Social Media as a Tool of Political Communication

Essay, 2015

14 Pages, Grade: NA





2.Politics and Communication

3. Origin and History of Political Communication

4. Theoretical Framework
4.1 Public Sphere
4.2 Agenda Setting

5. Methodology

6. Types of Political Communication

7. Elements of Political Communication
7.1 Ideology
7.2 Propaganda
7.3 Persuasion

8. Political Public Relations

9. Political Advertising and Marketing

10. Political Spin doctoring

11. Origin and growth of social media

12. Impact of Social Media
12.1 Social Media and Political Campaigning
12.2 Social Media and Political Advertising
12.3 Social Media and Political Public Relations
12.4 Social Media and Political Agenda Setting
12.5 Social Media as the New Political Public Sphere

13. Conclusion


Social Media as a Tool of Political Communication


Since the US elections in 2008 the close connection between Social Media and political communication has been brought to the fore. The effective role that Social Media has been made to play once again in the 2012 US elections and its conscious or unconscious replication in the 2014 Indian elections reaffirmed its significance in contemporary political communication. Scholars have confirmed that political candidates are increasingly turning to Social Network Sites (SNS) to persuade voters and that these sites have become prominent sources of political information. Political Communication as a field of study has been about the role of communication in the political process. This paper would like to focus entirely on Social Media as a tool in the political process. Political communication has its beginnings during and between the World Wars. There are various types of political communication and political media. Among the political media the Social Media seems to be the most widely used in contemporary political process. The three main elements of political communication are: ideology, propaganda and persuasion. The deployment of Social Media in putting forth one’s or party’s ideology, propagating one’s or party’s agenda, and persuading the voter is widespread as never before. Many scholars including Walter Lippmann doubted the efficacy of media in public enlightenment that democracy requires. For, they thought that media cannot tell the truth objectively. Harold Lasswell too took note of the tendency of media propaganda to dupe and degrade the voters. His work expressed the fear of propaganda. This view was partly based on the direct effects theories of media. Similar fear about the Social Media is lurking in the minds of many today. To camouflage such fear political spin doctors might employ political Public Relations. Political spin doctors are press agents or publicists employed to promote favourable interpretations to journalists. They also weave reports of factual events into palatable stories. The case for political public relations is that it enables paternalism, pluralism, and pragmatism. But there is also a case against it in that it leads to news management and spin, corporatism in politics, and ‘enlightened self-interest’. The increasing availability of internet even in remote parts of the world has made Social Media a virtual public sphere enabling e-democracy. This has enabled people to read into the official messages (media text/content) that are being sent, interpret them, and draw conclusions for themselves. This is a limitation of media in general, which applies also to the Social Media. From this some scholars argue for the limited impact of the media. In this connection a fundamental question that is being raised is about the validity and sustainability of social networks as a campaign tool: How much do users trust the information they find there? Besides, although accessibility to internet has been on the increase world-wide still there is the ‘digital divide’. This tends to limit the effectiveness of Social Media as a tool of political communication among the digital have-nots. Besides, most political communication is directed to and received by men. Thus there is a gender divide too as far as political communication is concerned.

Key words: Social Media, Political Communication, Public Relations, Advertising, Political campaign


The ubiquitous presence of social media has taken control of contemporary human life in almost all its aspects.1 This is all the more perplexing since the social media has been here only for a decade or so. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that social media has ushered in the biggest media revolution since the invention of the printing press. Being very much aware of the omnipresence of the social media the political class as a whole and individual leaders and candidates for various political posts have taken to the social media in a big way. This was exemplified dramatically with Barack Obama’s effective use of it in the 2008 US Presidential elections. From then on there has been no looking back both for politicians and voters as far as the use of social media as a tool of political communication. By using the social media as a campaign tool Obama was able to capture the imaginations especially of the youth both in the US and abroad. Naturally, the youth turned out to be the biggest chunk of supporters and voters for Obama’s social media refrain: “Change we can”. The social media momentum as a tool for political communication was kept up all through the four years of Obama’s term of office and used it even more vigourously and effectively in the 2012 US election. Again, success was Obama’s. The political class and leaders in India tried to replicate the US scene in the Indian elections of 2014. Narendra Modi came out victorious due to his more imaginative and massive use of the tool. Thus in the two largest democracies of the world social media established itself as the easiest and probably the least expensive tool of mass contact and communication. The present paper would like to examine and explain this latest phenomenon in the sphere of politics. Prior to doing that let us clarify some of the key concepts related to the topic.

2.Politics and Communication

According to the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought politics is “a process whereby a group of people, whose opinions or interests are initially divergent, reach collective decisions which are generally regarded as binding on the group, and enforced as common policy.” This is especially true in coalition politics in which the main objective is to somehow capture power. And coalition politics is a contemporary reality in many countries of the world – India, UK – including Greece, the cradle of democracy. Not everyone is or must be interested in politics. For instance, a majority of today’s youth is disinterested in politics due to what they perceive as deteriorating standards of political discourse, moral values, and leadership. A good number of those joining politics do so after inheriting a hereditary political mantle (belong to political families) or due to money power, which is a must for greasing one’s own political machine.

