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Essay: How future policy makers should shape political communication

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This essay by student Johann Paetzold (MPP 2024) won 2nd place in the Hertie School 20 Years essay competition. Read more about the essay competition here

Views expressed by the author may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.

How future policy makers should shape political communication

An essay by Johann Paetzold

 

The “3Ps” (Campbell, 2022) – populism, polarisation and post-truth – are on the rise in Western democracies. Malicious attempts at democracy are happening not only at home but also through foreign influence (Cirone & Hobbs, 2023, 170). In Germany[1], the approval of democracy is declining (FES, 2023). The following essay will elaborate on why political communication matters in preserving democracy and offer five perspectives on what future political communication should look like against the backdrop of recent developments in the media environment.

Public opinion is the battleground that determines elections. This battleground is co-created by the media and forms the epistemic basis for citizens’ voting decisions. In sociological terms: “Whatever we know about society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media” (Luhmann, 2000, 1). As a citizen – unless one happens to be professionally active in the political sphere and has regular personal interactions with politicians – one’s own access to politics is conditioned by the media. Thus, political communication is the only means by which democratic governance can influence debates in the public arena.

 

Evolution of mass media

The change from analogue to digital media marked a watershed in the evolution of political communication. The bon mot of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder “To govern, I need Bild, Bams and Glotze”[2] (Zauritz, 2012) sums up the analogue reality of political communication until the early 2000s, with newspapers and television as the key institutions of public discourse. With a well-placed interview at the beginning of a media week, a politician could be sure of governing media attention. In the monocentric media system, the most important players from the press and politics had relative control over the public sphere.

Empirically, political communication in the traditional media is challenged by the fact that, “because journalists tend to see politics as a political game, their reporting of policy leadership and problems is often framed in game-like terms” (Patterson, 2015, 377).

 

With the emergence of social media, a new evolutionary stage of the media system developed. The media debate became increasingly contingent, less controllable, and no longer organised around one centre but multiple centres. In social networks, every user is potentially a content creator. Not only traditional media, but also social media have turned into a battleground for political communication. This new multi-centred media landscape poses at least two challenges for political communication.

 

Firstly, social media has its own culture of political commentary. This includes the self-deprecating, mocking tone towards boomer politics (Deutschlandrundfunk, 2021), which is symptomatically expressed in the TikTok hashtag #OkayBoomer, (Zeng & Abidin, 2021, 2476), as well as in the playful, humorous creation of memes to address political topics (Mortensen & Neumayer, 2021, 2368). Another typical feature of social media culture is the symbolic and moralistic charging of political trivialities and micro-moments, which is in turn taken up by print and television if the impact seems appropriate. One example of both phenomena is the widely memeified laughter of CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet in the background of a press conference after the Ahrtahl flood. Whilst this burst into laughter said nothing about Laschet’s qualities as a policy maker, many observers, nevertheless, saw Laschet’s laughter as the end of his campaign (Gierke, 2021).

Secondly, misinformation is increasingly gaining traction through social media[3]: whereas the press used to select what became news according to journalistic criteria (truth, veracity, relevance), the gatekeeper function of the traditional media is being relativised. Regardless of these criteria, political influencers and politicians are posting content on social media. With the help of troll armies, content flooding occurs (Darius & Römmele, 2023, 200), partly with unpolitical, demobilising content (Cirone & Hobbs, 2023, 170).

If AI is seen as a key driver for the future evolution of media[4], the cultural and technical challenges are likely to be radically intensified due to upscaling through AI. Memes (Leskin, 2020), shitstorms, and content floodings are all produced cheaper and better by AI (Darius & Römmele: 206; Simon et al., 2023, 2). AI-generated deepfakes offer potential for more convincing and cheaper fake news[5] in the form of imitations (Whyte, 2020, 213). Just recently, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had a deepfake blocked that deceptively imitated him (FAZ, 2023).

Considering the likely evolution of the media landscape in which political communication unfolds,

 

How should the future generation of policy makers shape political communication?

 

1. Constructive opacity

Since the established media, as described above, tend to emphasise the “game” character politics rather than policy, political communication must try to focus on policies. For voters, “the key questions are the ‘who’ and the ‘what’: the way in which policy costs and benefits are distributed” (Patterson, 2015, 386). The “how” of policy creation – turf wars and politics – should be kept opaque.

