019).


This essay has analyzed how digital campaigning affects European political parties by illustrating evidence from a German perspective, both positively and negatively. Evidence from the “DIPART” member survey dataset shows active digital participation among party members, though only a small percentage rely solely on digital forms of campaigning. The overlap between traditional and digital methods is significant. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital campaigning by German parties, pushing parties to innovate and adopt new technologies while balancing health concerns and engagement with their grassroots. While digital tools allow unprecedented levels of connectivity and engagement, they also bring ethical and democratic challenges that demand careful consideration in political strategic management: Combining digital strategies with traditional campaign methods offers a multifaceted approach to voter engagement, using precision targeting with grassroots mobilization, as the German case showed. As European political parties continue to navigate the digital landscape and find themselves in different ecosystems, their ability to balance innovation with ethical responsibility will be critical in shaping a resilient and inclusive electoral environment.



Bene, M., Magin, M., Jackson, D., Lilleker, D., Balaban, D., Baranowski, P., Haßler, J., Kruschinski, S., & Russmann, U. (2022). The Polyphonic Sounds of Europe: Users’ Engagement With Parties’ European‐Focused Facebook Posts. Politics and Governance, 10(1), Article 1. http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/36502/

Bennett, C. J. (2016). Voter databases, micro-targeting, and data protection law: Can political parties campaign in Europe as they do in North America? International Data Privacy Law, 6(4), 261–275. https://doi.org/10.1093/idpl/ipw021

Bietti, E. (2021). A Genealogy of Digital Platform Regulation (SSRN Scholarly Paper 3859487). https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3859487

Bischof, D., & Kurer, T. (n.d.). Does partisan grassroots mobilization matter in the digital age? 47.

Bischof, D., & Kurer, T. (2023). Place-Based Campaigning: The Political Impact of Real Grassroots Mobilization. The Journal of Politics, 85(3), 984–1002. https://doi.org/10.1086/723985

Blanke, T., & Pybus, J. (2020). The Material Conditions of Platforms: Monopolization Through Decentralization. Social Media + Society, 6(4), 2056305120971632. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120971632

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Borucki, I., & Kettemann, M. (2024). Better safe than sorry? Digital campaigning governance in Germany. Policy Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/01442872.2024.2311167

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Dr Isabelle Roth Borucki is a professor of political science methods and democracy in digital transformation at Philipp University Marburg, Germany. She holds an MA in political science, sociology and philosophy from Julius Maximilian University Würzburg, a doctorate from the University Trier, and obtained her habilitation from the University of Duisburg-Essen. Before joining the Institute for Political Science in Marburg, she served as an interim professor at the University of Siegen and led DIPART, digital party research, a junior research group at the University of Duisburg-Essen. She also is an executive committee member of the Marburg Center for Digital Culture and Infrastructure (MDCDI) and its master program “Cultural Data Studies”.  


[1] Copyright © 2024 Isabelle R Borucki. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at https://politicalcommunication.org.

[2] The dataset is available upon request. The work of the junior research group was supported by the Digital Society research program funded by the Ministerium für Kultur und Wissenschaft des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen under the grant number 005-17090003.

[3] AfD and the Liberals refused to support our research. The survey questionnaire was distributed by the party headquarters and sent as paper version upon request.



Nai: Why We Need to Pay Attention (Again) to Negative Campaigning

Why We Need to Pay Attention (Again) to Negative Campaigning, and the Challenges Ahead[1]


Alessandro Nai, University of Amsterdam


A common diagnostic of contemporary politics is that it is getting “dark.” And perhaps for good reasons. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are rampant (Bennett & Livingston, 2020), political preferences are often expressed in terms of disliking (or even hating) the opponents (Iyengar et al., 2019), uncompromising and aggressive political elites are on the rise (Norris & Inglehart, 2019), and the political discourse is frequently rife with incivility and political attacks (Stryker et al., 2016; Haselmayer, 2019). This essay focuses on this latter component of modern democracy – namely, the use of negative campaigning. It is not a secret that politicians attack each other all the time, even if perhaps some casual observers might be surprised at the extent of such negativity. During the 2019 European elections, almost one in five Facebook posts of political parties contained a political attack. And these, of course, received considerably more engagement than the positive ones (Baranowski et al., 2023). In 2020, more than one-third of all TV ads aired in the months leading to the presidential election in the USA included an explicit attack against the opponents (Ridout et al., 2021) – and this share went well above 50% in earlier elections (Geer, 2012). Does all this negativity matter? And if it does, how can we, scholars, do a good job in investigating its dynamics and effects? We tackle these two fundamental questions below.

Why negative campaigning matters

So what if politicians decide to go a bit rough against each other? Politics is the realm of conflict, after all, and we certainly are not electing representatives to be nice – we elect them to work for us, including when things get tough and the obstacles along the road pile up. Is it then really a bad thing that politicians showcase a muscular rhetoric – in particular when competing for positions of power? The answer to this (admittedly provocative) question is… quite likely, yes.

The field has in the past paid a great deal attention to the effects – intended and otherwise – of attack politics, but focused mostly on electoral effects, mostly consisting of election results, candidate likeability, and turnout. An authoritative meta-analysis published a few years ago (Lau et al., 2007) suggested that the effects of negative campaigning on the electoral fortunes of competing candidates are, at best, weak. Yet, there is much more than electoral results when it comes to the potential effects of negative campaigning. On the one hand, a robust scholarship in cognitive psychology has shown, quite clearly, that information framed negatively is much more memorable and effective than comparable positive information (Soroka et al., 2019). With this in mind, assuming that the effects of political attacks and other forms of rhetorical aggressiveness from elites are limited only to whether or not such elites win or lose at the ballot box seems rather incomplete. If negativity has such a fundamental physio-psychological role, certainly it produces deeper effects than simply swaying our perceptions of candidates or willingness to go out and vote to support them.