In simple terms communication is the transfer of information from one entity to another. Political communication then is the sending of political messages through inter-personal, group or mass contacts. Chaffee (1975) defines Political Communication as the “role of communication in the political process.” In Meadow’s (1980) words Political Communication is “the exchange of symbols and messages between political actors and institutions, the general public, and news media that are the products of or have consequences for the political system.” According to McQuail (1992), “Political Communication […] refers to all processes of information (including facts, opinions, beliefs, etc.), transmission, exchange engaged in by participants in the course of institutionalised political activities.”Media fulfil instrumental functions in political communication as a reporter of events, as a platform for the expression of political opinions, as an instrument of political party organization and weapon in inter-party conflicts, as a watchdog on governmental actions, as an instrument of government for information and influence.

In the end we may have to accept Mc Nair’s (1995) view that the term ‘political communication’ is notoriously difficult to define with any precision, simply because both components of the phrase are open to a variety of definitions, more or less broad.

3. Origin and History of Political Communication

Political Communication as a field of study emerged during and between the two world wars. It took off with the study of propaganda used especially during the war. Harold Lasswell’s Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927) noted that the people had been duped and degraded by propaganda during the war. Hence early focus of political communication was on war, fascist, stalinist propaganda resulting in a general preoccupation with persuasive effects of political messages through media. Of course, the first period of communication studies (1920s-1940s) was characterised by a belief in omnipotence of mass media, even though the main media present were only newspapers, magazines, and radio. With the coming of internet this belief has been all the more confirmed.

In the 1940s-1950s the first empirical studies of media effects, in particular campaign studies, were done. From this it was found that there were low levels of information, high levels of partisanship, and habitual voting. The 1960s were a decade of political and social upheaval in the Western world and Australia. Advances in communications technology meant that revolutionary ideas and voices of dissent could rapidly be transmitted and received around the world. Television was becoming the main information medium. Commercialisation, visualization and tabloidsation was becoming common in the media field. Professionalisation of political communication started with political marketing and campaign consultancy.

Blumler J.G. (2001) speaks of three ages of political communication: the first age from the 1950s characterized by easy access to media, political communication reflecting partisan positions, strong and stable political institutions. The second age 1960s to 1980s marked by limited-channel network television, consumerism, public skepticism about elites, increasing importance of political communication, and increasingly important role for media in political process, “the modern publicity process”. And the third age from 1990s to the present has been witnessing proliferation within and beyond mainstream media, abundance of channels, unlimited reach, and possibility for interactivity. Internet has made possible virtual public sphere and e-democracy. Abundance of media has resulted in hyper-competition: 7X24-hr programmes, news cycle, and vying for TRP. Populism has set in and there is the ‘talk-show-democracy’ for all to see.

4. Theoretical Framework

4.1 Public Sphere

This paper would like to propose that social media is a tool for political communication since social media has become the new public sphere. JürganHabermas2 is one of the first to speak about the concept of public sphere. By the concept of ‘the public sphere’ Habermas means “first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed” (Giddens, 2001). In Civil Society and the Political Public Sphere Habermas defines the public sphere as “a network for communicating information and points of view” which eventually becomes public opinion. Thus Habermas develops the normative notion of the public sphere as a part of social life where individuals can exchange views on matters of importance to the common good, so that public opinion can be formed. The public sphere comes into being when people gather to discuss issues of political concern. These discussions must take the form of rational-critical debate. At such debates emotion or emotive language is avoided and focuses on the rationality of the content alone. What brings the participants together is their common interest in truth, which meant that they set aside status differentials (individuals participate on equal footing).

When such discussions and debates takes place in a large public body, they require specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it. Till the internet and world-wide web appeared newspapers and magazines, radio and television (so-called old media today) were the media of the public sphere.

4.2 Agenda Setting

Media research from the 1970s have shown how media set the agenda for policy makers and the public and how policy makers (politicians) can make use of the media to influence the public. According to the agenda-setting theory, propounded by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in the 1970s, mass media set the agenda for public opinion by highlighting certain issues. McCombs and Shaw, professors of Journalism at the University of North Carolina in U.S. – Chapel Hill – undertook what is known as Chapel Hill study, and demonstrated that the mass media could influence audiences in ways only previously speculated.3 It appeared that issue salience, or what the public considered to be the most important issues of the day, was being shaped by the mass media. McCombs and Shaw labeled this phenomenon “agenda-setting”, observing that “the mass media set the agenda for each political campaign, influencing the salience of attitudes toward the political issues”(McCombs and Shaw, 1972). Stated in a slightly modified form for our purposes, we can say that politicians and the public make use of this agenda-setting strength of the social media for political campaign (by the candidates) and for endorsing [following]4 or opposing (by the public) respectively.

