Digital communication in French and UK political elections. Fake news, targeted ads and social medias

Diploma Thesis, 2017

66 Pages, Grade: 13

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A huge thanks To Julia, Théo, Ray, Céline and Bryan for having consented to
participate in my focus group.
A huge thanks to my supervisor Nicolas Péchenart for his good advices and his help
along my dissertation.

Introduction ... 4
II. Literature Review ... 8
A. Fundamental notions of political communication ... 9
The influence of political communication ... 10
Democracy and strategic communication ... 12
What is digital political communication all about? ... 13
B. French digital communication among electoral campaigns ... 16
The political conservative communication French touch ... 16
The use of social medias along 2012 and 2017 presidential elections ... 18
Targeted advertising and fake news impact on French elections ... 22
C. British digital communication among electoral campaigns ... 27
British tabloids, spin doctors and sensationalistic communication ... 28
Social medias utilisation during Brexit, 2015 and 2017 general elections ... 30
The role of targeted advertising and fake news on British campaigning ... 34
D. Conclusion & hypothesis ... 40
Field Research ... 42
A. Methodology ... 42
B. Objectives ... 44
C. Results ... 44
Strategic Recommendations ... 49
V. Appendices ... 53
Focus Group
... 53
Bibliography ... 65

Political communication has been dramatically changed from the end of 20
with the democratisation of new communication technics and the launch of commercial
communication satellites. This digital revolution allowed the growth of mass media especially
in news, politics and advertising through new technologies as television, internet and mobile
phone. The fact of the matter is liberalisation of mass media have also triggered a rise of
competition which brought about intrusive press focusing on political personalities issues
from the late 70's. In reaction to this media political treatment, politicians decided to protect
themselves by handling and controlling their communication to show a preferred or rewarding
image. This period is embodied by the arrival of spin doctors and communication specialists
on candidate team's standing in political elections. For example, Jacques Séguéla, a French
figure of advertising have been known to running Mitterrand political campaign and led him
to victory in both 1981 and 1988. Similarly, Alastair Campbell, public spin doctor of Tony
Blair had been handling the labour prime minister communication and helped him to win
1997 UK general elections. Nowadays, this professionalization of communication is still
present but has evolved. Politicians and elections candidates have entered social medias in
order to perfect their political image and reach undecided people.
More recently, politicians have struggled to handle their communication and elections have
been overwhelmed by scandals and rumours provoking unexpected changes and opinion poll
errors. On one hand, during 2012 and 2017 French presidential elections, Dominik Strauss
Khan affair, Sarkozy-Gaddafi Gate or Penelope Gate have contributed in changing the future
of French election results. On the other hand, scandals during recent United Kingdom
elections didn't affect too much the results of polling. Causes are that scandals weren't as big
as those which happened along French elections and it is also due to a higher confidence from
citizens in political UK system.
These scandals come mostly from the expansion of investigation medias and whistle-blower
websites seeking out confidential, new leaks and secret information provided by anonymous
sources. For instance, Mediapart, a French Whistleblower website revealed some confidential
documents in several affairs concerning French major politicians reconsidering their
legitimacy to embody French people. This website is behind the revelation of secret

documents during 2012 presidential elections suggesting the sponsorship from the Libyan
dictator regime to Nicolas Sarkozy 2007 presidential campaign. If the traditional press didn't
take much over from these surprising revelations, social medias relayed this information
Digital communication and especially social medias seems to have established themselves as
a mandatory tool for citizens and politicians in order to communicate around political
subjects. Just like The United States 2016 Presidential Elections has showed to the world the
growing influence of social medias into major elections. Likewise, targeted advertising and
fake news have played a key role in shaping American elections and they have put in the
hearth of the debate the issue of ethics in digital communication.
Politicians find out the utility of using social medias tools to handle their image and convince
people to vote for them. Outside Europe, the most recent famous example was Donald Trump
twitter communication and its targeted advertising use during US presidential elections. The
actual president of United States recruited a digital communication team of 100 experts
targeting undecided people across US by sending them pro-trump news.
Most of politicians have succeed in mastering their political image by using new
communication technologies but some of them have also benefit from a large amount of fake
news shared by their militants. For example, it appears that people who were campaigning for
winner Donald Trump candidate have been much more active in sharing fake news likewise
campaigning on social medias during the primary campaign than Hilary Clinton supporters
did. During French presidential elections as well, extreme right-wing from Marine Le Pen
used a large amount of fake news shared on internet to deprive of credit other parties but
people were less receptive than American citizens.
An other strong recent change which aroused me interest for that dissertation topic is that
polls and national recognised press forecast have been failed in two major elections, vote for
Brexit and US elections. The fact of the matter is that people were more hesitating about their
vote than previous elections and a great quantity of them gave unsure information to pollsters.
These last-minute elections might also down to a particular media treatment inspired by
tabloids, social buzz and rumours which favoured last moment swings. Then, maybe the most
important issue which could partly explain polls failure and the blindness from traditional