Existing research has, indeed, shown the presence of deeper, systemic consequences when exposing voters to excessive negativity – from demobilization (Ansolabehere & Iyengar, 1995) to cynicism (Yoon et al., 2005) and depressed public mood (Stevens, 2008). Lau et al.’s (2007) meta-analysis suggests the existence of such potentially nefarious effects, hinting at the presence of “slightly lower feelings of political efficacy, trust in government, and possibly overall public mood” due to exposure to negative campaigning (p. 1176).

Recent research goes one step further and suggests that negative campaigning could possibly act as a contextual driver of affective polarization (Iyengar et al., 2019). On paper, this makes sense: if affective polarization expresses generalized dislike for political opponents and a growing chasm between the in- and the out-group, then seeing politicians going at each other’s throats is unlikely to reconcile people across the political divide. Only a handful of studies have empirically tested this assumption, but the results (so far) converge quite strongly. For instance, Iyengar et al. (2012) show that the total state-level volume of negative ads aired on TV during the 2004 election is positively associated with affective polarization in the public. This observational evidence is matched by results from a handful of experimental studies: Lau et al. (2017) discuss experimental evidence gathered in the direct aftermath of the 2012 presidential election and show that respondents who were exposed to negative ads score, under some conditions, significantly and substantially higher in affective polarization than voters exposed to positive ads; similarly, Nai & Maier (2023, 2024a) discuss experimental evidence gathered in 2019 on a convenience sample of American respondents and show that participants who were exposed to a mock newspaper article where a candidate attacked his opponent were, compared to respondents exposed to a positive condition, more likely to express positive feelings for the in-party and negative feelings for the out-party, in particular for respondents that were ideologically close to the target of the attacks (2003) and for respondents high in populist attitudes (2024a). The positive link between (exposure to) negative campaigning and affective polarization is also supported by a large-scale comparative investigation (Martin and Nai, 2024), where the authors triangulated post-election survey data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) with expert data used about negative campaigning worldwide (Nai, 2020).

Perhaps even more worrying is recent preliminary evidence suggesting that exposing respondents to aggressive rhetoric from elites can lead to upticks in support for politically motivated violence, measured, in the experiment as respondents indicating whether “it is justified for in-party voters to use violence in advancing their political goals these days” (Nai & Young, 2024), echoing trends found by Kalmoe (2014) when it comes to support for political violence as a function of exposure to violent metaphors.

All in all, what this preliminary evidence seems to suggest is that elite aggressiveness should not be discounted as a potential structural driver of affective polarization and radical partisanship. While partisan identification and affect are undoubtedly strongly driven by individual predispositions, it does not seem unlikely that these predispositions can be activated when exposed to ambient aggressiveness and negativity.

Four challenges for the study of negative campaigning

If negative campaigning matters, as I would argue it does, then we, as scholars, owe it to ourselves to put all the chances on our side to investigate it to the best of our capacity. Yet, four major challenges lie on our way.

The first challenge is conceptual. What is negative campaigning, after all? Are we sure that we all understand the same thing when discussing political attacks? Critical voices have in the past raised this fundamental question (e.g., Sigelman & Kugler, 2003), and if I believe that excessive pessimism is perhaps unwarranted, several critical matters remain to be resolved:
(i) Are all attacks the same? While the literature has espoused the notion that a fundamental difference exists between policy and character attacks, the fact remains that some attacks seem harsher than others, and more negative; yet, current definitions of negative campaigning fail to account for such nuances in degrees (or intensity) of negativity (but see Haselmayer, 2019). Similarly, what to make of political incivility, that is, the explicit pushing of normative boundaries of politeness and respect (Stryker et al., 2016)? Is going uncivil on your opponent a type of political attack (as argued, e.g., by Brooks & Geer, 2007), or are negative campaigning and incivility two related but conceptually independent phenomena?
(ii) Thinking of campaign messages in general, are we sure that the presence of an attack is really the only thing there is, when it comes to its effects? Specifically, a case could be made that political attacks carry – directly or indirectly – also an emotional cue. For instance, political attacks exposing malfeasance or portraying a candidate under a particularly pessimistic light (e.g., this candidate is a wannabe dictator), almost necessarily include an anxiety cue; the problem, here, is not that we cannot assess what the effect of such a cue is – after all, there is quite a bit of research investigating dynamics of emotional campaigns (Brader, 2005) and the role of emotions for attitudes and behaviors (Albertson & Gadarian, 2015) – but rather that if attacks carry an emotional cue, then identifying specifically whether the effects are driven by the former and not the latter is, likely, quite hard (especially in non-experimental settings). If all attacks carry an emotional cue, can we really confidently say that it is the attack that matters and not the emotion that is carried with it? How to disentangle the two?
(iii) Where do the conceptual boundaries of negative campaigning stop? For instance, should morally questionable actions of parties and candidates during the campaign also be included, even if they go beyond the content of their rhetoric? Reiter and Matthes (2024), for instance, make the case for such a conceptual broadening, and suggest including also the use by competing actors of disinformation and deceitful techniques, into what they call “dirty campaigning” techniques. While such re-conceptualizations somewhat move away from the original narrow definition of attack politics, they nonetheless suggest the importance of not taking existing concepts for granted uncritically.