5. Methodology

There is consensus that the goal of social research is to increase our understanding of society. Media research belongs to the Social Sciences realm. The contemporary generation lives in a media-mediated society, especially through the social networking sites. Hence politicians make use of social media for election and political campaigns to appeal to the voters, in particular to the youth. This is a recent phenomenon, in the political realm as a whole, in many countries. To understand this phenomenon the methodology employed in this paper is descriptive-explanatory. A descriptive-explanatory study generally attempts to describe a social phenomenon by specifying how it is happening and explain the reasons for it (Bailey, 1994). The paper attempts to describe social media as a highly effective tool for political communication. Explanatory statements vary greatly in scope and complexity, but all explanatory statements contain concepts. Concepts may be observable or non-observable (Bailey, 1994). In this paper concepts have referents that are readily observable such as the various social networking sites and how they are put to use for political communication.

6. Types of Political Communication

We can delineate many types of political communication: secret communication in politics in terms of bargaining over the number of seats to be contested, for instance and negotiations over policies and programmes; private communication about politics through inter-personal debates; public communication of and about politics through deliberation, information and rhetoric; horizontal communication in the form of interaction within elites or among citizens; vertical communication between government/elites and public, which is mostly top-down. The elite to masses nature of political communication can discourage participation. Of course, the elite to masses political communication is changing due to the penetration of internet, which we shall discuss later. The types of media that can be used for political communication range from personal contacts through hand outs and pamphlets, direct mail, newspapers and magazines, television and social networking.

7. Elements of Political Communication

The three main elements of political communication are: Ideology, propaganda and persuasion.

7.1 Ideology

The term ‘ideology’ was coined by the French philosopher Destutt de Tracy in 1795. “The concept of ‘ideology’ is often used in the media and the social sciences, but it is notoriously vague. Its everyday usage is largely negative, and typically refers to the rigid, misguided or partisan ideas of others: we have the truth, and they have ideologies” (Van Dijk, 2005). It is said to denote the general science of ideas, which was to clarify and improve the public mind. It was given currency by the French Revolution, by Napoleon, and by Marx.Later the term developed in many directions:Any systematic and all-embracing political doctrine, which claims to give a complete and universally applicable theory of man and society, and to derive therefrom a programme of political action (Scruton, 1996).

An ideology is a system of ideas and beliefs about human conduct which has normally been simplified and manipulated in order to obtain popular support for certain actions, and which is usually emotive in its reference to social action (Watson and Hill, 1984). It also Refers to the important ‘belief systems’ adhered to by groups or whole societies - it is our ‘world view’ or ‘mind set’ concerning how things are and ought to be. A society is a group of people who share certain key values and ideas. These values and ideas are called that society’s ideologies. In Marxist and Marxian theories ‘ideology’ denotes any set of ideas and values which has the social function of consolidating a particular economic order, and which is explained by that fact alone, and not by its inherent truth or reasonableness.

7.2 Propaganda

Propaganda is a manipulation of the symbolic environment, and under certain circumstances be shaped by that environment. Propaganda messages seek to bring about much the same result as war but in a non-violent manner. It can be termed ‘psychological warfare’. Paul Linebarger (1954) defined psychological warfare as “comprising the use of propaganda against an enemy, together with such other operational measures of a military, economic, or political nature as may be required to supplement propaganda”. Harold Lasswell (1951) says psychological warfare is a recent name for an old idea about how to wage a successful war: “The basic idea is that the best success in war is achieved by the destruction of the enemy’s will to resist, and with a minimum annihilation of fighting capacity”. Development of new technologies of communication has altered the way propaganda is disseminated. Total propaganda campaigns will encompass all available means of communication. Communication Technology, especially Internet, has revolutionized propaganda.

“Propaganda and information management are normative aspects of modern democratic societies. Far from being exceptional, anomalous or aberrant elements in the democratic process, propaganda is a constitutive aspect of ‘actually existing’ democracy, democracy in the mass society” (Robins and Webster 1999). Political propaganda is ‘the one means of mass mobilisation which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques’ (Lasswell in Robins and Webster, 1999). Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.


1 It is necessary to qualify this statement due to the obvious ‘digital divide’ that still exists in different parts of the world.

2 Born on 18 June, 1929, Habermas is a German philosopher and sociologist. He is the first one to introduce the concept of ‘the public sphere’. He is linked to the Frankfurt School of social thought. The School was inspired by the views of Karl Marx. It undertook an extensive study on the ‘culture industry’ – the entertainment industries of film, TV, popular music, radio, newspapers and magazines. The school is critical of the industry for undermining the capacity of individuals for critical and independent thought.

3 In the 1970s nobody could have even imagined that social media would have the kind of multiplier effect that it has been having in the last few years, especially among the youth and through the youth, in the political sphere.

4 Following/liking on Twitter/Facebook.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Social Media as a Tool of Political Communication
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
A very good paper on social media being used as a political campaign tool. The paper will be very useful to political communication students, faculty, and researchers.
Social Media, Political Communication, Election Campaign, Public Relations, Advertising
Quote paper
Prof. Francis Arackal Thummy (Author), 2015, Social Media as a Tool of Political Communication, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Social Media as a Tool of Political Communication

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free