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Tweets from the Campaign Trail

Researching Candidates’ Use of Twitter During the European Parliamentary Elections


Edited By Alex Frame, Arnaud Mercier, Gilles Brachotte and Caja Thimm

Hailed by many as a game-changer in political communication, Twitter has made its way into election campaigns all around the world. The European Parliamentary elections, taking place simultaneously in 28 countries, give us a unique comparative vision of the way the tool is used by candidates in different national contexts. This volume is the fruit of a research project bringing together scholars from 6 countries, specialised in communication science, media studies, linguistics and computer science. It seeks to characterise the way Twitter was used during the 2014 European election campaign, providing insights into communication styles and strategies observed in different languages and outlining methodological solutions for collecting and analysing political tweets in an electoral context.

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General Introduction (Frame, Alex / Mercier, Arnaud / Brachotte, Gilles / Thimm, Caja)

Alex Frame, Arnaud Mercier, Gilles Brachotte & Caja Thimm

General Introduction

In the course of the past six to eight years, Twitter has rapidly imposed itself as one of the major digital PR tools used by politicians in many countries around the world, and in several cases, politicians and journalists have been early adopters (Grant, Moon, & Busby Grant, 2010). Much research carried out into the kinds of information tweeted by politicians, in various countries, suggests that the tool is often used by politicians principally for self-promotion, especially during electoral periods, in the traditional top-down style of political communication (Grant et al., 2010; Larsson & Kalsnes, 2014). As such, Twitter provides new impetus to the personalization of politics especially as its design, affordances and network structure allow politicians to “expand the political arena for increased personalized campaigning” (Enli & Skogerbø, 2013: 758). One reason for politicians’ self-presentation practices on Twitter is that of ‘easy marketing’: Especially during election times, candidates who have a Twitter presence are more likely to post their own messages rather than relying on a “well-resourced media staff” (Bruns & Highfield, 2013: 669). In the context of local campaigns, social media can also be used to promote the action of militants and to recruit new ones. The candidate congratulates them publicly, often by retweeting their messages and pictures (Mercier, 2015). In addition, Twitter’s functionality as a dynamic information distribution tool offers politicians the possibility to cross-promote and shape their online-identities, for example by linking to their personal blogs, Facebook pages or an online-newspaper article about them (Enli & Skogerbø, 2013).

Twitter’s information and networking function, which make political (self-)marketing opportune, is also seen as a key factor for politicians when interacting with others – especially on the institutional level. Strategic exchange with journalists, bloggers or fellow politicians is a central practice of politicians’ Twitter activity during election times (Nuernbergk & Conrad, 2016; Thimm, Anastasiadis, Bürger & Einspänner, 2014). In this context, several studies raise the concern that Twitter develops into an exclusive medium, which is–against the hopes of “e-democracy-enthusiasts”–mainly used among a well informed and well educated online-elite (Grant et al., 2010; Block, 2013; Ekman & Widholm, 2015) and thus reflects power inequalities known from the pre-internet era (Gerhards & Schäfer, 2010; Carpentier, 2012). However, while networks between “informed elites” like politicians and journalists on Twitter can be described as close, they are “not←7 | 8→ closed” (Verweij, 2012: 690): On the one hand, the Twitter public sphere seems to be dominated by the politically interested and engaged but on the other hand, “its influence extends far beyond” (Grant et al., 2010: 599). This means that one has to take into account the role of the passive participants on Twitter, so-called lurkers, who may not actively tweet or retweet but who read along and gather information relevant for their own deliberative processes. Yet Twitter research in this area still is an intention (e.g., Bechmann & Lomborg, 2013; Himmelboim, McCreery & Smith, 2013), as mapping and profiling “passive” audiences on social media is a difficult task. Moreover, between political elites and the passive audience, there is a category of Twitter users for whom the network is a tool for unconventional political participation. Derision towards the rulers and political forces, media criticism and the development of more participatory forms of engagement, are all ways of using Twitter as a counter public sphere (Mercier, 2016), and which often appear problematic to politicians and their staff.