The second challenge is theoretical: what are the mechanisms associated with the effects of negative campaigning? Specifically, (i) can we really understand negative campaigning in a vacuum, without accounting also for specifically who is going negative? Strong evidence exists that certain types of candidates are much more likely to go negative, such as populists (Nai, 2021) or candidates showcasing a darker personality profile (Nai & Maier, 2024). This is not really a surprise – attacks, quite simply, are more “in character” for politicians with a more aggressive and uncompromising profile. A case could almost be made that attacks are expected of them, and indeed they seem more likely to benefit electorally from them (Nai et al., 2022). If populists and dark candidates are more likely to go negative, and even make such negativity a defining characteristic of their profile, then to what extent should we simply investigate negativity in itself? Does it still make sense to test for the effects of political attacks (e.g., in an experimental setting), without accounting for the fact that in real life this is often the expression of strategic profiling enacted by more aggressive candidates? I am not sure.

(ii) Is exposure to political attacks equally effective (or detrimental) for everybody? Growing evidence seems to suggest that this is not the case – for instance, Weinschenk and Panagopoulos (2014) show that negative campaigning is more mobilizing for respondents high in extraversion, but potentially demobilizing for respondents high in agreeableness, whereas Nai and Maier (2021) show that it is particular among respondents with a darker personality profile (high psychopathy) that political attacks are more likely to be effective. These studies are part of a broad literature highlighting the importance of focusing on individual differences when investigating the effectiveness of political communication (e.g., Mutz & Reeves, 2005). In light of the strength of these moderated effects – that is, different effects for different respondents – does it still make sense to expect that any given communication message exerts uniform effects across the public? Very unlikely.

(iii) Are the effects of (exposure to) political attacks direct or indirect? As hinted at earlier in this essay, attacks likely carry an emotional component, and as such the intervening role of emotions cannot be discounted. Indeed, evidence exists that the effects of negative campaigning are driven by the specific emotions felt by respondents (e.g., Martin, 2004). Additionally, isn’t negativity in the eye of the beholder? Is the same attack perceived as an attack by all observers? This as well seems unlikely – suggesting that what could potentially matter, beyond exposure to an attack, is how strongly the attack itself was perceived. For instance, Maier and Nai (2023) show that it is in particular for respondents that perceived an attack as strongly negative that exposure to said attack increases affective polarization. Does negative campaigning really matter, if the public does not really see it as negative? Recent research that adopts a constructionist approach (e.g., Vargiu, 2022) will have a fundamental role to play in developing more nuanced theoretical accounts for the effects of negative campaigning (and beyond).


The third challenge – or series of challenges – is empirical. How are we going about to test all this? The issues here are both in terms of what we do, and what we can do. (i) How to move away from the usual focus on the rich West, and expand towards areas of the globe that have not yet been properly investigated, most notably relying on non-WEIRD samples? The field of political communication as a whole is (at last) facing a reckoning in this sense (Chakravartty et al., 2018; see also the issue #28 of Political Communication Report on “De-westernizing PolComm Theories and Research: More Perspectives, New Directions”), but the empirical challenges remain.

(ii) Relatedly, how to move away from case studies towards large-scale comparative studies? Evidence exists that the dynamics of attack politics have a strong cultural component – for instance, Maier and Nai (2022) show that political attacks during elections tend to be much more frequent in countries with deeper ethnic fragmentation and higher individualism. Yet, large-scale comparative investigations into the realm of communication effects are not easy. Specifically, how to measure the presence of political attacks across countries (and languages) as different as, say, Japan, Finland, Argentina, or Nigeria? Advances in natural language processing and generative artificial intelligence hold promise for the scaling up of coding of political texts (Gilardi et al., 2023), even across languages, but this is a field relatively in its infancy. Alternatively, the use of expert ratings has been shown to provide fast, reliable and scalable measures for the presence of political attacks worldwide (Nai, 2020) – admittedly, I might not be fully objective here – but expert surveys as well are not exempt from critical issues (see, e.g., Budge, 2000). All in all, no silver bullet seems to exist yet to provide data that is fully comparable across different contexts, which is at odds with the empirical imperative to go in the direction of comparative research.

(iii) Experimental research also faces a strong empirical challenge, most notably in terms of sufficient statistical power to pick up the expected effects (Aguinis et al., 2005). If the challenge discussed above to expand the theoretical models to include also moderated and mediated effects (and for different actors, and across different types of messages) is taken seriously, then the usual samples of a couple of thousand respondents that we often rely on for experimental research are certainly not sufficient anymore.

The final, and perhaps more perfidious, challenge is normative. Negative campaigning is, likely, a detrimental force in contemporary democracy, as discussed above. With this in mind, the (moral) incentives to present negative campaigning and its effects under a dark and uncompromising light – for instance, via a pessimistic frame – are strong, and this essay is certainly no exception in this sense. While I would argue that such pessimism is generally deserved, there is an intrinsic risk of missing specific trees by focusing on the whole forest. Is negative campaigning all dark? This is unlikely. Indeed, some scattered evidence exists that political attacks can have normatively positive effects. For instance, exposing voters to negative messages can increase their interest and attention to politics (e.g., Martin, 2004; Finkel & Geer, 1998). Similarly, anxiety generated by exposure to attack messages could open the mind of voters and help them think more critically about the matters at stake – after all, copious evidence exists that anxiety is able to uncouple voters from their predispositions, fostering critical thinking (Marcus et al., 1993). Finally, a case could be made that political attacks are, at times, morally legitimate per se, regardless of their potential effects. For instance, would it not be legitimate to expose cases of corruption, malpractice, abuse of power, or predatory behaviors in politicians? Certainly, in these cases, silence is complicity – meaning, concretely, that attacking them for their misdeeds is the morally right thing to do. With this in mind, the normative challenge ahead is to put into perspective the likely nefarious effects of attack politics and their possible positive consequences. How to make sure that the latter are still part of the picture, if the former keep piling up? And, at the same time, how to make sure to consider that a morally legitimate act can have detrimental consequences? At the very least, scholars working on negative campaigning – including yours truly – should strive to resist the temptation of overly simplistic (yet effective) normative framing when discussing matters as complex as political attacks.



