What's new?

Read Blog

New publication: Disinformation and the Structural Transformations of the Public Arena

New journal article with Ralph Schroeder in Social Media + Society on “Disinformation and the Structural Transformations of the Public Arena: Addressing the Actual Challenges to Democracy”.

Empirical studies consistently show that disinformation on digital media is best understood as a marginal phenomenon regarding reach and causal effects. See for example this instructive Twitter-thread by Hugo Mercier.

Why then does disinformation feature so strongly in the public imagination? We argue that this is a moral panic driven by pervasive but ill-understood transformations of the public arena. Unfocused fears converge on digital deviances du jour but miss underlying transformative shifts.

Focus on disinformation as a digital phenomenon endangering democracy mistakes contemporary conflicts in Western democracies for problems of information quality instead of resulting from deep underlying tensions.

In our article, we instead focus on structural transformations of the public arena and their consequences for democracy:

1. The structural weakening of gatekeepers of the public arena means that elites and publics have come to grip with an open and unruly public arena without following the temptation to automatically delegitimize challenges to the political status quo. At the same time, this raises the importance to establish and continuously maintain the legitimacy and economic basis of institutions democracies rest on in the face of mounting public challenges

2. US-based platforms are important institutions shaping the flow of political information, discourse, and contestation in many Western democracies. As a consequence, they have to accept greater degrees of scrutiny and regulation by international actors while providing greater transparency regarding access, amplification, and moderation of information flows.

3. Digital media also increase the mutual tethering of political elites and publics. Elites try to understand publics through their digital traces. At the same time, their presences of digital media make them visible and reachable for publics. This mutual tethering introduces new biases in the perception of elites and publics that might contribute to polarization or sense of political disconnect and crisis.

4. Finally, in a high-choice media environment, citizens must take on more responsibility for being well-informed, seeking out reliable and diverse sources of information, and supporting a diverse and critical public arena as a means of active political participation.

These structural shifts begin to feature in research but are far from comprehensively understood or discussed in public. But without understanding these processes and their consequences better, we will not be able to address the structural challenges to democracies.

More on how to do this is coming up in autumn, when Ralph and I address these questions in greater detail in a new book Digital Transformations of the Public Arena upcoming with Cambridge University Press.

Until then have a look at the abstract or check out the article.

Abstract: Current debate is dominated by fears of the threats of digital technology for democracy. One typical example is the perceived threats of malicious actors promoting disinformation through digital channels to sow confusion and exacerbate political divisions. The prominence of the threat of digital disinformation in the public imagination, however, is not supported by empirical findings which instead indicate that disinformation is a limited problem with limited reach among the public. Its prominence in public discourse is instead best understood as a “moral panic.” In this article, we argue that we should shift attention from these evocative but empirically marginal phenomena of deviance connected with digital media toward the structural transformations that give rise to these fears, namely those that have impacted information flows and attention allocation in the public arena. This account centers on structural transformations of the public arena and associated new challenges, especially in relation to gatekeepers, old and new. How the public arena serves actually existing democracy will not be addressed by focusing on disinformation, but rather by addressing structural transformations and the new challenges that arise from these.

Andreas Jungherr and Ralph Schroeder. 2021. Disinformation and the Structural Transformations of the Public Arena: Addressing the Actual Challenges to Democracy. Social Media + Society 7(1): 1-13. doi:10.1177/2056305121988928

New podcast with Gonzalo Rivero and Daniel Gayo-Avello on “Retooling Politics”

For “Comunicación & Política” the podcast of the Spanish Asociación de Comunicación Política (ACOP) Gonzalo Rivero and Daniel Gayo-Avello speak with by Paco Seoane Pérez about our book “Retooling Politics“. If you speak Spanish, make sure to have a listen.

Show Notes: Gonzalo Rivero (Westat) y Daniel Gayo-Avello (Universidad de Oviedo) son dos de los tres co-autores del libro ‘Retooling politics: How digital media are shaping democracy’ (Cambridge University Press, 2020). En esta entrevista reflexionan en voz alta sobre cómo ha cambiado la política desde el advenimiento de la era digital. La co-directora de la revista de ACOP, Verónica Crespo, repasa los contenidos de la publicación en su edición del mes de noviembre, que se abre con un artículo sobre política pop.

Syllabus: Gesellschaftliche Kommunikation und Öffentlichkeit

Dieses Wintersemester unterrichte ich an der Universität Jena ein Master-Seminar zu den Effekten digitaler Medien in Kommunikation und Öffentlichkeiten.

