Do Not Blame the Media! The Role of Politicians and Parties in Fragmenting Online Political Debate

Paper published in The International Journal of Press/Politics

In this paper, we compare how news media and political actors contribute to the fragmentation of online political debate based on the analysis of almost half a million election-related tweets collected during the 2017 French, German, and U.K. national elections. Across the three countries with different political and media systems, we find news media are by far the most important actors in terms of creating and maintaining a common space of online political debate on Twitter.

Abstract: Democratic politics builds on both clear differences and shared common ground. While the rise of digital media may have enabled more differences to be articulated, common ground is often seen as threatened by fragmentation of political debate, which some see as driven by news media. The relative importance of political actors (parties and politicians) in driving fragmentation has received less attention. In this paper, we compare how news media and political actors contribute to the fragmentation of online political debate on the basis of analysis of almost half a million election-related tweets collected during the 2017 French, German, and U.K. national elections. We employ a structural topic model to reduce online political debate to networks of topic overlap. Across the three countries with different political and media systems, we find news media are by far the most important actors in terms of creating and maintaining a common space of online political debate on Twitter. Our results also show that political actors, with some variation from country to country, contribute more to fragmentation as they focus on different topics while articulating clear differences. These findings underline the importance of complementing structural analysis of the rise of digital and social media with analysis of how important elite actors like news media and political parties/candidates use these media in different ways. Overall, we show how at least on Twitter, across three different countries with different media systems and political systems, news media create connection that contributes to commonality while political actors lay out clear differences that drive fragmentation.

Full authors: Raphael Heiberger, Silvia Majó-Vázquez, Laia Castro Herrero, Rasmus K. Nielsen, Frank Esser