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Baranowski, P., Kruschinski, S., Russmann, U., Haßler, J., Magin, M., Márton, B., … & Lilleker, D. (2023). Patterns of negative campaigning during the 2019 European election: Political parties’ Facebook posts and users’ sharing behaviour across twelve countries. Journal of Information Technology & Politics20(4), 375-392.

Bennett, W., & Livingston, S. (2020). The disinformation age. Cambridge University Press.

Brader, T. (2005). Striking a responsive chord: How political ads motivate and persuade voters by appealing to emotions. American Journal of Political Science49(2), 388-405.

Brooks, D. J., & Geer, J. G. (2007). Beyond negativity: The effects of incivility on the electorate. American Journal of Political Science51(1), 1-16.

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Finkel, S. E., & Geer, J. G. (1998). A spot check: Casting doubt on the demobilizing effect of attack advertising. American Journal of Political Science, 42(2), 573-595.

Geer, J. G. (2012). The news media and the rise of negativity in presidential campaigns. PS: Political Science & Politics45(3), 422-427.

Gilardi, F., Alizadeh, M., & Kubli, M. (2023). ChatGPT outperforms crowd workers for text-annotation tasks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences120(30), e2305016120.

Haselmayer, M. (2019). Negative campaigning and its consequences: a review and a look ahead. French Politics17, 355-372.

Iyengar, S., Lelkes, Y., Levendusky, M., Malhotra, N., & Westwood, S. J. (2019). The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science22, 129-146.

Iyengar, S., Sood, G., & Lelkes, Y. (2012). Affect, not ideology: A social identity perspective on polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly76(3), 405-431.

Kalmoe, N. P. (2014). Fueling the fire: Violent metaphors, trait aggression, and support for political violence. Political Communication31(4), 545-563.

Lau, R. R., Andersen, D. J., Ditonto, T. M., Kleinberg, M. S., & Redlawsk, D. P. (2017). Effect of media environment diversity and advertising tone on information search, selective exposure, and affective polarization. Political Behavior39, 231-255.

Lau, R. R., Sigelman, L., & Rovner, I. B. (2007). The effects of negative political campaigns: A meta-analytic reassessment. The Journal of Politics69(4), 1176-1209.

Maier, J., & Nai, A. (2022). When conflict fuels negativity. A large-scale comparative investigation of the contextual drivers of negative campaigning in elections worldwide. The Leadership Quarterly33(2), 101564.

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Martin, D. & Nai, A. (2024). Deepening the Rift: Negative Campaigning Fosters Affective Polarization in Multiparty Elections. Electoral Studies, 87, 102745.

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Nai, A. (2020). Going negative, worldwide: Towards a general understanding of determinants and targets of negative campaigning. Government and Opposition55(3), 430-455.

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Alessandro Nai is Associate Professor of Political Communication at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam. His work focuses on the dark sides of politics – the use of negativity and incivility in election campaigns in a comparative perspective, the (dark) personality traits of political figures, and radical partisanship in voters. His recent work has been published in journals such as the Journal of Politics, Political Communication, Political PsychologyEuropean Journal of Political ResearchWest European Politics, International Journal of Press/Politics, Leadership Quarterly, and more. His most recent book is Dark Politics. The Personality of Politicians and the Future of Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2024, with J. Maier). He is currently Associate Editor of the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties.


[1] Copyright © 2024 (Alessandro Nai). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at https://politicalcommunication.org.



Jang & McGregor: Normative Needs in the Study of Elections and Campaigns

Normative Needs in the Study of Elections and Campaigns[1]


Heesoo Jang, Department of Journalism, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Shannon C. McGregor, Hussman School of Journalism & Media and Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life – University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/refubium-43532; PDF

Challenges to democracies from the far right, authoritarians, and fascists are not new—but they are on the rise globally. Yet, because many of our theories and models for researching communication were developed on the basis of “stable” democracies in the West (as so eloquently addressed in the previous issue of the Political Communication Report), our field as a whole lacks a cohesive democratic normative framework with which to interpret these threats to democracy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the study of elections and campaigns. Adopting a normative democratic basis means that we must re-think how we study the myriad of communication as it relates to elections and campaigns. In this piece, we discuss this across the press, campaigns, technology, and specifically AI.

The Press

In a democracy, the role of the press transcends mere reporting to encompass a robust assessment of how well the democratic process is being upheld. Journalism, with its foundational premise of informing the public, is crucial in evaluating and critiquing the conduct of elections and the behaviors of those who contest them. This democratic assessment involves not only tracking the accuracy and fairness of the electoral process but also ensuring that the portrayal of candidates and campaigns aligns with democratic norms, thus safeguarding the public’s right to factual, unbiased, and constructive information.

According to a report by The Washington Post (Blanco, Wolfe, and Gardner, 2022), during the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, 291 Republican candidates at state and federal levels challenged or doubted the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Out of these, 179 candidates were successful in their electoral bids. Such actions pose a significant risk to the foundations of democracy. A functional democracy hinges on the ability to conduct credible, competitive elections—if a political leader or party cannot accept defeat, it compromises the peaceful transition of power.

