Research team

Media, Movements and Politics (M2P)

Expertise

Relationship between media & politics, digital media, political communication, election campaigns.

Politicians as opinion leaders. How politicians' news sharing influences media trust and polarization. 01/01/2021 - 31/12/2024

Abstract

This proposal puts the role of politicians as opinion leaders central. The new digital media environment has given politicians more tools to influence, both directly and indirectly, people's consumption and interpretation of news and information on current affairs. We will study what news stories politicians share on social media and how this affects their followers and public opinion in general. First, politicians can influence to what extent people trust mainstream and alternative media. By sharing and commenting on the content of news stories on social media, politicians can help disseminate their messages, circumventing the gatekeeping role of the media. This influence can enhance the trust in (alternative/partisan) media outlets, but also damage the media's reputation as a democratic institution. Second, politicians can promote more extreme views and opinions, and contribute to the polarization of their audience. Ultimately, politicians, by acting as opinion leaders, may contribute to their followers getting stuck in so-called 'echo chambers' of like-minded information. We will use a multi-method approach (content analysis, user engagement analysis, survey, experiment) to study the news sharing behavior of politicians and its effects on their followers in Belgium (Flanders), the Netherlands, and the UK.

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The Threats and Potentials of a Changing Political Information Environment (THREATPIE) 01/12/2020 - 30/11/2023

Abstract

This project examines how the current changes in the political information environments in European democracies affect the conditions for a healthy democracy and civil society. As a theoretical background we employ the concept of 'political information environment' that includes both the supply and demand of political news and information. Supply refers to the quantity and quality of news and public affairs content provided through traditional and new media sources, demand deals with the amount and type of news and information the public wants or is able to consume. In particular, the study aims at investigating the following: (1) how do citizens gain political information in the complex media environment, what are their attitudes toward information sources, and what is the relationship between these attitudes and political attitudes and behaviour; (2) what is the content and quality of information citizens are exposed to; (3) where do divides between being informed and not being informed exist, across and within European societies, and (4) how can citizens be equipped to navigate and find new and valuable information. We will do this through a series of comparative, innovatively designed studies, including web tracking, comparative surveys, focus groups and survey-imbedded experiments in 15 countries: Germany, Spain, Poland, UK, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Italy, Greece, Czech Republic, Romania, and the US. These countries vary on a number of key contextual factors relevant for the study, covering "young" and "new" democracies with different political heritages, democratic traditions, media systems, and news consumption habits.

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Research on the impartiality of VRT news coverage 16/11/2020 - 16/11/2021

Abstract

In the context of the agreement between public broadcaster and Flemish goverment, the VRT wishes to verify whether it fulfills its mandate to be impartial in providing news and current affairs. This is being investigated by a team of researchers led by Prof. Peter Van Aelst and Prof. Steve Paulussen from the University of Antwerp, in collaboration with Prof. Tim Raats and Prof. Ike Picone (Vrije Universiteit Brussel. In order to get a good idea of the impartiality of the VRT, we opt for a combination of methods to map the content, its production, and its perception by the public. The UA research team focuses on the content of the news coverage. In terms of content, we opt for a combination of a systematic analysis of television news reporting over time (2003-2019) with a case-based approach (2020). When examining three cases in more detail, we will analyse the presence of actors and viewpoints in the content of the reports of the VRT and other Flemish media.

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Research Centre on Representatives and their Communication (RCRC). 01/01/2020 - 31/12/2025

Abstract

In a context of, across Western democracies, an increasing popular dissatisfaction with political representation, PREPINTACT examines the beliefs, attitudes and behavior of three types of individual intermediary actors— politicians, interest group leaders and journalists—in tandem with the parallel beliefs, attitudes and behavior of ordinary citizens. It argues that in order to get a better grip on how representation works, we need to focus on individual intermediaries. We examine the up- and downstream flows of information that form the core of representation and that connect society with the government system. PREPINTACT has a special interest in political inequality and hypothesizes that disadvantaged societal groups are less adequately represented. Within that general framework, the consortium launches a number of specific, comparative research projects using a range of methods combining social science (experiments, surveys, interviews…) with computational linguistics approaches. The concrete projects look into the accuracy of intermediaries' perception of public opinion, the social bias in their personal networks, the selective communication to their voters/members/audience, the role of social media in reinforcing their attitudes, how they represent within their organizations (parties, media organizations...) etc. Taken together, these projects constitute a never seen, in-depth analysis of how individual intermediaries make representative democracy work (or not).

