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Can Political Parties Still Set the Agenda?

Sat, August 31, 4:00 to 5:30pm, Hilton, Columbia 11

Abstract

The starting point for understanding the nature of information flows from media to the public remains Katz and Lazarsfeld's two-step model, in which they argued that media messages flow to 'opinion leaders' who then disseminate those messages to like-minded networks among the broader public. In agenda setting research, much like the two-step flow, traditional media sources were seen as driving public opinion and an important transmitter of the policy priorities of parties. Although these flow models were subjected to reconsideration after the introduction of the Internet, there is disagreement about precisely how the model should be revised. On the one hand, authors like Bennett and Manheim (2006) argue that the fragmentation of audiences, as well as other societal changes in terms of group identities, warrants a 'one-step' model in which media influence is direct. On the other hand, scholars such as Mutz (2011) argue that the two-step model may be more relevant in the current era. In our paper we examine the flows of information and, specifically, the ability of political parties to set the agenda in the age of social media and online news. We draw on a comprehensive set of social media, traditional news, party statements and public opinion from the British General Election studies in 2015 and 2017 to understand these often dynamic and reciprocal relationships.
What happens to these traditional flows with the introduction of social media? There are several possible outcomes. First, social media could potentially dramatically alter the ability of the mainstream media to set the agenda. By providing a means by which parties could directly reach voters or a means by which other opinion influencers could sidestep the traditional media, social media could drastically diminish the agenda setting powers of the traditional media. Secondly, social media becomes just another competitor in the agenda setting process and its ability to set the agenda is conditional on factors that tend to alter the agenda setting powers of all actors such as party competition and audience. Third, the advent of social media could alter the traditional flows of information by privileging the role of public opinion in the agenda setting process such that there is a reverse flow of information. In other words, informal networks that emerge through social media may have the power to push issues onto the political agenda, and thus influence public policy.
In order to examine these relationships, we collected all articles from 17 national and regional newspapers in England, Scotland, and Wales during the long campaigns in 2015 and 2017. To assess the information content of television and radio (i.e., Radio 4) during the election period, we monitored national news coverage on the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV, and Sky News over the same periods. We take the Twitter activity of party candidates to represent the salience of issues for candidates during the campaign. The Twitter timelines of all the candidates competing in the UK general elections who had a Twitter account – approx. 2400 out of 3629 candidates - were collected using the Twitter REST API. We use the daily rolling cross-section of the British Election Studies 2015 and 2017 to measure public opinion on the most important issues.
Bennett, W. L., & Manheim, J. B. (2006). The one-step flow of communication. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 608(1), 213–232.
Mutz, D. C., & Young, L. (2011). Communication and Public Opinion Plus Ça Change? Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(5), 1018–1044. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfr052

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