press is the responsibility from Facebook hyper-personalized news feed along American
elections. According to Parmy Olson, a Forbes investigation journalist, this feed ¨prioritize
stories that have you nodding in agreement and shows your comments will give you a
constant stream of dopamine hits¨. Consequently, everyone is looking out for him and is not
able to see different arguments. It could possibly explain why the traditional press were
unanimous for a Clinton victory and might conducted some trump voters ashamed to tell the
truth to pollsters.
Otherwise, the recent and current context of political elections in UK and in France have been
underlined by a dominating use of digital communication from politicians but also several
actors like lobbies, whistle-blowers, militants, international press and electors. The main
reason is that social networks allow all those actors including citizens to communicate with
thousands of unique people after a click. Finally, this new technic of communication gives the
opportunity for every citizen without distinction to involve better in electoral campaigning.
But it remains likely expose to dangers more than traditional communication including paper
press and television. For instance, digital is more favourable to fake news because
information isn't regulated. Then, new technologies enable people to show different
behaviours because they feel protect behind their computer from judgements and politically
correct. For all these reasons, digital communication is definitely different from traditional
Consequently, digital communication is an inevitable issue when analysing and
comparing political campaigning practices. Nevertheless, it seems hard to define clearly
the real influence of digital communication and especially social medias on people's
political opinions during elections. Even if digital communication is easier than ever
before, it seems to pay up for relevancy and credibility with social medias personalised
feeds and fake news. Whilst digital communication doesn't have borders, its uses are
different regarding the country culture and political system.
That's why, I choose to compare two different political system countries in order to have
a largest view of digital communication practices. The parliamentary constitutional
monarchy in the United Kingdom and the semi-presidential republic in France.
Therefore, it is significant to wonder what is the impact of digital communication on UK
and French political campaigning

When comparing French and UK elections campaigning, it is important to highlight the
different process of elections in each country. In France, presidential elections call citizens to
a direct universal suffrage to elect the president who will name the prime minister. Then, the
legislatives elections will elect the parliament majority and would change the prime minister
and its government if the majority is different from the president party. This is called "la
cohabitation". The last French cohabitation dated back to 1997 when the right-wing president
Jacques Chirac has named the leftist Lionel Jospin as prime minister due to a left-wing
parliamentary majority. On the contrary, in United Kingdom, the general elections correspond
to the French legislatives elections where citizens are called to vote in a direct universal
suffrage as well to elect members of parliaments. If no parties collected the overall majority
which represents 326 seats, parties have to form a coalition. Then, the prime minister is
named by the commons and the size of its party is constitutionally irrelevant. Recently in UK,
during 2010 and 2017 general elections, votes have resulted in hung parliament.
To begin with, the first section will focus on fundamental practices of political
communication in order to bring an overall contextualisation to the dissertation. Then, the
second and third section will respectively analyse the French and UK political communication
and campaigning characteristics. The objective here will be to bring some tendencies out.
Finally, the last section will aim to confront these two country practices in order to evaluate
the role of digital communication on political campaigning and draw some hypothesis.
This first part would be a recap of all major political communication authors' theories with an
analysis of last decade principal elections to give support to the theoretical analysis. Then, the
second part will consist in bringing answers to hypothesis by confronting them with a
qualitative study among English and French citizens politically involved or not.

Literature Review
This literature review aims to define better the purpose of this dissertation and
contextualize the problem. First of all, to succeed in doing this study, I will compare major
political communication authors and theoreticians in order to have a full understanding of the
topic. I will answer to these following questions. What is political communication and where
does it come from? Does political communication is a threat or reinforcement to Democracy?
What is digital communication and how can we measure its political impact? Secondly, I will
go in the heart of the subject with an analysis of both French and Britain political
communication among last electoral campaigns with the help of articles and books. This
comparison will aim to confirm the assumption that digital communication practices and its
influence on public opinion are different among these two countries. To do that, I would
highlight the role of digital communication, its actors and its several types of use through
examples in order to measure how it has been shaped general UK and presidential French
elections. From this review, I would try to draw new hypothesis in order to have a more
complete and deeper answer.