Therefore, the focus of current political Twitter research is on the detectable, like structures and practices of politicians’ and users’ interaction. A central question in fact is that of Twitter as a more direct platform for dialogical communication between politicians and their voters; thus it is a question of Twitter’s potential as a tool for digital democracy. While politicians themselves often claim (or report an idealistic motivation) to use social media like Twitter for connecting with voters and discuss politics with them, studies show that they actually seldom manage to interact with them in practice (Enli & Skogerbø, 2013, Frame & Brachotte (eds), 2015, Thimm et al., 2016). Twitter has, up until now, only rarely been used by politicians to exchange information, debate or give insights into political processes (Golbeck, Grimes, & Rogers, 2010; Lawless, 2012; Vergeer & Hermans, 2013). However, some authors have found evidence of differing styles of Twitter use among politicians, depending on their personal profile (Dang-Anh, Einspänner, & Thimm, 2012; Thimm et al. 2016; Jackson & Lilleker, 2011; Sæbø, 2011) and others have proposed evidence of maturing patterns of usage (Frame & Brachotte, 2013; Grant et al., 2010), cross-media usage (Mercier, 2013) and of the influence of a small political elite within a national Twittersphere (Ausserhofer & Maireder, 2013; Grant et al., 2010).

All in all, the mediatization of politics (Block, 2013; Esser & Strömbäck, 2014; Thimm, Dang-Anh & Einspänner, 2014) and the underlying developments like politicians’ ubiquitous media presence, the high availability of political information and the various possibilities for “micro-participation” online might suggest an overall better accessibility of and interest in politics. However, when looked at the facts that testify “real political participation”, i.e., voter turnout, the low←8 | 9→ numbers in some western societies prove otherwise (Franklin, 2004; Blais, 2006). Reasons for increasing or decreasing voter turnout over time in various countries are mainly due to different variables like the respective voting system, voting age and rules (Franklin, 2004). While those institutional variables are set, much focus nowadays is on the practical question of how to mobilize voters and increase voter turnout – in short: on candidates’ campaigning efforts. The importance of a sophisticated campaigning strategy especially becomes visible in the US presidential elections, where candidates (and their campaign teams) virtuously employ all sorts of online and offline media in order to mobilize their voters (Burton, Miller & Shea, 2015; Benoit, 2016).

The European parliamentary elections can be considered a particular challenge for political candidates (Maarek, 2012), as EU elections in general attract less attention among media and citizens than national elections (De Vreese, Banducci, Semetko, & Boomgaarden, 2006). In 2009, overall voter turnout averaged a mere 43 % of over 375 million eligible European citizens. The 2014 EU elections even had the lowest voter turnout on record with 42.5 % ( although it has been the largest election for the European Parliament that has ever been held with over 12,000 candidates from almost 450 parties from 28 member states (Treib, 2014). In the absence of a clearly distinguishable European public sphere (Dacheux 2003; De Wilde, Michailidou & Trenz, 2014), getting citizens to discuss European issues, rather than domestic ones, often appears a particularly delicate task. Tendencies of fragmentation became especially vivid in the run-up to the 2014 elections, where many anti-European voices made themselves heard. While Eurosceptic parties won seats in the Parliament in 23 out of the 28 member states, however, it has to be distinguished between “hard and soft Euroscepticism” (Treib, 2014: 1543): The former rejects the whole idea of the European Union in principle, the latter accept the idea of the EU project but oppose specific policies of the EU. Eurosceptic parties are found within the whole political spectrum–from the radical left and centrist to moderate right and radical right (Treib, 2014).

