Twitter, political communication and research

This article covers some key aspects of communication worldwide with a closer look at the social, cultural and political dimensions of the communication on Twitter.

An introduction to political communication research across the world

Holtz-Bacha and Kaid[1] (2011) make a critical review of the research methodologies employed by worldwide researchers to study political communication. They also discuss classifications of political, media and cultural systems, methodological issues in international comparisons, research issues across countries and measuring political advertising and political debates across cultures.

Hashtag cloud featuring the hashtags employed by EU Commissioner László Andor in his Twitter communications, in 2012

Hashtag cloud featuring the hashtags employed by EU Commissioner László Andor in his Twitter communications, in 2012

They stress that, in the context of the political communication research, the employed methodology varies from one country to another as the research context mirrors specific cultural settings. Therefore it is difficult to compare the research outcomes coming from different countries, since they embed different cultural perceptions and behaviours.

Considering previous research reports, Holtz-Bacha and Kaid recommend adapting the research methodology to each cultural context in terms of political communication. In Asia, for instance, it is often not possible to collect public opinion data. Japanese citizens tend to “be socially cohesive and the expression of any kind is not likely due to the desire to avoid open confrontations” (p.01). Moreover, according to the “spiral of silence” theory citizens whose opinion is in the minority tend not to speak because of fear of isolation from the society.

Holtz-Bacha and Kaid mention the case of the European Parliamentary elections which provide a good research context because of the similarity in the election cycle where constant variables are generated in different cultural settings in European Union countries. The event is followed by studies that provide rich information on the impact and results at European scale and at national level in the participating countries. Citing Schlesinger, Heinderyckx[2] (1998) points out that trying to communicate at European level means to first acknowledge the existence of considerable diversity. He also adds an additional dimension to what Wolton says about the particular European context[3]: “And Wolton also states that ‘there is no European public space even if there is a political area’ where we can also consider its economic dimension” (p.222).

Holtz-Bacha and Kaid conclude that in recent decades researchers have been able to enhance traditional research methods in political communication with innovative elements. While the American approach has lately been based on sophisticated computer software, the European traditions “have favoured more qualitative and interpretive approaches to political language analysis” (p. 407). Both approaches have benefited from the facilities offered by the digital technologies which enable storing and processing of raw data – transcripts, media databases, scanners and others. This is a significant contribution to making the research more “feasible, efficient, accurate and less time-bound” and enabling researchers to report “robust findings and accurate insights” (p. 407).

In today’s world, online content overlaps with both traditional media and interpersonal information sources. In contrast with traditional media, which is monolithic, the Internet harvests many more information channels arranged in distinct layers of sources: websites, blogs, email, repositories, social media and social network platforms (Bellur and Sundar[4] citing Sundar and Nass, 2001, p.489).

Bellur and Sundar also emphasise that in the case of blogging – and micro-blogging, in extenso – both blog author and blog readers serve as information sources, where the traditional message model (sender, message, receiver) is adapted to present conditions, which enables sender and receiver to switch places and support interactivity.

Political communication on Twitter

Maireder et al. (2012) conducted a content analysis on the Austrian political Twittersphere from February to October 2011. They identified the structure of the Austrian political Twittersphere and looked at three types of Twitter users – politicians, journalists and other actors – who interacted with people outside the professional political sphere. Their research method implied 1) collecting, processing and visualising the tweets containing the most popular hashtags and 2) mapping the @mention network between the users who interacted.

Maireder et al[5]. undertook a “user-centred approach” (p.6) as most tweets did not contain hashtags and therefore hashtagging was “not used consistently” (p.6). They identified 374 account holders who they grouped in four user categories: politicians, journalists, others (experts, lobbyists, strategists) and ordinary citizens. The researchers analysed the @mentions employed in tweet bodies, and, as this was not a “sufficient indicator for influence” (p.7), they also analysed the users’ activity on Twitter, number of users mentioned, and the messages classified by profession.