Fundamental notions of political communication
First, let's do a quick overview of obvious questions to contextualise the political
communication. What is Political communication? It is difficult to provide a clear definition
of these terms because both political and communication refers to a broad variety of
explanations. Denton and Woodward
have given a definition for political communication
which is "pure discussion about the allocation of public resources (revenues), official
authorities (legal, executive and legislative power) and official sanctions". This definition
focuses particularly on the political system whereas political actors don't always
communicate on rational political issues. They are also using collective imaginary, symbols
and emotions to influence public opinion and constitute their political image. Otherwise, this
analysis remains limited despite its quality because it doesn't deal with actors who are
involved in the political communication process. According to Pippa Norris
who purposes a
more encompassing definition, "Political communications is an interactive process concerning
the transmission of information among politicians, the news media and the public". This
definition shows that political communication is interactive because it plays with a lot of
different actors and can either go downwards from authorities to citizens, upwards from
public opinion to governments or in a horizontal way among politicians.
The second question that could help to understand in an historic way this notion would be
Where does political communication come from? It seems obvious to say that political
communication was born at the beginning of humanity when people have begun to live in
society which needed rules and therefore, a political system. Indeed, according to Aristotle
"Man is by nature a social animal", that's why humans communicate amongst themselves.
The allegory of the cave from the philosopher and politician Plato
gives also an answer to
that question. As a reminder, Plato tells a story of prisoners who have always been living in
an underground cave unenlightened. The prisoners do not know that they are in jail. Then
Plato supposes that a prisoner is forced to get out from the cave and to see the sunlight. After
a while, he got accustomed and he is able to reason about it. Then when the free prisoner
would return to the cave and will attempt to convince the others prisoners that the world
outside is superior to the cave, others won't trust him and might be ready to kill anyone who
Denton and Woodward, Political communication in America, 1990
Pippa Norris, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2004
Plato, The Republic book VII. Penguin group inc. pp. 365-401, 514a-520a

tried to get them out of their cave. Hannah Arendt
who defends the political interpretation of
this allegory suggests that "Plato wanted to apply his own theory of ideas to politics".
Anyway, it is clear that Plato uses this metaphor to convey a message with the help of rhetoric
in order to influence the Athens citizen way of thinking. Therefore, political communication
has been existed from first human disagreements in society and by deduction, political ideas
is inherent to communication because they have to be discussed to exist in society.
The influence of political communication
As Hannah Arendt have been suggested in her reading of Plato's cave allegory, the
aim of the philosopher is to enlighten Athenians about his ideas in order to save democracy
from ignorance and sophists, teachers who were using rhetoric techniques only to deceive.
Thus, it is easy to deduce that political communication first purpose is a matter of influence.
During 20
century, three main schools of thoughts have justified the influence of political
communication one after the other. First of all, there have been pre-war theories of mass
propaganda. Studies regarding mass communication in the 1920's and 1930's have point out
the growing reach of newspapers on public opinion. Walter Lippman in his first essay named
Public Opinion
supposed that "the growth in circulation of the popular press, developments
in advertising and the new media of moving pictures had decisively changed the ability of
leaders to manipulate the public opinion." The apparition of mass propaganda match with a
new way of manufacture of consent and made more reachable the art of persuasion. The
effects of mass communication were seen as harmful for democracies just as Lippman has
predicted. Indeed, these premonitions come true with the use of posters and broad anti-semitic
propaganda by authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, this time also proved the efficacy of
medias to sway public opinion for preserving democracy. For instance, the BBC radio
belonging to the British government was actively involved on political resistance
communication by broadcasting some propaganda messages from Charles de Gaulle and
Winston Churchill. Then, UK government came up with a diversity of slogans displayed on
posters to reinforce patriotism. This period has seen the use of a large array of medias with
posters, comic books, cartoons, radio, movies, animation, magazines and leaflets.
Miguel Abensour, Against the Sovereignty of Philosophy over Politics: Arendt's reading of Plato's cave
Public opinion, Water Lippman, 1922