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From Uninformed to Disinformed Citizens? Comparing Western Information Environments. 01/01/2019 - 31/12/2022

Abstract

The campaigns for the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the U.K. vote to leave the European Union ("Brexit") have increased the discussion about the potential influence of online disinformation. Disinformation is understood here as content disseminated to purposefully mislead recipients. Several authors argue that the phenomenon has gained more influence through social media but that the discussion around it is politicized and in need of clarity. A U.S. post-election study by Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) found that heavy users of social media were not well equipped to identify false information. This finding caused some concern, given that currently, 62 percent of Americans obtain their news via Facebook (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016). However, empirical evidence regarding the rise of online disinformation and its effects on society is inconclusive, and little is known about the situation outside the U.S. Against this background, this project aims to assess the extent of the problem in Western Europe compared to the U.S. More precisely, we aim to find out which actors spread false information, how disinformation is consumed and perceived, and which societal groups are most susceptible to being affected by it. A thorough review of the research literature on online disinformation has allowed us to develop a conceptual framework and a set of hypotheses that will be empirically tested. With an international team based at the universities of Zurich and Antwerp, we will analyze the problem in six countries (Switzerland, Belgium, France, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.) from several perspectives. The plan is to begin our joint project with a representative survey in order to explore usage and exposure to online disinformation. We will analyze the use of political information on social media and individual characteristics of users. Subsequently, we will focus on the group of users most susceptible to disinformation. In a second step, we will conduct survey experiments with this group in order to find out why participants read, share, and believe false information. Finally, we will conduct a computer-assisted content analysis of social media posts hyper-partisan news outlets, political actors and movements, and accompanying user comments. The goal of this last step is to detect which actors spread disinformation and how this kind of political information is communicated to users. The expected results of our study will make a strong contribution to the emerging research field on mediated disinformation. By using a multi-method design, we will be able to provide empirical evidence on the spread and effects of online disinformation within different national contexts. Moreover, our results will inform policy makers and media professionals dealing with the question of how to combat the increasing disinformation on social media. The Digital Society Initiative of the University of Zurich (www.dsi.uzh.ch) endorses this project and will actively support us in disseminating our findings to the public.

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The Voice of the People. Displays of Public Opinion in the News and Their Influence on Audiences. 01/10/2018 - 30/09/2022

Abstract

One of the main functions of news media in democracies is representing public opinion. There are several ways in which journalists can do so: by covering (1) polls (2) vox pops (3) inferences about public opinion (4) protest or (5) social media references. Many studies focus on one of these public opinion displays. However, surprisingly, no research exists studying how these different displays are combined in the news. Gaining an understanding of how public opinion is presented in the news is important, as people look at the media to learn about the opinions of others. The core questions of this project are consequently: How is public opinion represented in news content and how does this influence citizens? To answer these questions I combine a content analysis comprising news from three countries (the US, UK & Belgium) with a series of experiments. The content analysis will focus on how frequent the different displays are and how they are combined in the news. Moreover, how journalists frame public opinion is also examined: do they present the public as a homogenous mass? This is important, as homogeneity is expected to play a role in the influence process of public opinion displays. In the second phase of the project, a series of cumulative experiments will be conducted to gain an understanding of how and when public opinion displays influence audiences' perceived public opinion and personal opinion and of the role of homogeneity in the process.

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Follow up on 'The large Antwerp Student Research' 26/09/2019 - 31/12/2020

Abstract

In October 2018 "Het Grote Antwerpse Studentonderzoek" started as a student research at the faculty of social sciences of the University of Antwerp. This research is a collaboration between the University of Antwerp and GATE15. The work was realized by thirteen Erasmus students under the supervision of Prof. Peter Van Aelst and Dr. Jonas Wood. In this second part we work again with Erasmus students, but we mainly focus on contacts between students. In particular the contacts between Antwerp students, foreign students, and students with a different ethnic background.