Kursbeschreibung: Das Modul gibt einen vertieften Einblick in die Geschichte, Begriffe, Theorien und Methoden an der Schnittstelle zwischen digitaler Kommunikation gesellschaftlicher Kommunikation und Öffentlichkeit. Hierbei werden technisches Design, menschliche Nutzungsmuster und wechselseitiger Einfluss von digitaler Kommunikation, Öffentlichkeiten und Gesellschaft in Hinblick auf ihre Auswirkung auf Politik und gesellschaftliche Kommunikation diskutiert. Entsprechende Themen werden vor dem Hintergrund aktueller, internationaler Fallbeispiele verdeutlicht.

  • [Syllabus]
  • “Retooling Politics” internationally available!

    Finally, “Retooling Politics: How Digital Media Are Shaping Democracy” is also available internationally!

    In Retooling Politics Gonzalo Rivero, Daniel Gayo-Avello, and I examine how digital media impact politics. We offer alternatives to accounts that claim digital media fundamentally transform political power and those that consider politics completely untouched by digital media

    We do not focus on digital media’s supposed effects – transformation, revolution, ineffectiveness, or democratic decline. Instead, we present the impact of digital media on six areas and tasks.

    Digital media are changing the structure of information spaces. Gatekeepers are weakened and established business models for news media are damaged. This changes availability and flows of political information as well as the possibilities for and actions of political actors.

    Digital media are changing the ways in which political actors reach people. Indirect reach via traditional media and partners is weakened but supplemented by new intermediaries – such as digital platforms – and direct reach by political actors.

    Digital media have effects on recipients. However, these are rather small and depend on usage motives and contexts. Yet, only by taking these into account we can develop a broader understanding of contemporary media effects.

    Digital media make it easier for people to coordinate. This explains their important role in protests, social movements and newly formed parties. However, this presupposes an already existing willingness to cooperate. In this, the contribution of digital media is limited.

    Success for outsiders in coordination and communication via digital media has weakened traditional organizations. Organizations, however, remain important for articulating and realizing political interests. Not least since digital alternatives show a high degree of fragility.

    Data help political actors in the pursuit of their goals. Be it in campaigning or controlling populations, data is important and helpful. But is everything that counts actually measured and does everything that is measured actually count?

    In all these fields, digital media are changing everyday politics decisively. However, this does not mean that all political power structures are suddenly turned upside down or that everyone suddenly becomes politically involved.

    Filling democracy with live and opening it to new voices is just as difficult today as it was in the past. Digital media do not change the way politics is done. As a result, extreme expectations of both optimists and pessimists will not materialize.

    While optimists expect democracy to be strengthened through greater participation, pessimists assume that it is weakened through manipulation and social division. Here, some seem to expect too much from citizens and others too little.

    We discuss all of this and much more in our book. This goes for echo chambers, filter bubbles, microtargeting, Cambridge Analytica, Obama, Trump, and Brexit.

    Anyone interested but not quite ready to commit to a book, have a listen to the Social Media and Politics Podcast where Michael Bossetta and I discuss the book, digital campaigning, data-driven politics, and do our best to bust some myths.

    Given the current Covid-situation, we unfortunately won’t be able to personally present the book at a venue near you. But we are of course happy to join you for remote talks or in courses with topical relevance.

    Retooling Politics on the Social Media and Politics Podcast

    Michael Bossetta was kind enough to invite me on this podcast Social Media and Politics to chat about Retooling Politics: How Digital Media are Shaping Democracy. We cover the book, Gonzalo’s, Daniel’s and my motivations for writing it, and bust some favorite myths on the role of digital media in politics. So if this sounds like your thing, why not give it a listen.

    And once you are at it, make sure to check out previous episodes. Michael has been at it for a while and collected a set of veritable treasures for anyone interested in digital media in politics.

    “Retooling Politics” seit heute in Deutschland verfügbar!

    Seit heute ist “Retooling Politics: How Digital Media Are Shaping Democracy” in Deutschland verfügbar!

    In Retooling Politics zeigen Gonzalo Rivero, Daniel Gayo-Avello und ich wie digitale Medien Politik verändern. Dabei bieten wir Alternativen zu Darstellungen, die digitalen Medien zwangsläufig transformativen Einfluss auf Politik und politische Macht zuschreiben und solchen, die digitale Medien für wirkungslos halten.