Figure 1: Creative posters and slogans in UK during WW2
An other theory, the theories of partisan reinforcement from Columbia University has
challenged the effect of mass propaganda. Paul Lazarsfeld demonstrated by using modern
techniques of panel surveys that the main impact of 1940 American electoral campaign was
reinforcement not change, as "partisans were strengthened in their voting choice". In 1997,
the polls fail to predict the victory of UK Labour and this event conducts to reconsider
Lazarsfeld studies based on panel surveys. This fact announces the arrival of a new theory
called cognitive, agenda-setting and persuasion effects trying to explain why Tony Blair,
leader of Labour party won the elections. The idea is that political communication enables
people to make a more reasoned choice and even changing their vote. Scholars account for
this trend by highlighting three ways of media influence during Blair elections. First of all, the
agenda setting which prioritise the political schedule and call for civic engagement. Then, the
political persuasion which is use my medias and politicians to convince people of a candidate
or party program.
This theory is by far the most relevant today to understand poll's error and explain the
influence of political communication on people's vote. Now that we have delimited on what
political communication could influence, it is logical regarding the subject which compare
French and British democratic systems, to understand the link between democracy and
strategic communication.

Democracy and strategic communication
According to Cambridge dictionary website, Democracy is "a system of government
based on this belief, in which power is either held by elective representatives or directly by
the people themselves"
. Nevertheless, this belief is impossible to literally exist because
representatives never represent every parts of the population. That's why government tend to
be democratic as much as possible with different systems but they can't be entirely
democratic. In order to reach the more equality of representation between people, it must be
more than one leader and powers have to be separated. The French Lumieres time during the
century was a great period of thinking and new political ideas concerning how does a
better and more equal government could work. One of the major idea which came up was to
separate the owner of each power. The first who advances this future base of democracy
called Montesquieu
saying in 1748 "It is necessary from the very nature of things that power
should be a check to power. This is achieved through the separation of the executive,
legislative and judicial powers of government".
However, democracy is not only a matter a political system, it is also bounded with
communication between people and gathering different opinions to make the most
representative decision. So the main question would be How the use of strategic
communication can influence democracy? Denton and Woodward
said "that the crucial
factor that makes communication political is not the source of the message, but its content and
purpose." This quote shows that communication needed to be consider as a political level
because if it is not controlled, she would easily become a treat to the Democracy.
Last century use of bad propaganda by Nazis has shown the dangers of communication and its
wrong impact on politics. That's the reason why communication has been turned professional
from the end of 20
century with the arrival of spin doctors into politician team. The best way
to tackle negative propaganda is to do positive propaganda. Alexis de Tocqueville
stated "it
is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth". This sentence explains the
reasons why propaganda is so much efficient and why the political strategic communication
tended to be simple. This is why modern politicians have been surrounded by communication
Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 1748. Chapter 1, Forms of Government.
Denton and Woodward, Political communication in America, 1990
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America, 1835

experts using the same methods, simple slogans and catchy sentences than mass media
propaganda in order to restore the balance.
Therefore, communication helps democracy to slightly exist if there are at least two different
communications against the other, generally mass media and politicians. On the contrary, if
the strengths of communication come from the same source, then it would become a real
threat for the democracy and the representation of people.
What is digital political communication all about?
Digital political communication is a new way used by people to communicate around
politics. It is including the use of news technologies, phones, tablets and computers in order to
communicate with others on social medias and websites linked more or less with politics.
Then, digital communication allowed a big change which enables people to become their own
politics medias for the others. This can have dangerous outcomes because people tend to less
check and compare their sources than journalists due to the fact that official medias have to
keep their objectivity reputation if they still want to be read.
For example, a representative study
led between the 12
January and 8
February 2016 on
4654 members of Pew Research Center's American Trends Pannel highlighted the lack of
comparing practices in their information treatment. The response to their study points out that
"a majority (64%) get news on just one, most commonly Facebook. About a quarter (26%)
gets news on two of those sites. Just one-in-ten get news on three or more". An other study
comparing the social medias news use during the same period shows that Facebook is the
most used by U.S adults and is by far the most used to get news.

Figure 1: Most social media news consumers only get news on one site
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Digital communication in French and UK political elections. Fake news, targeted ads and social medias
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Raphael Saint Bris (Author), 2017, Digital communication in French and UK political elections. Fake news, targeted ads and social medias, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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