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Is the tail wagging the dog? Comparative study on the influence of social media on traditional media coverage of political events (TAILWAGSDOG). 15/11/2017 - 14/11/2019

Abstract

In a democracy, citizens need information about politics. Traditionally, the mainstream media have been considered the key actors in providing this informational backbone of democracy. Past scholarship has consistently shown that when political events occur, news outlets convey and interpret the information for citizens, not the other way around. Yet to what extent is it possible to maintain this classic insight in the digital era? Citizens can now be more actively involved in the distribution of news content by liking, commenting and sharing news stories within their social networks. And so it stands to reason that in order to stay relevant, traditional news outlets must tailor their news to citizens' social media trends. Today, it may not only be the case that mainstream news coverage shapes social media, like a dog wagging its tail. Perhaps now the tail also wags the dog? This project will study to what extent social media influence how political events are covered and discussed by traditional media. Since social media is not a homogenous medium, I will distinguish how social media is used by journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens and how they influence the salience of topics and frames on the traditional media agenda. In other words, is there is a reversed agenda-setting and framing effect from social media to mass media? To address this question, I will map and analyze the information flows around different types of political events in four western democracies, Belgium, France, UK and the US. More concretely, in each country I will compare an expected event, such as the national elections, with a non-planned or unexpected event, such as a terrorist attack or environmental disaster. Such a comparative approach on how old and new media deal with real world events is novel and ambitious, but can immeasurably advance our understanding of political news production in the digital era.

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Diversity and Information Media : New Tools for a Multifaceted Public Debate (DIAMOND). 01/02/2017 - 31/01/2021

Abstract

Information media diversity is quintessential for the working of contemporary democracies and is currently under threat. Threats emanate from different parallel yet interrelated trends: (1) concentration tendencies in the media with content consequences; (2) possibilities offered by digital technologies to reuse and redistribute existing content through different channels; and (3) possibilities offered by IP address-based technologies to target content at specific audiences. Consequently, the old logic that used to govern the media, that of 'representative diversity', that gives a proportional representation of social groups in society, is no longer sufficient. Given a diversified media production and differentiated audiences, a new, more elaborate and better equipped paradigm through which diversity is obtained and stimulated, is needed. This is why we introduce a novel normative rationale that we label 'responsive diversity'. Rather than being a reflection of society, the notion of responsive diversity assumes that the media hold a mirror to society, pointing at the critical function of news media. In the context of responsive diversity, journalists are not only critical of their sources but also, if necessary, of their audiences by taking them out of their ideological comfort zones. This can be achieved through dialogue with and among news media users. As such, the connective function of responsive diversity takes shape. Often dealt with separately in previous research, we examine three dimensions of diversity in journalistic practice: (1) diversity of issues or the extent to which different news themes are covered; (2) diversity of actors (or identities), looking at actors, belonging to different societal groups (in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and class); (3) viewpoint (or opinion) diversity, or exposure to a variety of perspectives on the issue. The new rationale for media diversity will be elaborated in the normative WP of this project proposal. The guidelines developed in this normative WP will also feed into the development of practical tools that will support the implementation of responsive diversity by three types of actors: (1) policy makers and regulators, (2) media professionals, in particular journalists, and (3) end users of media outputs and their representatives. The knowledge required in this normative framework and the development of the practical instruments will be generated by through a three prong research programme that adresses issues of diversity of content, diversity of supply, and diversity of use.

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How political news affects and is affected by citizens in the social media age. Theoretical challenges and empirical opportunities 01/01/2017 - 31/12/2020

