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.