 

2. Control and professionalisation

In view of the decreasing predictability of media patterns due to creator multiplication, political communication must try to maximise control over its own messaging. This includes communicating highly selectively and strategically to limit the contingency of politicians’ communicative spontaneity.[6] Precisely because every event, no matter how small, can potentially be medialised, political communication and the appearance of politicians must be professionalised. The scandalisation of Laschet’s laughter, which was pushed through social media and then picked up by the established media, exemplifies two points. Firstly, a few seconds can be brutally decisive for the outcome of a campaign. Secondly, in order not to fall prey to the contingency of potential scandalisation, politicians should not step out of their role as politicians. Despite critics pointing out that this might imply a loss of authenticity, the average statistical citizen only knows the media coverage of a politician, not the politician himself. The media must therefore necessarily convey a selective image of politicians. True authenticity in political communication is impossible. Rather, it is a matter of staging authenticity well and in a way that is connectable to the media.

 

3. Awareness of the situational

With the right sense of the situational, political profit can be made from policy-irrelevant communication events, such as Chancellor Scholz’s eye patch (Hamburger Abendblatt, 2023), the Argentinian election winner Milei’s chainsaw (Mangold, 2023), or Markus Söder’s (2023) provocatively self-deprecating, boomerish Christmas Greetings. In other words, political communication must respond to the cultural developments of social media.

 

4. Constant campaigning

Content flooding makes it more difficult to communicate through the noisy floods. The election winners in Western democracies in recent years, such as Wilders, Trump and Meloni, were politicians who relied on constant campaigning and were consequently heard. This should not lead to policies being selected and decided solely based on their “news character” or their communicability, as described, for example, by former Tory minister Rory Stewart on Liz Truss’ policy making (Stewart, 2023, 157). Rather, it is important to constantly refer to the policy level when democratic opponents spread fake news in a campaign-like manner.

5. Building technical expertise and using AI

In view of the new technical developments in AI, political communication must upgrade its technical expertise. Whereas in the past it was sufficient to have contacts in the editorial offices of newspapers, in the future it will be necessary to develop data-based communication strategies (beyond the annual input from survey institutes at party headquarters). While data hubs are used in most German federal ministries and, since this year, also in the Chancellery (Kapfer, 2023), there is still a lack of direct organisational links in the communication departments (Das Bundeskanzleramt).

All these suggestions can quickly be misused. There is a fine line between productive opacity and an anti-deliberative style of communication or between professionalisation and indifference. Hence, good democratic governance ultimately depends on the democratic awareness of those in positions of responsibility.

Footnotes

[1] This article focusses primarily, although not exclusively, on Germany.

[2] Bild and Bams (Bild am Sonntag) are boulevard press, comparable to the Sun. Glotze stands for TV.

[3] The obvious policy response to the phenomenon of misinformation lies in platform regulation (e.g., EU Digital Services act or EU AI Act). However, the focus here is on the consequences for political communication.

[4] According to researchers at the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, 99% or more of all information on the internet could be generated by AI by 2025-2030 (Hood, 2022).

[5] One could argue that democratic governance could also use AI for misinformation. However, enemies of democracy have a competitive advantage: they are in alignment with AI that truth is not necessary. Bell (2023) accurately states: “A platform that can mimic humans’ writing with no commitment to the truth is a gift for those who benefit from disinformation.”

[6] There is a trade-off: spontaneity can be an important resource for political communication. Olaf Scholz, e.g., who likes to stick close to the script, was accused of lacking spontaneity at a joint press conference with Palestinian President Abbas: Abbas said that the state of Israel had committed 50 holocausts against Palestine. Scholz initially left this unchallenged in the press conference due to diplomatic conventions and the script – which was subsequently criticised (Sädler, 2022). However, in view of the structural developments outlined above, the benefits of controlled communication outweigh the disadvantages.

References

Bell, E. (2023, March 10). A fake news frenzy: why ChatGPT could be disastrous for truth in journalism.  The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/mar/03/fake-news-chatgpt-truth-journalism-disinformation

 

Campbell, A. (2022, April 29). Alastair Campbell’s principles for politics today. The Economist.                      https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/04/29/alastair-campbells-principles-for-politics-today

 

Cirone, A., & Hobbs, W. R. (2022). Asymmetric flooding as a tool for foreign influence on social media. Political Science Research and Methods, 11(1), 160–171. https://doi.org/10.1017/psrm.2022.9

 

Darius, P., & Römmele, A. (2023). KI und datengesteuerte Kampagnen: Eine Diskussion der Rolle generativer KI im politischen Wahlkampf. In Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG eBooks (pp. 199–212). https://doi.org/10.5771/9783748915553-199