Abstract

In a democracy, citizens need knowledge about politics. The mass media are traditionally considered as key actors in providing this necessary information. Ample studies on agenda-setting and framing have shown time and again that the news media have a profound influence on what people know, and how they think about politics. The question is to what extent it is possible to maintain many of these classic insights in the digital era. The increasing importance of the Internet and in particular social media as a means of communication and information has likely changed how people learn about what is going on in the world, and about politics more specifically. For instance, the agenda-setting and framing role of the media is challenged, because social media use puts the underlying causal mechanism, from mass media to the public, into question. More and more journalists are influenced by discussions on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. In addition, politicians have more digital opportunities to directly influence the public while bypassing the traditional media. In short, we aim to study consume and engage with political news and how they are affected by it, but also on how journalists and politicians are, in turn, influenced by people's engagement with the news. Digital media not only challenge some of the established theoretical insights but simultaneously also offer new opportunities to study how information spreads and how the public deals with it. Today, it is possible to map all online news and all citizens' digital reactions to it (comments, likes, tweets). This makes it possible to study much more accurately agenda-setting processes by how people interact with news. Framing, as well, can be studied now much more precisely and especially drawing on much larger samples of citizens and media messages. In addition, analyzing digital text and expressed opinion in social media allows demographic and attitudinal profiling of citizens that could strongly increase our knowledge of the individual moderators of agenda-setting and framing effects. To make sense of this unprecedented source of written language and digital behaviour, we opt for a multidisciplinary collaboration between computational linguistics, data mining and social sciences. The appropriateness of social scientific theories of agenda-setting and framing will be put to the test in a digital context by means of big data analyses. Computational linguistics techniques will be used to automatically analyze the topics addressed in social media text, the opinions expressed about these topic, and the profiles of the social media users expressing these opinions. The possibilities of digital text analysis, however, go beyond testing classic media effects theories such as agenda-setting and framing. Our ambition is to use the new data opportunities to develop new theoretical insights by discovering underlying patterns in an inductive fashion. By applying data mining techniques on the data of users' digital behavior and searching for underlying patterns, we may obtain insights into which events, persons and topics ordinary citizens 'like' and want to 'share'. Concretely, we aim to study one planned major political event, the 2019 Belgian election campaign, and one non-planned or unexpected event in the course of 2018. We expect that the information flows in both types of events are structurally different. For each event we plan a survey and a large quantitative data collection covering about four weeks, with content drawn from all major online news websites, and the social media platforms Twitter and Facebook.

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A study on the news coverage of the US election campaign. 01/10/2016 - 30/09/2017

Abstract

'The whole world is watching'. In November 2016 US citizens will elect a new president. The campaign in the run up to this election will be, in line with previous presidential elections, a major political event that will be extensively covered in countries all over the world. This provides political communication scholars with a unique opportunity to study how country differences influence the production of political news of the same 'international' event. During my stay as a postdoc researcher at the University of Washington in 2008, I studied (in cooperation with scholars from the University of Amsterdam) how newspapers in eight European countries covered the historic Obama-McCain campaign. Among others this study showed country differences on public opinion towards the US influenced how the campaign was covered (Vliegenthart, et al., 2010). In the 2016 my aim is to replicate and extend the 2008 study by comparing news coverage through time and space. In addition, more attention will be given to understand the difference in reporting of US media versus European media. By staying in the US, I will be better able to investigate the factors that drive news coverage and how they are used, ignored or adapted by journalists in other Western democracies.

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The power of social media in the news. A multi-method study on the influence of Twitter on sourcing patterns in journalism. 01/01/2014 - 31/12/2017

Abstract

This project aims to examine the impact of social media on the sourcing and flow of news in the Flemish networked public sphere. A multi-method research design is proposed to investigate the conditions under which social media can contribute to the source diversity in journalism. We hypothesize that social media's source power in journalism will depend on the actor using social media, the medium covering the news, the type of issues in the news, and the degree of routine involved in the coverage of the news.

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The fifth estate or an echo chamber of the fourth estate? The impact of social media on sourcing practices and agenda-setting in journalism. 01/11/2013 - 31/10/2017

Abstract

The aim of this PhD research project is to investigate to what extent and how social media are reshaping sourcing and agenda-setting practices in mainstream journalism and how this affects the mediated debate on public affairs. To this end, a three-step multi-method research design is proposed, which will generate statistical evidence and in-depth insights into the role of social media in the flow of news in today's networked public sphere. First, in order to examine inter-media agenda-setting relations between old and new media, time series analyses will be done on an integrated large-scale dataset of news output from different Flemish media outlets, including newspapers, TV, radio, online and social media. Next, the study will take a closer look into the ways in which social media, and particularly Twitter, are handled as sources of information in mainstream news stories, and vice versa. This will be done by means of a qualitative content analysis, which will be supplemented with in-depth reconstruction interviews with professional journalists to deepen our understanding of journalists' sourcing practices in the social media age. The research project focuses on three different 'news beats' or 'issue domains' in the journalistic field: political news, economic news and crime and justice news, each reflecting a dominant field of power in society (i.e. politics, business and the judicial field). Through the combination of agenda-setting and gatekeeping theory and the focus on social media, this project will generate unique and original results on the flows of news in today's 24/7, cross-media, networked news ecology.

