CEPOL studies how digitalization 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 and social media data to investigate:
1) Echo chambers and polarization in Norwegian politicians' Twitter networks
CEPOL has studied political Twitter networks in Norway, starting from candidates for the parliamentary election in 2017. In two articles, we examined the extent of polarization, ideological homogeneity and echo chambers within these networks. Results show that despite the fact that many participate in likeminded networks, there is also extensive crosscutting contact between networks. In other words, the Norwegian political Twitter sphere displays ideological polarization, but without echo chambers. The degree of ideological polarization varies, and topics linked to the far right, economy and taxes show higher degrees of polarization than other topics.
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. The overarching finding is a mobilizing effect of social media use, but with some caveats.
A study of changes in young people's political attitudes, political participation and use of social media in the period from 2011 to 2018, 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. A study of how membership in Facebook-groups linked to voluntary organizations relates to offline participation in the period 2011-2016, showed that those connected with such groups were more often members of voluntary organizations, and to some extent did more voluntary work. A comparative study of France, the US and the UK yielded similar results, but the strongest relationship was among those who used both social media and websites related to voluntary organizations.
Two different articles examine the association between social media use and political interest and political knowledge respectively. The 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. Nevertheless, the study of political knowledge shows that those who use social media as news source garner less political knowledge than others, and they are less confident in their ability to answer political knowledge questions correctly. These findings indicate that social media use may provide lesser foundations for forming political opinions and act upon them. In other words, such use may be less worth in terms of building democratic currency.
In the study of consequences of politicians’ role in social media, we examined to what extent Facebook enabled stronger links between voters and candidates in the 2019 campaign. We found that Facebook functioned both as network and news source, and was important in tying voters and candidates together. Those who had social media as their most important source of news or who followed politicians on Facebook had a stronger tendency to give preference votes to candidates. In other words, Facebook mobilized for political action.
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 pointing out that 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.