    Wir diskutieren die Rolle von digitalen Medien in Politik nicht von ihrem vermuteten Effekt her – Transformation, Revolution, Niedergang oder Wirkungslosigkeit – sondern von Veränderungen in 6 Arten wie Politik praktisch gelebt wird.

    Digitale Medien verändern die Struktur von Informationsräumen. Gatekeeper sind geschwächt und etablierte Geschäftsmodelle für Nachrichtenmedien beschädigt. Dies verändert die Verfügbarkeit und den Fluss pol Informationen sowie Möglichkeiten und Handeln von politischen Akteuren.

    Digitale Medien verändern Wege auf denen politische Akteure Menschen erreichen. Indirekter Reach über traditionelle Medien und Partner wird geschwächt aber ergänzt durch neue Vermittler – wie z.B. digitale Plattformen – und direkten Reach über eigene Angebote.

    Digitale Medien haben Effekte auf Empfänger. Diese sind jedoch eher klein und abhängig von Voreinstellungen und Nutzungskontexten. Dennoch müssen spezifische Kommunikationsbedingungen berücksichtigt werden. Dies kann zu einem erweiterten Verständnis von Medienwirkung führen.

    Digitale Medien erleichtern die Koordination von Menschen. Das erklärt ihre wichtige Rolle in Protesten, sozialen Bewegungen und neugegründeten Parteien. Allerding setzt dies bereits bestehenden Willen zur Kooperation voraus. Hier ist die Rolle digitaler Medien begrenzt.

    Erfolge in Koordination und Kommunikation über digitale Medien haben traditionelle Organisationen geschwächt. Organisationen bleiben jedoch weiterhin wichtig für die Artikulation und Realisierung politischer Interessen. Gleichzeitig zeigen digitale Alternativen hohe Fragilität.

    Datenbasierte Verfahren helfen pol Akteuren in der Verfolgung Ihrer Ziele. Sei es in der Kampagnenführung oder der Kontrolle von Bevölkerungen, Daten sind wichtig und hilfreich. Aber wird alles was zählt tatsächlich gemessen bzw. zählt alles was gemessen wird tatsächlich?

    Mit all diesen Entwicklungen verändern digitale Medien den alltäglichen Politikbetrieb entscheidend. Das heiß jedoch nicht, dass plötzlich alle politischen Machtstrukturen auf den Kopf gestellt werden oder dass sich jede und jeder plötzlich politisch einbringt.

    Demokratie lebendig und offen zu gestalten, ist heute genauso schwierig wie früher. Digitale Medien verändern die Ausübung von Politik nicht ihre Grundbedingungen. Dies führt dazu, dass extreme Erwartungen sowohl von Optimisten als auch Pessimisten nicht eintreffen werden.

    Während Optimisten eine Stärkung von Demokratie durch mehr Beteiligung erwarteten, gehen Pessimisten von einer Schwächung durch Manipulation und gesellschaftlicher Spaltung aus. Die einen erwarten scheinbar zu viel von Bürgerinnen und Bürgern und die anderen zu wenig.

    Das alles und noch viel mehr diskutieren wir in unserem Buch. Das gilt z.B. auch für Echo-Kammern, Filterblasen, Microtargeting, Cambridge Analytica, Obama, Trump und Brexit.

    Syllabus: Discursive Power

    This summer, I will teach a course on “Discursive Power”. The course takes an article that I published last year with Oliver Posegga and Jisun An as a starting point to have students think broadly and systematically about discursive power in society in the context of the changes introduced by digital media.

    Course Description:

    Contemporary societies are in transition. The constellation of organizations, groups, and individuals contributing to national or international information flows has changed as a result of the digital transformation. The “hybrid media system” has proven to be one of the most instructive concepts addressing this change. Its focus on the mutually dependent interconnections between various types of media organizations, actors, and publics has inspired prolific research. Yet the concept can tempt researchers to sidestep systematic analyses of information flows and actors’ differing degrees of influence by treating media systems as a black box. To enable large-scale, empirical comparative studies aimed at identifying interdependencies and power relationships in contemporary information spaces, the concept of discursive power has proven helpful. This describes the ability of contributors to communication spaces to introduce, amplify, and maintain topics, frames, and speakers, thus shaping public discourses and controversies that unfold in interconnected communication spaces. This impacts political competition and provides inputs to the policy process. In the course, we discuss a series of theories to map this process and empirical approaches to analyze its dynamics and determinants.

  • Syllabus