The situation in the United States is one among several recent global examples where competitive elections have faced threats, marking a critical and notable instance. Over the last ten years, democratic systems worldwide have been increasingly vulnerable. In 2020, autocratic behaviors affected 25 countries, impacting 34 % of the global population. In contrast, only 16 countries, representing a mere 4 % of the global populace, made strides toward democratization (Hellmeier et al., 2021).

The emergence of anti-democratic candidates in the U.S. and many other countries globally presents a profound challenge to journalists and newsrooms committed to democratic ideals. For instance, comments by former president Donald Trump regarding using the military to conduct mass deportations were labeled as “extreme” by The New York Times and PBS, with further descriptions like “radical” by CNN and “boundary-pushing right-wing policies” by TIME. Reuters highlighted the use of “dehumanizing terminology,” noting an echo of xenophobic and Nazi rhetoric. This type of language tests journalistic norms in covering campaign communication and requires a careful approach to prevent the normalization of threats to democratic values.

To effectively cover anti-democratic candidates and threats to democracy, journalists must possess a deep understanding that is both quantitative and qualitative. This involves not merely counting instances of biased or inflammatory language, but also interpreting the broader impact of such rhetoric on public opinion and democratic health. This sophisticated approach allows the media to more accurately reflect the seriousness of the threats and the nuances of how they are presented to the public. In the case of Trump’s comments, this might mean pointing out how many people living in the U.S. might be deported and contextualizing this within current immigration-related deportations in the U.S. Coverage in this vein would also point out the ways in which such an action would violate not only international human rights treaties, but also laws and democratic norms within the U.S.

Normative research, which establishes clear standards for democratic journalism, is essential in our times faced by challenges to democratic norms. Without such standards, evaluating the effectiveness and integrity of journalism in the face of democratic threats becomes nearly impossible. By defining what responsible, democracy-preserving journalism should look like—especially when confronting anti-democratic rhetoric—researchers can and should provide a critical framework that guides and supports journalists in maintaining their role as defenders of democracy.

For example, our proposed framework for democracy-framed election coverage seeks to redefine journalistic practices to better protect democratic processes. In this framework, suggested by Heesoo Jang, Daniel Kreiss, Shannon C. McGregor, and Erik Peterson, we define democracy-framed electoral coverage as that which foregrounds fairly contested elections as both an established norm and a political ideal (Jang & Kreiss, 2024; Peterson, McGregor & Block, 2023). This frame of coverage goes beyond pointing out that claims of widespread voter fraud are false and not substantiated (if, indeed, there is no evidence that irregularities occurred) – it also positions election denial as a violation of democratic norms with deleterious implications for democracy. It treats election denial—or ex ante assertions that a candidate will not accept the result of an upcoming election—as fundamentally different from other campaign issues. It insists on a proactive role for journalists, not just as reporters of events but as active participants in preserving democratic integrity. By embedding democratic values at the core of election coverage, this framework aims to ensure that media outlets not only report on but also actively counteract anti-democratic narratives, thereby contributing to a more informed and resilient democratic society.

What makes democracy-framed journalism essential? It transcends the reporting of facts and figures to actively engage with the implications of those facts on democratic health. For instance, when candidates spout rhetoric that challenges the outcome of free and fair elections or threatens anti-democratic deportations, democracy-framed journalism doesn’t just quote these statements; it contextualizes them against the fabric of democratic standards, highlighting the risks they pose to the peaceful transfer of power, the integrity of electoral institutions, and the health of democratic institutions and the populace.

Campaign Communication

As our studies of electoral journalism needs a normative frame, so too does our study of campaign communication. In the past, we’ve urged scholars of campaigns to move beyond conceptualizing campaign communication in terms of issues or tone, to centering the role of political identity in campaign communication (Kreiss, Lawrence & McGregor, 2020). But even these expanded conceptualizations do little to lay out the norm-breaking of patently illiberal and anti-democratic campaign communication. Thankfully, work on populist campaign communication (e.g., Aalberg, Esser, Reinemann, Strömbäck, & de Vreese, 2017), and those with a particular emphasis on dehumanizing language (e.g., Hameleers, 2023), helps us to move closer to a normative democratic framework for analyzing such campaign communication. But we lack a cohesive framework to interrogate the democratic—and illiberal—ideals communicated by politicians.

The rise of anti-democratic candidates and politicians poses a challenge to researchers in similar ways that they pose a challenge to journalists, how do we best conceptualize communication that threatens democracy? Returning to the example of Trump’s promise, in his TIME interview, to deport millions of people living in the U.S., this is certainly communication about an issue (immigration), but that conceptualization, though important, fails to capture the anti-democratic nature of this statement. It’s also a populist appeal, rooted in white political identity, with a clear outgroup threat appeal. But none of these alone capture the democratic—and physical—threat represented by this communication.

As Danielle Brown argues in her contribution to Media and January 6th, it’s important that we use precise language to characterize the events of January 6th, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. She argues that “by associating those events with protests, we threaten all legitimate protest activity” (Brown, 2024: 28). So too is the case with our conceptualizations of campaign communication: if we characterize Trump’s statements as issue-based or identity-based, we risk undermining legitimate and democratic issue-based or identity-based appeals.


