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On social media, some kinds of messages work better than others. Experience shows that one has to adjust to the conditions these platforms provide in order to communicate successfully. In this context, social media are often considered favorable to populist political communication because they privilege direct contact with audiences and simplified messages. This paper sheds light on this issue by broadly asking: What is the relationship between the affordances social media provide and the communicative strategies of political actors in the online world. It proposes using the concept of heuristics to establish this link and to model this relationship. In a theoretically guided and empirically inductive way, it explores specific types of digital heuristics that provide leverage for explaining the communicative practices of political parties in the online world.
The paper proceeds in three steps. First, it sketches the theoretical problem that builds the background of the investigation: a more and more complex communication environment characterized by a plurality of communication platforms as well as a new hybridity of older and newer media logics. Against this background, the effects of political communication have become less and less controllable and/or predictable. The resulting question is: How do political actors orient their communication strategies in this increasingly hybrid, dynamic, and uncertain communication environment.
In the second step, the paper offers an answer to this question: Political actors use specific digital heuristics in order to make strategic decisions in this rapidly changing communication environment. In general, heuristics are used by social actors in situations when full information is either not available or too difficult to process. I define digital heuristics as rules of thumb that are based on assumptions about the algorithmic structure of platforms and the reachable audiences, that guide communicative practices in relation to form, style and content of political messages. Heuristics are experience-based but, at the same time, they also ignore (large parts) of the virtually available information in order to reach fast and potentially frugal strategic decisions. Thus, heuristics promise effective communication even in contexts of insecurity.
In the third step, the paper empirically applies these theoretical considerations. It uses data of interviews with communication managers of German, British and Italian political parties and other material, such as party communication manuals, in order to reconstruct the typical digital heuristics employed by them. Three types of heuristics are systematically identified: a hybridity heuristic recommends blending different spheres (e.g., public – private, online – offline), a populist heuristic privileges certain topics and simplified communication styles, and a corresponding credibility heuristic commanding to protect the party’s identity by not exploiting social media affordances too heavily.
The paper concludes by considering the implications of the results. The empirical utility of the heuristics concept for the digital context is highlighted, along with its potential to address unanswered questions: for instance, about the positive or negative impact of different digital heuristics on the quality of the democratic discourse. Next steps for further exploring and empirically testing the assumptions developed in the paper are also discussed.