Social media platforms (SMPs) influence the communication of virtually all stakeholders in democratic politics. Politicians and parties campaign through SMPs, media organizations use them to distribute political news, and many citizens read, share, and debate political issues across multiple social media accounts. When assessing the political implications of these practices, scholars have traditionally focused on the commonalities of SMPs, rather than their differences. The implications of this oversight are both theoretical and methodological. Theoretically, scholars lack an overarching conceptual framework to inform cross-platform research designs. As a result, the operationalization of social media variables across platforms is often inconsistent and incomparable, limiting the attribution of platform-specific effects.
This dissertation therefore contributes to the study of digital media and politics by developing a cross-platform theory of platforms’ digital architectures. Digital architectures are defined as the collective suite of technical protocols that enable, constrain, and shape user behavior in a virtual space. The dissertation’s central argument is that the digital architectures of SMPs mediate how users enact political processes through them. Focusing on politicians’ campaigning and citizens’ political participation during elections, I show how political communication processes manifest differently across platforms in ways that can be attributed to their digital architectures. Moreover, I demonstrate how both politicians and citizens manipulate the digital architectures of platforms to further their political agendas during elections.
To mount these arguments, the dissertation adopts a highly conceptual, exploratory, and interdisciplinary approach. Its main theoretical contribution, the digital architectures framework, brings together fragments from literatures spanning archeology, design theory, media studies, political communication, political science, social movements, and software engineering. Methodologically, the study combines qualitative and quantitative methods to address the research questions of four individual research articles (Chapters 4-7). These studies have been published in Information, Communication & Society; Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly; Language and Politics; and a book chapter in Social Media and European Politics (Palgrave). The main empirical cases included in the dissertation are the 2015 British General Election, the 2016 Brexit Referendum, and the 2016 U.S Presidential Election.
The structure of the dissertation is as follows. Chapter 1 introduces the dissertation’s overarching research questions and design. Chapter 2 situates the digital architectures framework within the existing literature by critiquing existing theoretical approaches to social media and political participation. Chapter 3 outlines the main challenges in studying participation on social media, as well as summarizes the dissertation’s methodological approach. Chapter 4 then presents the digital architectures framework through a systematic, cross-platform comparison of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. In this chapter, I illustrate how the digital architectures of these SMPs shaped how American politicians used them for political campaigning in the 2016 U.S. election.
Shifting focus from politics to citizens, Chapter 5 examines how the digital architectures of social media influence citizens’ political participation. Chapter 5 characterizes the various styles and degrees of political participation through SMPs, and it shows how the architectures of Twitter and Facebook lead to different manifestations of online participation in the context of European politics.
Building on the Chapter 5’s conceptual work, Chapters 6 and 7 use digital trace data to empirically investigate citizens’ participation on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Chapter 6 offers a new theory of online political participation by conceptualizing it as a process, rather than as an activity. Chapter 6 develops a typology of political participation and applies it to citizens’ use of Twitter in the 2015 British General Election. We find that a small number of highly active citizens dominate the political discussion on Twitter, and these citizens tend to promote right-wing, nationalist positions.
Chapter 7 finds similar patterns in citizens’ political participation on Facebook during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Using metadata to chart the commenting patterns of citizens across media and political Facebook pages, Chapter 7 reveals that Leave supporters were much more active in political commentary than Remain supporters. However, this phenomenon is, again, due to a small number of active citizens promoting right-wing, nationalist positions. Few citizens commented on both media and campaign Facebook pages during the referendum, but those who did commented on the media first. This finding, together with the observation that political commentary overwhelmingly took place on media pages, supports the notion that the mainstream media maintain their agenda-setting role on SMPs.
Lastly, Chapter 8 argues that different digital architectures afford varying degrees of publicness, which in turn affects how political participation is actualized across platforms. This chapter, and the thesis, concludes with a discussion of why the digital architectures of social media are critical to consider when assessing social media’s impact on democracy.