They conclude that 1) politicians, journalists and other professional actors “use Twitter to interact with both actors of their own profession and other spheres” (p.11), whereas politicians are the most active and 2) Twitter enables ordinary citizens to become more active in the public debate than “in traditional contexts of interactions” (p.11).

Citing Bruns, Maireder et al. (2012) state that Twitter has become “the world’s second most important social media platform” (p.3) which may increase interaction between politicians and citizens who are “exposed to a lot of different opinions” (p.4) even though previous studies report that politicians may use “Twitter for self-promotion and simple information diffusion rather than conversations” (p.5).

The purpose of the study carried out by Lilleker[6] (2013) was to identify peers’ patterns of usage and communication on Twitter. The research subject was a sample of 850 tweets published by the Labour Party Peers in the House of Lords, in the UK in 2012. The researcher applied a mixed research methodology that combined semantic analysis, social network analysis and quantitative analysis.

Among Lilleker’s research findings there are some which are worth noting: 1) content could be shaped by norms of politics or Twitter medium or a mixed of two; 2) political agenda and debates could be led by the use of @ and #; 3) Twitter content is linked to mainstream media; 4) individuals involved in debates focus on key subjects. In his tentative conclusions, Lilleker emphases that: 1) Twitter usage is determined by interests and personality; 2) Twitter could act as a communication central point (hub); and 3) “Twitter has high potential but dependent on individual usage” (Adapted from Lilleker, slide 19).

Weigel[7] (2013) summarises a set of studies focusing on how Twitter use “may shape political and civic space and discourse” in a time when “the microblogging platform is increasingly being used as a vehicle for shaping political debates by actors who have their own motivations and who do not necessarily represent the grassroots of the citizenry” (online).

While youth and minorities get involved in politics “to a certain extent”, Twitter is the place where “highly partisan and politically engaged citizens appear to dominate the social media outlet”(online).

Van Dijck[8] (2013) questions the neutrality of Twitter as a social media platform, where “some users are more equal than the others” (p.74), despite its “town hall” image, which homes the voices of individuals and the opinions of organisations. However Van Dijck explains his statement through the platform architecture itself which “privileges certain influential users who can increase tweet volume, and whom thus garner more followers” (p.74).


[1] Holtz-Bacha, C. and Kaid, L. L. (2011), “Political Communication across the World: Methodological Issues Involved in International Comparisons” in Bucy, E. P. and Holbert, R. L. (eds.) The Sourcebook for political communication research: methods, measures, and analytical techniques, New York, Routledge

[2] Heinderycx, François (1998), L’Europe des médias, éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, (p. 222), « Or, comme l’affirme Schlesinger, ‘essayer de communiquer sur le plan européen implique d’abord et avant tout de reconnaître la réalité d’une diversité considérable’. Et Wolton rappelle de même qu’il n’y a ‘pas d’espace public européen, même s’il existe un espace politique’ et, pourrait-on rajouter, économique ».

[3] Heinderyckx, F. (1998), L’Europe des médias, Editions de l’Université libre de Bruxelles, Bruxelles, Institut de sociologie

[4] Bellur, S. and Sundar, S. S. (2011), “Concept Explication in the Internet Age: The Case of Political Interactivity” in Bucy, E. P. and Holbert, R. L. (eds.) The Sourcebook for political communication research: methods, measures, and analytical techniques, New York, Routledge

[5] Maireder, A. et al., (2012), “Mapping the Austrian Political Twittersphere: How politicians, journalists and political strategists (inter-)act on Twitter”, in Proceedings of CeDem12 Conference for E-Democracy and Open Government, Krems: Danube University, pg. 151-164

[6] Lilleker, D. (2013), “Elite tweets: Analysing the twitter communication patterns of Labour Party Peers in the House of Lords” in A session at Twitter and Microblogging: Political, Professional and Personal Practices

[7] Weigel, M. (2013), “Twitter, politics and the public: Research roundup“, in Journalist’s Resource

[8] Van Dijck, J. (2013), “Twitter and the Paradox of Following and Trending” in The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, Oxford University Press, pp.68-88


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