 

Das Bundeskanzleramt: ein Überblick | Bundesregierung. (n.d.). Die Bundesregierung Informiert | Startseite.                               https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/bundesregierung/bundeskanzleramt

 

deutschlandfunkkultur.de. (2021, September 20). The Meme Makes the Message - Ironische Bildchen machen Politik. Deutschlandfunk Kultur. https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/the-meme-makes-the-message-ironische-bildchen-machen-politik-100.html

 

FAZ.NET. (2023). Auf Instagram: Bundesregierung lässt Scholz-Fake sperren. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/regierung-laesst-scholz-fakes-sperren-19351058.html#:~:text=Regierung%20l%C3%A4sst%20Scholz%2DFakes%20sperren,-Medien&text=Die%20Bundesregierung%20geht%20gegen%20ein,%2C%20ein%20AfD%2DVerbot%20anzustreben

 

Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. (2023). Mitte-Studie 2023 zu rechtsextremen Einstellungen. https://www.fes.de/referat-demokratie-gesellschaft-und-innovation/gegen-rechtsextremismus/mitte-studie-2023

 

Gierke, S. (2021, September 24). Wenn Laschet lacht: Über die Macht der Bilder im Wahlkampf. Süddeutsche.de.            https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/bundestagswahl-bilder-im-wahlkampf-1.5419231?reduced=true

 

Hamburger   Abendblatt. (2023, September 6). Werber Trautmann:  „Scholz‘ Augenklappe ist Weltklasse“. Hamburg. https://www.abendblatt.de/podcast/scholz-update/article239383621/Der-Kanzlerpodcast-Zeile-Das-Scholz-Update.html

 

Hood, L. L. (2022, March 4). Experts say that soon, almost the entire internet could be generated by AI. Futurism. https://futurism.com/the-byte/ai-internet-generation

 

Kapfer, J. (2023, May 15). Frederik Blachetta wird erster CDO im Bundeskanzleramt. eGovernment.                               https://www.egovernment.de/frederik-blachetta-wird-erster-cdo-im-bundeskanzleramt-a-7857040d628bd8e4db8874f52a4c8c80/

 

Leskin, P. (2020, May 2). This AI generates absurdist memes that are funnier than what most real humans create. Business Insider.

https://www.businessinsider.com/memes-artificial-intelligence-technology-deepfake-imgflip-meme-does-not-exist-2020-4

 

Luhmann, N. (2000). The reality of the mass media. Polity.

 

Mangold, I. (2023, November 30). Javier Milei: Das Geld wird frei. ZEIT ONLINE. https://www.zeit.de/2023/51/javier-milei-argentinien-wahl-libertaer-geld/seite-2

 

Mortensen, M., & Neumayer, C. (2021). The playful politics of memes. Information, Communication & Society, 24(16), 2367–2377. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2021.1979622

 

Patterson, T. E. (2015). Game versus Substance in Political News. In Oxford University Press eBooks. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199793471.013.43

 

Sädler, F. (2022, August 17). Scholz hätte Abbas‘ skandalöse „Holocaust“- Aussagen nicht stehenlassen dürfen. DIE WELT. https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article240520219/Scholz-haette-Abbas-

skandaloese-Holocaust-Aussagen-nicht-stehenlassen-duerfen.html

 

Simon, F. M., Altay, S., & Mercier, H. (2023). Misinformation reloaded? Fears about the impact of generative AI on misinformation are overblown. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review. https://doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-127

 

Söder, Markus (2023).  Twitter. https://twitter.com/Markus_Soeder/status/1733743944591184041

 

Stewart, R. (2023). Politics on the edge: A Memoir from Within. Jonathan Cape.

 

Whyte, C. (2020). Deepfake news: AI-enabled disinformation as a multi-level public policy challenge. Journal of Cyber Policy, 5(2), 199–217. https://doi.org/10.1080/23738871.2020.1797135

 

Zauritz, V. K. D. J. Q. U. F. (2012, June 22). 60 Jahre BILD: BILD.de gratuliert BILD | News. bild.de. https://www.bild.de/news/topics/60-jahre-bild/interview-mit-gerhard-

schroeder-24636504.bild.html

 

Zeng, J., & Abidin, C. (2021). ‘#OkBoomer, time to meet the Zoomers’: studying the memefication of intergenerational politics on TikTok. Information, Communication & Society, 24(16), 2459–2481. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2021.1961007

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