Like journalists and researchers, social media platforms must also play a key role in placing democratic bounds around political communication, and speech about elections in particular. A U.S. working group recently issued a report calling on platforms to develop a framework to assess—and swiftly act on— “threats to the peaceful conduct of elections and the holding and transfer of power” (Eisenstat, Hendrix & Kreiss, 2024). These include developing and enforcing policies around threats to elections, being transparent about content moderation decisions in this vein, and ending exceptions to content moderation for high-value (read: high-power) users. In 2024, over 50 democracies around the world have had or will have elections. While social media platforms are by no means solely responsible for threats to elections, they are key conduits of communication from elites and between individuals and groups that seek to cast doubt on the integrity of elections, foment violent anti-democratic behavior, and prevent the peaceful transfer of power. One of the things we can do—beyond call on platforms to enact the type of policy recommendations from the working group—is to continue to develop and refine our conceptualizations of the role of technology in political communication within a normative democratic framework.

This also means that we should not, in our own research, assume that the online and digital participation we are so fond of measuring is pro-democratic. As Silvio Waisbord reminds us, “nothing about citizens expressing and organizing online necessarily leads to virtuous outcomes … Citizens may participate to contribute to the public good or to impose their will by force, to promote emancipation and critical reasoning, or to spread hate and violence” (2024: 87; see also Jackson & Kreiss, 2023). The same is true for politicians and other political figures active in campaigns. And we would do well to remember this when we consider the role of technology in campaigns and elections.

Failures in the aforementioned areas raise the specter of AI harms, though not necessarily in the same vein as commentators have wrung their hands about. Artificial intelligence, particularly in the form of large language models like ChatGPT, depends significantly on the data it is fed. Using multiple layers of neural network architecture based on transformers, this training data primarily comes from existing internet and media sources, which often lack a comprehensive democratic framework (Jang & Kreiss, 2024). Consequently, if the input data is skewed or lacks democratic underpinnings, the output from AI will mirror these deficiencies, unable to independently correct or recognize these biases due to its inherent reliance on the given data.

It is critical to focus not just on the integration of AI in electoral processes but on how AI models and their outputs align with or contradict democratic values. The lack of a standard framework for evaluating AI outputs against democratic principles means that these technologies could propagate undemocratic narratives unchecked, affecting the broader political discourse and potentially reinforcing harmful biases. The role of media in covering anti-democratic candidates provides a reflection of the broader challenges AI faces in political communication. AI technologies have the capacity to amplify certain political narratives while suppressing others, significantly influencing public perception and media coverage. A deep understanding of AI’s role and its impact on these processes is crucial for a critical analysis of how media reports on such candidates and their implications for democracy.

The press coverage of elections and campaigns serves as a primary source of training data for AI models like ChatGPT and Claude. This content shapes output. Putting aside the legal and ethical questions around tech companies’ use of news coverage as training data, the ways these AI models are currently trained makes them reflective of the dearth of democratic norms. If the press coverage is biased or fails to adequately address the complexities of democratic processes, the AI’s outputs will likely perpetuate these flaws. This underscores the need for our field—including those focused on campaigns and elections—to conduct audit studies of LLM models.

Several AI models, including ChatGPT, often employ a tactic known as “false balance” when generating responses to political queries (Vincent, 2023). This approach presents issues as being more evenly balanced between opposing viewpoints, even when one side clearly contradicts democratic principles. Integrating a democracy-framed election coverage framework could provide a systematic method to assess and guide AI outputs, benefiting researchers, journalists, and the public. Additionally, recognizing the potential harms perpetuated by AI models that prioritize Silicon Valley’s capitalist logics over democratic values is crucial. This recognition underscores the urgent need for a normative framework tailored to uphold and reinforce democratic standards in a new political landscape where we will see AI-generated content in both elections and campaigns.


Taken together, we argue that as we adopt new approaches to studying elections and campaigns, we must center normative democratic commitments. This essay underscores the necessity for a democracy-centered approach in studying elections and campaigns—how they are covered by the press, how they are conducted by campaigns, the role of technology and social media, and how we should assess AI technology governance. It is evident that without a clear normative framework that centers democratic principles, the press, campaign communication, and technology can inadvertently or deliberately influence electoral outcomes and public perceptions in ways that may not align with the ideals of a fair and transparent democratic process. A continuous and rigorous assessment of how journalism, campaigns, and technology serve or hinder democratic health is crucial.




Aalberg, T., Esser, F., Reinemann, C., Strömbäck, J., & Vreese, C. H. (Eds.). (2017). Populist political communication in Europe.

Blanco, A. Wolfe, D., & Gardner, A. (2022). Tracking Which 2020 Election Deniers Are Winning, Losing in the Midterms. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/interactive/2022/election-deniers-midterms/

Brown, D. K. (2024). What January 6th Was Not. In Media and January 6th. Eds: Costley White, K., Kreiss, D., McGregor, S.C., & Tromble, R. Oxford University Press.

Eisenstat, Y., Hendrix, J. & Kreiss, D. (2024). Preventing Tech-fueled Violence: What online platforms can do to ensure they do not contribute to election-related violence. The Bulletin of Technology & Public Life. https://doi.org/10.21428/bfcb0bff.eeb0a669

Hameleers, M. (2023). Debasing Language Expressed by Two Radical Right-Wing Populist Leaders in the Netherlands: Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet. In Debasing Political Rhetoric: Dissing Opponents, Journalists, and Minorities in Populist Leadership Communication (pp. 55-71). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.

Hellmeier, S. et al. (2021). State of the World 2020: Autocratization Turns Viral. Democratization 28(6): 1053–74.

Jackson, S. J., & Kreiss, D. (2023). Recentering power: conceptualizing counterpublics and defensive publics. Communication Theory33(2-3), 102-111.

Jang, H., & Kreiss, D. (2024). Safeguarding the Peaceful Transfer of Power: Pro-Democracy Electoral Frames and Journalist Coverage of Election Deniers During the 2022 US Midterm Elections. The International Journal of Press/Politics.