The use of social media and Twitter in particular has been an important asset during the European elections for all candidates, but especially for Eurosceptic parties. A study of over 1.2 million tweets sent in English, French, and German during the EU elections 2014 suggests that national parties “with an explicitly anti-EU or anti-Euro platform generated the most attention” (Pew Research Center, 2014). When looking at the campaigning strategies of selected candidates from Eurosceptic parties a great networking effort can be observed: Marine Le Pen from the French Front National for example tries to restrict her Twitter followers to party members and supportive voices (Thimm et al., 2016). Also, the German←9 | 10→ Eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) tries a more informative than dialogical way of tweeting (ibid.). Overall, current Twitter research gives the impression of highly diverse patterns of individual tweeting strategies among EU candidates, but for the prospective representatives of an institution often portrayed in European media as being distant from domestic voters, Twitter and other social media can at least be used to give the image (rightly or wrongly) of a tool cutting across barriers and favouring direct communication with voters. However, politicians need to be aware of the dangers of using the participatory features of Twitter in a purely cosmetic way. Already the renewal of democracy through participatory procedures was a promise most often not fulfilled. They must be careful not to create additional democratic disenchantment with social networks.

This volume: Twitter as a political practice

This volume is a collection of papers which examine the way Twitter was used by candidates from different countries, during the 2014 European Parliamentary Election campaign. All of the contributors took part in an international research project to compare Twitter use during these elections in five different countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. All of the tweets sent by or to all of the candidates in these countries were collected during a month around the election date, as well as others which mentioned the candidates themselves, or used hashtags associated with the elections. On the basis of the 50 million tweets collected, processed and divided into national corpora, the different teams worked to establish the specificities of Twitter usage between candidates, parties and countries, looking at a whole range of aspects and of research questions. The current volume brings together the first set of results from the project.

The book has been designed to interest researchers or academics studying the way Twitter is used during European or other elections. Since the project team brings together colleagues working in communication studies, political science and computer science, it has developed integrated solutions and methodologies for collecting and studying Twitter data, using various qualitative and quantitative techniques. The volume builds on the experience of the project team to highlight the difficulties encountered when conducting this kind of research, and how they were overcome. Thus it presents methodological discussions and solutions (Part 1), as well as more theoretical parts dedicated to argumentation styles (Part 2) and political communication strategies in the various countries (Part 3).

In the first chapter of the section outlining methodological challenges and solutions to studying the use of Twitter during political campaigns, Éric Leclercq, Marinette Savonnet, Thierry Grison, Sergey Kirgizov and Ian Basaille outline←10 | 11→ some of the difficulties encountered in developing SNFreezer, the open source tool which they produced and integrated as a platform to help researchers collect, store and analyse large quantities of tweets. Written from a computer science perspective, the chapter discusses the technical constraints faced by teams seeking to capture numerous posts via Twitter’s programming interface, and explains how a multi-paradigm platform can fulfill the requirements of building a corpus of tweets (selecting, harvesting and storing tweets) and can reduce the waiting time for researchers to perform analysis on data. It highlights issues such as the scalability of the architecture that is collecting tweets, as well as its failover mechanism. The originality of this approach is to combine concerns about data harvesting, data storage and data analysis into one platform. The resulting polyglot storage system supports a relational database, graph database or structured files and a set of tools that can provide a suitable solution for mixing different types of algorithms in order to maximize knowledge extraction. The chapter describes the software architecture of the platform and shows how it uses the Twitter APIs and how end-users can select the best data model according to their analysis.

In chapter two, Dario Compagno outlines a mixed methods approach to analysing “families of practices” based on Twitter use by different French candidates during the 2014 European campaign. The approach used here is to apply unsupervised learning techniques to let clusters of candidates emerge from the Twitter data, using operators interpreted by Twitter (hashtags, retweets, hyperlinks, mentions) as variables for clustering. The chapter gives details of the families of uses identified in this way: for example, while some candidates prefer to tweet links to online resources, therefore recognizing the informative potential of the social platform, others tweet many more mentions than links, in a sort of relational “style”. It could be inferred that candidates belonging to different families of uses conceive Twitter differently.