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How politics becomes news and news becomes politics. A comparative study among political journalists and politicians in Switzerland and the Netherlands. 01/09/2013 - 31/12/2013

Abstract

News media are a central player in contemporary western democracies. Yet their political influence is poorly understood and the ways politics and media interact require deeper investigation. This studies deals with the reciprocal relationship between political journalists and politicians in Switzerland and 4 the Netherlands based on an actor-centered approach. Our main goal is to identify factors which make it more likely that political messages gets published by the media, and next, from a politicians' perspective, what news coverage makes it more likely that an individual politician will take action. A factorial survey among political journalists and politicians in both countries will test the characteristics of messages such as the standing of the actor, the issue or the parliamentary action announced. We will test in our comparative design whether political system characteristics moderate news values that have been found to be applicable around the World. Comparing the findings across countries and actors will allow us to gain greater insight into how political news comes about and, even more importantly, what effects media coverage has on the behavior of political actors.

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Understanding personalized voting. Media and campaign effects in local and national elections. 01/01/2013 - 31/12/2016

Abstract

In recent discussions about the changing features of politics in advanced industrial democracies personalization is considered one of the key developments. The central idea is that individual politicians have taken a more central position in politics at the expense of political parties. Voters may increasingly make their electoral choices based on individual attributes of candidates, politicians may act more as individual actors and less as party members, and the media may represent politics more as a confrontation of individuals. However, it remains unclear how individual voting behaviour is influenced by the personalization of media coverage and campaigning. Particularly, one may wonder to what extent these two communication channels stimulate voters to think of individual characteristics that are purely individually based (e.g. gender) or rather party based (e.g. ballot position). Furthermore, the effectiveness of these channels may depend on the institutional context (local vs. national). Because Belgium appears to be a critical case for such an analysis, we construct a comprehensive model based on the local elections of 2012 in Antwerp and the regional/national elections in 2014. To our knowledge, no one has evaluated the interaction effects of media attention, personal (campaign) communication, and institutional context-in one integrated multilevel model of personalized voting behaviour. Our results will be relevant for all countries with electoral systems that provide voters with ordered party lists and multiple preference votes. Moreover, the insights of our multi-level design could integrate the findings of largely distinctive research traditions.

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The Marketplace of ideas: Less owners, less ideas? An interdisciplinary study on the impact of media ownership concentration on media content, outlet and production diversity using a longitudinal and cross-national perspective. 01/01/2013 - 31/12/2016

Abstract

Combining insights from communication studies, political science and economics, the project aims to understand the characteristics of the current media concentration (and resulting media conglomerates) and its impact on content diversity in historical and cross-country comparative perspective to answer the question if concentration of media ownership limits the plurality of issues, actors, viewpoints and discourses in the media, undermining their democratic role.

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Research in the domain of political sociology. 01/03/2011 - 28/02/2021

Abstract

The main research ambition for the next years is to further develop the work in the domain of political communication (relation politicians and journalists, campaigns) and political behaviour (voting, political knowledge). There will be three sub-projects: Project 1: Power relations between politicians & journalists Project 2: Studying political campaigns in comparative perspective Project 3: Political knowledge, news and democracy

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Celebrity activism: An Empirical Study of the Co-operation between Social Movements and Flemish Celebrities. 01/07/2008 - 31/12/2012

Abstract

An analysis of the impact of the growing celebrity activism: the cooperation between organisations that make up civil society and Flemish celebrities. This entails: the impact of celebrity activism on the content and functioning of social movements and the relationships between these organisations and citizens-consumers. A comparative case design is operationalized via multi-methodical data collection and analysis.

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Media in election times: Explaining the content of election coverage in an international comparative perspective. 01/10/2007 - 31/01/2009

Abstract

The aim of this project is to map and explain the similarities and differences in election coverage in four different countries. As independent variables we will draw on the structural characteristics of the political and media system in the selected countries. Yet, based on original survey data, the informal interaction culture between politicians and journalists will also be used as explaining variables.

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A panel study on voting behaviour during the 2007 Belgian election campaign. 01/01/2007 - 31/12/2008

Abstract

The aim of the project is to follow, via an email panel, a large number of Flemish voters during the 2007 national election campaign. How, why and when do voters decide about their vote? This project builds upon earlier panel studies and enables us to follow the same respondents over a four year period. The results will contribute to our scientific knowledge of election campaigns and partisan identification.

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