The digitalization of the public sphere may challenge the media's traditional role as gatekeepers and communicators of political information. At the same time, new opportunities open up for politicians to set the agenda and for a different type of communication between elected representatives and voters. CEPOL studies how digititalization affects representative, deliberative and participatory democracy by examining Norwegian politicians' networks in social media, and their opportunities to set agendas and shape messages to citizens. We also study how citizens' use of political information has changed over time, and how this is related to participation in debate and in political activities.
CEPOL uses surveys, media content data and social media data to investigate:
1) Echo chambers and polarization in Norwegian politicians' Twitter networks
CEPOL has harvested, prepared and analysed a data set from Twitter, to study political networks related to candidates for the parliamentary election in 2017. This data makes it possible to map networks of friends/followers, as well as activities in the form of tweets, tagging and questions and answers. Bernard Enjolras and Andrew Salway have examined the extent of polarization, ideological homogeneity and echo chambers within these networks and results show that despite the fact that many participate in likeminded networks, there is also extensive crosscutting contact between networks. They thus conclude that the Norwegian political Twitter sphere is characterized by ideological polarization, but without echo chambers.
2) Politicians' power to set agendas and shape messages through social media
Based on a survey of politicians, journalists and citizens, CEPOL studies how these three central groups view power relationships in the digital public sphere. Results show that all three groups believe that traditional media hold somewhat more agenda-setting power than politicians do, but there is large in-group variation. Opinions on the agenda-setting power of social media and on politicians’ use of social media for engaging with news plays a role in the assessment.
3) The impact of social media on democratic participation among Norwegian citizens
CEPOL has carried out various studies of the relationship between political use of social media and democratic participation. In the chapter «News, social networks and local political orientation in local election campaigns» Karlsen and Steen-Johnsen (2021) found that social media contributes to stronger ties between voters and candidates in the election campaign, through their function as source of news and through creating networks. Moreover, social media contribute to mobilizing political action: those who have social media as their most important source of news or who follow politicians on Facebook have a stronger tendency to give preference votes to candidates.
A chapter on changes in young people's political attitudes, political participation and use of social media in the period from 2011 to 2018 (Bergh, Steen-Johnsen & Ødegård, 2021), found that young people participate to a greater extent in political activism online than older age groups, and that general political participation and mobilization increases among the youngest. Social media play a significant role in mobilizing to democratic participation.
Two different articles examine the association between social media use and political knowledge and political interest respectively. Results show that those who use social media as news source are left with less political knowledge than others, but they also are less confidence in their ability to answer political knowledge questions correctly. A study of political interest shows that discussing and expressing political views can lead to increased political interest, especially among youth, but also among older age groups. This seems to be valid across online and offline contexts.
4) Democratic consequences of the digitalization of the public sphere
CEPOL aims to create theoretical understandings of how digitalization affects different aspects of democracy. Enjolras and Steen-Johnsen present a theoretical and empirical argument for how digitalization has created a paradoxical situation, where some aspects of democratic participation and mobilization have been strengthened, while systems of representation, trust, legitimacy and trustworthy information have come under pressure. Different aspects of democracy are thus affected in different ways.
Digitalization challenges the traditional role of mass media as gatekeepers and distributors of political information in the public sphere. Thus new opportunities open up for politicians to set the agenda and communicate with voters.
The CEPOL project will study the implications of this development for representative, deliberative and participatory democracy by studying politicians' agenda setting and framing powers vis-a-vis citizens on the one hand, and citizens' use of this type of political information on the other. Digitalization can be positive for representative democracy, by enabling effective dissemination of political information and direct communication between politicians and citizens. But it can also give politicians excessive power vis-à-vis their voters. For deliberative democracy a main question is whether increased media power of politicians leads to an open and pluralistic public sphere, or whether it leads to polarization and the formation of echo chambers and ideological clusters. For participative democracy, a core issue is whether digitalization leads to more civic and political participation, across social groups, and what role political information emanating from politicians play in this context.
Making use of a combined longitudinal and experimental approach, and based on both survey data, media content data, and social media data, CEPOL will examine 1) The structure of Norwegian politicians' media audiences 2) The agenda-setting and framing power of politicians in social media; and 3) Changes in political media use and consequences for democratic participation among Norwegian citizens from 2011 to 2018. A specific work package uses findings from the empirical studies as basis for a normative discussion of the implications of the new media power of politicians to representative, deliberative and participatory democracy.