Kreiss, D., Lawrence, R. G., & McGregor, S. C. (2020). Political Identity Ownership: Symbolic Contests to Represent Members of the Public. Social Media+ Society, 6(2).

Peterson, E., McGregor, S.C., & Block, R. (2023). Election Denial as a News Coverage Dilemma: A Survey Experiment with Local Journalists. (Presented to the Political Communication Section, annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Los Angeles, CA).

Vincent, J. (February 17, 2023). As conservatives criticize ‘woke AI,’ here are ChatGPT’s rules for answering culture war queries. The Verge. Retrieved from: https://www.theverge.com/2023/2/17/23603906/openai-chatgpt-woke-criticism-culture-war-rules

Waisbord, S. (2024). Antidemocratic Publics: The January 6th Mob and Digital Organizing. In Media and January 6th. Eds: Costley White, K., Kreiss, D., McGregor, S.C., & Tromble, R. Oxford University Press.



Heesoo Jang is a PhD candidate in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is also a graduate affiliate with the Center for information, Technology, and Public Life. Starting September 2024, she will be an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Shannon C. McGregor (PhD, University of Texas – Austin) is an associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and a principal investigator at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life – both at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


[1] Copyright © 2024 (Heesoo Jang & Shannon C. McGregor). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at https://politicalcommunication.org.



Awardee Interview: Paul Lazarsfeld Best Paper Award (2023)

le-ri: Rune Slothuus, Rasmus Skytte, Martin Bisgaard

Award won:

  • Paul Lazarsfeld Best Paper Award for “the best paper on political communication presented at the previous year’s APSA annual meeting or Political Communication pre-conference”.

Name(s) & affiliation:

  • Rune Slothuus, Aarhus University
  • Rasmus Skytte, Aarhus University
  • Martin Bisgaard, Aarhus University

Project title:

  • ”Party Cues Change How Citizens Understand Policy”

Publication reference, link (APA 7th):

  • Interested readers can contact any of the authors to get the latest version of this research.

Tell us something about you/your team and how and why you decided to focus on this research

  • One of the most influential types of political communication are “party cues,” signals about which political party endorses or opposes a public policy. Many studies show that party cues move citizens’ policy opinions. But we wondered if party cues also convey substantive policy information that citizens can use to make sense of the policy itself.

In 280 characters or less, summarize the main takeaway of your project.

  • We find that citizens do use party cues to make sense of policy substance. This occurs because citizens draw on their knowledge about parties’ policy reputations: what the party generally stands for and whom it represents. Depending on the policy reputation of the party sponsor, citizens make distinct inferences about what a policy entails.

What made this project a “polcomm project”?

  • Cues and endorsements are ubiquitous in political news and debates. To anyone who cares about how political communication shapes – and possibly encourages – citizens’ reasoning about policy substance, it is important to know that party cues not only evoke partisan sentiments or mobilize citizens to express allegience to their party’s policies. Rather, party cues also work as a rich information source citizens can use to make sense of policy issues.


What, if anything, would you do differently, if you were to start this project again?

  • We are intrigued by the open-ended responses in our surveys. They are a promising way to study how citizens reason about the political communications they receive. And new text-as-data methods offer new opportunities to analyze such responses. It is challenging, though, in to get respondents to write about their thoughts online surveys. In subsequent work, we will try different ways to better gauge citizens reasoning with open-ended responses.

What other research do you currently see being done in this field and what would you like to see more of in the future?

  • We would like to see more attempts to bridge levels of analysis to understand how citizens’ political behavior interacts with the structure of political institutions and information environments.

What’s next?

  • This paper is part of a larger project (funded by a European Research Council Consolidator Grant to Rune Slothuus) where we study how citizens use political parties to reason about politics. In this project, we work with other colleagues, including Love Christensen, Nic Dias and Davide Morisi, to test how citizens’ policy inferences affect their opinion formation and how citizens respond to more complex information environments, such as when multiple and competing cues are present.




Awardee Interview: Doris A. Graber Outstanding Book Award (2023)

Daniel J. Hopkins

Award won:

  • APSA Doris A. Graber Outstanding Book Award


Name(s) & affiliation:

  • Daniel J. Hopkins


Project title:

  • The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized


Publication reference, link (APA 7th):


Tell us something about you and how and why you decided to focus on this research

  • This project was something I had been thinking about for years. In part, it grew out of a question I had in graduate school: why weren’t more scholars studying American state and local government? So, beginning with the premise that scholarship on the U.S. takes a disproportionate interest in federal politics, I then started to wonder whether scholarship was mirroring a deeper trend in political behavior.


In 280 characters or less, summarize the main takeaway of your project.

  • America has a federalist system but a highly nationalized electorate, an electorate that is focused disproportionately on federal politics. The book documents that nationalization and points to two explanations: the changing media environment and shifts in the political parties.


What made this project a “polcomm project”?

  • One of the key explanations for the nationalization of Americans’ political behavior is the changing news media environment. The book documents that state politics has never gotten extensive coverage from media outlets, but as the American news audience shifts online and away from print newspapers, what little information we used to get about state and local politics has dwindled.


What, if anything, would you do differently, if you were to start this project again? 

  • There’s been great research on this topic since my book, and I frequently find myself thinking, “I wish I thought of that.” The answer is something that I am now working to remedy: I wish I had approached this from a more comparative perspective to begin with. The experiences of countries like Germany and the U.K. can teach us a lot about whether story of nationalization is specific to the U.S.


