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The new media’s role in politics

March 15, 2019
Infotainment, digital platforms, and social media have introduced instability and distortion into the political communications system, writes Georgetown professor Diana Owen.

New political media are forms of communication that facilitate the production, dissemination, and exchange of political content on platforms and within networks that accommodate interaction and collaboration. They emerged in the late 1980s when entertainment platforms, like talk radio, television talk shows, and tabloid newspapers, took on prominent political roles and gave rise to the infotainment genre. Bill Clinton famously appeared on Arsenio Hall’s television talk show wearing sunglasses and playing the saxophone, and the fusing of politics and entertainment attracted audiences that typically had been disinterested in public affairs, setting the stage for a “reality TV” president like Donald Trump decades later.

The next phase in the development of new media unfolded in conjunction with the application of emerging digital communications technologies to politics that made possible entirely new outlets and content delivery systems. Beginning in the mid-1990s, new political media platforms quickly progressed to encompass sites with interactive features, discussion boards, blogs, online fundraising platforms, volunteer recruitment sites, and meetups. The public became more involved with the actual production and distribution of political content, and citizen journalists were eyewitnesses to events that professional journalists did not cover.

A third phase in the evolution of new media is marked by Barack Obama’s groundbreaking digital campaign strategy in the 2008 presidential election. Obama’s team made use of advanced digital media features that capitalized on the networking, collaboration, and community-building potential of social media to create a political movement. It used social media to collect data on people’s political and consumer preferences, and created voter profiles to pursue specific groups, such as young professional voters, with customized messages.

Rise of new media upends political communications

The rise of new media over the past three decades has complicated the political media system. Legacy media consisting of established mass media institutions that predate the internet, such as newspapers, radio shows, and television news programs, coexist with new media that are the outgrowth of technological innovation (websites, blogs, video-sharing platforms, digital apps, and social media). New media can relay information directly to individuals without the intervention of editorial or institutional gatekeepers, which are intrinsic to legacy forms. Thus, new media have introduced an increased level of instability and unpredictability into the political communication process.

New media can relay information directly to individuals without the intervention of editorial or institutional gatekeepers.

The relationship between legacy media and new media is symbiotic. Legacy media have incorporated new media into their reporting strategies. They distribute material across an array of old and new communication platforms. They rely on new media sources to meet the ever-increasing demand for content. Despite competition from new media, the audiences for traditional media remain robust, even if they are not as formidable as in the past. Consequently, new media rely on their legacy counterparts to gain legitimacy and popularize their content.

Ideally, the media serve several essential roles in a democratic society. Their primary purpose is to inform the public, providing citizens with the information needed to make thoughtful decisions about leadership and policy. The media act as watchdogs checking government actions. They set the agenda for public discussion of issues and provide a forum for political expression. They also facilitate community building by helping people to find common causes, identify civic groups, and work toward solutions to societal problems.

A post-truth society

New media provide unprecedented access to information, and can reach even disinterested audience members through personalized, peer-to-peer channels, like Facebook. As average people join forces with the established press to perform the watchdog role, public officials are subject to greater scrutiny. Issues and events that might be outside the purview of mainstream journalists can be brought into prominence by ordinary citizens. At the same time, the new media era has exacerbated trends that undercut the ideal aims of a democratic press. The media disseminate a tremendous amount of political content, but much of the material is trivial, unreliable, and polarizing.

New media have both expanded and undercut the traditional roles of the press in a democratic society. On the positive side, they have vastly increased the potential for political information to reach even the most disinterested citizens and they enable the creation of digital public squares where opinions can be openly shared.

The media disseminate a tremendous amount of political content, but much of the material is trivial, unreliable, and polarizing.

Nevertheless, the coalescence of the rise of new media and post-truth society has made for a precarious situation that subverts their beneficial aspects. Substituting scandal coverage for serious investigative journalism has weakened the press’ watchdog role, and the ambiguous position of the media as a mouthpiece for politicians renders journalists complicit in the proliferation of bad information and faulty facts. It is important to recognize that American journalism has never experienced a “golden age,” where facts always prevailed and responsible reporting was absolute. However, the current era may mark a new low for the democratic imperative of a free press.

Diana Owen is associate professor of political science at Georgetown University in the Communication, Culture, and Technology graduate program.