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Channels and Political Communication

The Political Impact of Communication Channels

How do channels affect the content of political communication? The recent success of right-wing politicians on TikTok shows: Political communication is a rapidly changing field where new digital channels are constantly being used to reach different audiences. Today, the competition between parties takes place simultaneously on several channels with different characteristics.

In a recently published study, WZB researcher Christoph Ivanusch found that political parties send different signals in different places. This depends on the nature and characteristics of the channels and means of communication. He used the language model BERT to examine 41,000 parliamentary speeches, 34,000 press releases, around 72,000 tweets from party accounts, and more than 420,000 tweets from individual party members in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland between January 2019 and September 2021.

In his article, the researcher analyzes which channel characteristics influence the extent to which parties address their “ideal agenda” or deviate from it. A party's “ideal agenda” is the preferred level of attention the party gives to an issue or policy area. It thus reflects the issue preferences of parties and is usually derived from the parties' election manifestos.

Channel characteristics are categorized according to three criteria: the channel's primary audience, the degree of centralization, and the degree of pre-structuredness. The category in relation to the primary audience distinguishes whether the channel is aimed directly at the general public, such as Twitter/X, or at an intermediary audience, such as press releases for journalists. The degree of centralization distinguishes centralized channels, where messages are coordinated with the party leadership, and non-centralized channels, where individuals largely communicate on their own. The degree of pre-structuredness differentiates whether the agenda of the communication in the channel is predetermined or not, as in the case of parliamentary speeches that have to be held on a specific debate topic.

The degree of centralization and the degree of pre-structuredness of the channel are decisive in relation to party communication.

Decentralized communication (e.g. tweets by individual party members) does not simply amplify central party messages. Decentralized communication and the associated lack of control by party leadership makes it more difficult to adhere to a party's “ideal agenda”. In addition, decentralized communication as a strategy can also create incentives for parties and their members to send divergent political signals in order to win over certain target groups.

The study also shows that the pre-structuredness of a channel or means of communication has a negative impact on the ability of parties to communicate according to the “ideal agenda”. Although parties are able to send political signals through pre-structured channels such as parliamentary speeches, this is rather limited compared to other channels. For opposition and niche parties, this limiting factor is much stronger than for government and mainstream parties.

The results illustrate the complexity of party competition in modern media environments. They show that multiple political agendas exist in parallel and can even originate from the same actor. Different social groups have different preferences. This circumstance can lead parties to adapt their agenda to different channels in order to increase their (electoral) appeal. Christoph Ivanusch emphasizes the need for research to focus more on the heterogeneity of political agendas and their effects in political systems.