In the third chapter, Tatiana Kondrashova and Alex Frame take previous work done on “Twitter Styles” as a starting point to develop a conceptual model seeking to qualify the “dialogical dimension of political tweets”. This approach is based on a qualitative analysis applied to the UK corpus, taking into account the notion of “reach” in order to discuss political use of Twitter without simply referring to the traditional and sometimes misleading categories of “informative vs interactive”. Chapter 4, written by Nanta Novello Paglianti, looks qualitatively into the use of Twitter by selected Italian candidates during the campaign, in order to characterise the communication strategies adopted, and to seek to define the form of the contemporary political tweet.←11 | 12→

The second part of the volume focuses more precisely on forms of argumentation on Twitter. Chapters 5 and 6 both address the question of the rhetorical construction of the Other in campaign discourse on Twitter. In chapter 5, Arnaud Mercier analyses the French corpus from the angle of different figures of “the enemy” in the pro- or anti-European context, and Marina Villa presents similar results for the Italian corpus in the following chapter. They emphasize the polemical usage that candidates make of tweets and underline the strong homology between electoral tweets, and soundbites produced for traditional media.

Elena Albu adopts a linguistic approach to political tweets in chapter 7, examining the various ways in which candidates from the UK Independence Party use calls to action in their tweets, via the #VoteUKIP hashtag. By studying the linguistic strategies and grammatical forms associated with these calls to vote, the chapter identifies the importance of the position of the hashtag and its accompanying elements in influencing its apparent function in individual tweets. The author highlights differences between informative and argumentative calls to action, establishing a typology which allows her to characterise the tweets according to how explicitly and directly the reason for voting UKIP is presented.

The articles in the third part of the book look more generally at the ways in which Twitter has been integrated into the political communication strategies of candidates in four of the countries studied. In chapter 8, Gilles Brachotte and Frédéric Junger provide a quantitative overview of data in order to discuss and characterise the way the microblogging platform was used in the French context by the different parties in competition during the European elections and by individual candidates, in order to differentiate them based on their Twitter metrics and the underlying patterns of usage.

Caja Thimm, Jessica Einspänner Pflock and Mario Anastasiadis discuss the results of their analysis of the German corpus in chapter 9. They discuss the affordances of Twitter for political discourse with a focus on Twitter usage during the EU elections in Germany. The quantitative and qualitative analyses of tweets collected during a specified period of four weeks were carried out on the basis of the functional operator model of Twitter. The model serves as a framework for assessing users’ tweeting styles, which can range between personal-interactive and topical-informative. They show the differences between individual politainment strategies but do also question the candidates’ alleged efforts to enter into dialogue with their voters. The authors conclude that politicians used Twitter during the EU election mainly as a tool for self-marketing and establishing themselves within a communication infrastructure of their own, outside traditional media.←12 | 13→

Vittorio Cobianchi, Maria Francesca Murru and Marina Villa, in chapter 10, look more precisely at the question of Twitter use as “second screen” during televised political debates in Italy. A content analysis of tweets created by political parties before and during the appearance of their candidates on TV shows Twitter’s function as a tool to amplify and multiply political messages conveyed through the medium of television. In addition, an analysis of the tweets created by the Twitter audience during the broadcast of the Italian talk show “Porta a Porta” underpins the hypothesis that second screen communication on Twitter conveys patterns of self-representation and opinion stating, especially against or in support of the political candidates on TV.

Finally, in chapter 11, Fernando Bonete Vizcaino, Elena Cebrián Guinovart and Tamara Vázquez Barrio focus on the use of Twitter by the leader of the Spanish political formation Podemos, Pablo Iglesias. They ask to what degree the promise of renewal in politics and political discourse which this new formation embodies can be detected in the use of Twitter by its leader. They take into consideration Iglesias’s tweets, the main themes addressed and the comments received in order to offer a detailed analysis of this particular leader’s political communication strategy on Twitter.


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