What other research do you currently see being done in this field and what would you like to see more of in the future?

  • This field has been burgeoning, so it’s hard to summarize briefly. My book focused pretty heavily on state-level politics, so research on what this means for local elections is a great direction for future research. In a multiparty system, the basic measures of nationalization that I use can break down, but there’s been valuable recent work on measuring nationalization. It’s also exciting to see cutting-edge experiments and other research designs that can assess the causal role of changes in the media. It’s harder, though, to assess the causal role of audience preferences.


What’s next? 

  • I hinted at this before, but with Frederik Hjorth and Gall Sigler, I’ve been asking the same questions of about ten countries outside the U.S. While measuring nationalization in multi-party systems presents new challenges, the general story is that most countries haven’t nationalized to the same extent as the U.S. In some cases, the countries have long been nationalized, while in others, even recent changes in media markets haven’t had a nationalizing effect.



Awardee Interview: Thomas E. Patterson Best Dissertation Award (2023)


Jianing Li

Award won:

  • Thomas E. Patterson Best Dissertation Award


Name(s) & affiliation:

  • Jianing Li, University of South Florida


Project title:

  • False Beliefs and “Healthy” Skepticism: Understanding the Multilevel and Enduring Challenges of Misinformation


Publication reference, link (APA 7th):


Tell us something about you and how and why you decided to focus on this research

  • Why do we need another project on misinformation? This dissertation challenges a simplistic, oft-pessimistic story that “people will just believe in misinformation confirming their bias.” The theory of motivated reasoning has been one of the most widely used frameworks in research on misinformation. The mainstay of this research tends to highlight one of the two motivations proposed by the theory – the strong influence of directional motivation (i.e., people are motivated to reach a particular conclusion). It is not surprising that abundant research finds partisanship to be a strong prior stance that serves as a directional force in motivating why people believe in misinformation. This dissertation investigates the boundary conditions for the decades-old story on partisan motivated misinformation processing, revealing conditions where the effects of partisan motivated reasoning are muted or counterbalanced: it highlights the role of local context in anchoring how people consume information and develop misinformed beliefs, and shows a promising pathway of fostering accuracy-motivated skepticism to address misinformation in a contentious political climate.

Summarize the main takeaway of your project:

  • This dissertation is a study about how people make (mis)informed decisions in the contemporary media environment where there are growing concerns over misinformation, structural inequalities, and the power of platforms.
  • Using a mixed-methods approach, this dissertation answers two major questions. First, how do beliefs in misinformation develop as a function of multilevel mechanisms, not only as a result of individual identities and preferences, but also as a result of mass media structures that impose contextual influences beyond individual choices? I show that disparities in local newspaper context across communities uniquely influence people’s beliefs. When living in a community without a local newspaper, people are more likely to form false beliefs about COVID-19 and politics.
  • Second, this dissertation asks: how do we foster “healthy” skepticism that helps citizens address misinformation? I show that not all types of skepticism towards social media misinformation will lead to a better-informed citizenry. I theorize and test two types of skepticism: accuracy- and identity-motivated skepticism. While accuracy-motivated skepticism helps people address misinformation, identity-motivated skepticism has counterproductive effects in political beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.


What made this project a “polcomm project”?

  • This dissertation takes a mixed-methods, multi-level approach to polcomm: it examines how individual-level political identities, media diets, and skepticism, interact with mass media structures and platform policies, and together shape political beliefs. Triangulating among different techniques including a quasi-experiment that integrated community- and individual-level data, computational classification of social media and news texts, scale construction and a panel survey experiment helps me validate research findings and unpack the different layers of dynamics at play in how individuals, communities, the news media, and social media platforms deal with political misinformation.

What, if anything, would you do differently, if you were to start this project again? 

  • The most challenging part of this project was to recruit participants living in “news deserts” and to identify the unique effect of local news context against other confounding contextual effects. “News deserts” differ from non-deserts in many ways including being less populous, lower in education and income, and lower in broadband subscription rates. Given these associated digital and socioeconomic inequalities, a matching algorithm was used to construct a sampling frame of counties with different numbers of local newspapers but otherwise similar in a range of county-level features. This sampling frame was then used to recruit participants, with more resources used to recruit people living in “news deserts.” A series of robustness tests confirmed that local news context has a unique influence beyond individual-level predictors and county-level population, age, income, race, education, broadband subscription, political climate, rurality, and geography.


What other research do you currently see being done in this field and what would you like to see more of in the future?

  • This dissertation raises bigger questions still yet to be answered. First, while most misinformation research focuses on falsehoods spread on the national and global level, research can benefit from paying attention to locally relevant misinformation and misperceptions, the role of local community contexts, and the influence of local actors (local news, local politicians, and local opinion leaders).
  • Further, recognizing that misinformation is a multilevel and enduring problem without a panacea, it is also crucial to continue to reflect on who holds the power of defining and mitigating misinformation, who must be held accountable, in what communities and for whom misinformation is doing disproportionate harm, how to empower citizens to navigate the digital communication landscape, and how misinformation research can contribute to an equitable and just society and a well-functioning democracy.


What’s next? 

  • I build on the concepts of accuracy- and identity-motivated skepticism developed in this dissertation in a collaborative project with a civic engagement organization. In this follow-up study, we use field experiments to develop and test real-world messages about accuracy-motivated skepticism that can be used by media partitioners and educators on the ground to improve people’s ability to detect misinformation.
  • In other ongoing work, I advance the line of work on how misinformation has a disproportionate impact on underserved and marginalized groups, including studying misinformation correction and solidarity-building in face of racialized misinformation against Black and Asian communities.