Media gatekeeping & campaigning

Having made frequent references to media disintermediation, I thought it would be instructive  to take a look at media gatekeeping. Particularly in light of the previous post on Brexit and the idea that electorates were “tired of experts”.

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Media gatekeeping in a traditional context meant that the flow of information and opinion went through a filter consisting of the traditional mainstream media (MSM). This meant that relatively conventional opinions (either side of the prevalent political spectrum) were what the audience was presented with and told they had to chose from.

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However, digital media now means that the role of MSM as gatekeepers is greatly diminished. A new visualisation of this process would now look something like this:

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In this model, if the news information (N1,N3) from alternative sources and the campaign is discarded by the traditional gatekeepers, they can bypass the latter and reach their audience.

Not only are the options available to organisations to bypass the gatekeepers and communicate directly with the audience far more powerful, there is also a proliferation of information sources. These can be new media such as digital only news providers, powerful individual influencers or the audience members own social networks (e.g. friends and family). It should be noted that the relative weightage given to each news source does have demographic differentiations.

However, for a broad based campaign, the implications of this change in gatekeeping is that not only the content presented have to change but  as I’ve written previously, the media mix that a campaign has to deploy is more diverse and complex.

Experts, framing & communication

“Not only were we facing the British establishment in the government, we also, in some ways, took on the world establishment because all these heads of government [including Obama] were coming out to say that Britain should remain in the E.U.,” he said. “It was quite a challenge to actually win this campaign with all the forces arrayed against us. At the end of the day, this was a people-versus-the-elite referendum. And the people were on our side.” – Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Leave

Given this blog’s focus on campaigning and framing, there is one aspect of the Brexit fallout that  was especially interesting. There has been a considerable amount of wailing over how the Remain campaign was too elitist and failed to address the concerns of Leave voters, who were older, less educated and poorer. Despite this, it was intriguing that areas that benefitted the most from EU subsidies voted for the leave campaign. A case of voters acting against their own self-interests or a failure in political communication?

Brexit demographic
Brexit demographics source: https://next.ft.com/content/1ce1a720-ce94-3c32-a689-8d2356388a1f

There is a phrase by a UK politician that has had a considerable amount of coverage in the media – “The British people are sick of experts”.  I agree and think that the prescriptive framing of issues through experts is now a flawed political communication tactic. There is a strong sentiment against top down pronouncements that tell voters to trust in the opinions of experts irrespective of either their own experiences or the frame in which they process the issues.

Ads like this will no longer resonate with voters who feel betrayed by “experts” or “elites”.

In addition to the disconnect between the cultural and economic elites in life experiences, there is another reason for this development. Disintermediation means that issues are no longer exclusively framed by experts or the mainstream media. People now have access to multiple sources of information that independently either reinforce their existing cognitive framework or influences them to adopt a new one.

The implication are significant. If an issue (such as free trade or mass migration) is being processed through one frame, a parade of experts offering counter arguments will not change that. Top down and prescriptive communication tactics are becoming less effective. Campaigners need to re-evaluate what constitutes effective content and the channels through which it is communicated.

Unscaling political parties and disintermediation.

Unscaling was not a  phrase I was familiar with in a political context, though the basic principle is certainly well known: conventional business paradigms are being disrupted by technology.  To unscale refers to the specific act of “dismantling all large-scale, vertically integrated, mass-market institutions”.

I have been writing about the disintermediation effect that we are witnessing during the US primary elections. While the current US election cycle is an especially vivid example, there has been a global trend in political establishment disruption, with the rise, for example, of the Podemos party in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the AAP in India.

In particular, Podemos made use of owned media to build its brand awareness.

I think that what Podemos shows, and what other social movement groups like Juventud Sin Futuro or Oficina Precaria show, is that you can combine the autonomous, digital media campaigns with an active reaching-out to mass media”, says Cristina Flesher Fominaya, author of Social Movements and Globalization

These disruptions have been in the form of new parties. What is different about the US is that we are seeing long-established mainstream parties being disrupted. Applying the idea of unscaling in this context, media disintermediation does not just apply to the relationship between politicians and the mainstream media. It also applies to the relationship between politicians and their parties. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have not only had to fight issues with media coverage, they have also had to battle against their party’s establishment. Their success is an example of successful unscaling.

Republican or Democratic validation used to matter — it would get candidates in front of newspaper editorial boards and on TV, access to phone banks and help draw the live crowds. Today, YouTube stars have bigger audiences than most TV shows, blogs cut out the media middleman and Meetup groups and Twitter get the crowds organized.

In parties with a primary or voting system to nominate candidates, new media has now provided an opportunity for candidates to bypass their party’s establishment and still effectively campaign for nominations. This means that the disruption to the political mainstream may not follow the antecedent of new parties but as insurgent candidates taking over established ones. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party may prove to be a more typical model in the medium-term than Podemos.  At the very least, we are in a transitory phase before this vision of startup political parties can become a reality:

 The economics of unscale predict that many startup parties will challenge the big parties and steal their members. Some will catch on, re-bundle voters around issues they care about and reach enough scale in a new way to have influence.

Media disintermediation and priming in politics.

Having posted earlier on the way agenda setting and priming have functioned in the US Presidential Primaries, I thought it useful to take a look at how social media affects this process, focusing on the impact of owned media. My interest in this was also stimulated by listening to a number of podcasts and having read articles that seemed bemused about why the largely negative press coverage of Donald Trump has not affected his success.

By making some issues more salient in people’s mind (agenda setting), mass media can also shape the considerations that people take into account when making judgments about political candidates or issues (priming).

Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models / Dietram A. Scheufele & David Tewksbury

In a traditional model involving agenda setting / priming, the media’s impact extends through the entire lifecycle of the process. Not only does the media’s content set the agenda in the public’s mind, it exerts an ongoing priming influence. This is due to the fact that the “mainstream” media used to be a primary source of content about the issue. As I’ve touched upon previously, the media played an important role in the agenda setting process that made Trump a viable candidate.

 However, the disintermediation effect that social media has had on news means that priming (and possibly agenda setting) now occurs from a wider variety of sources.

In this election cycle, the “traditional entities” – the political parties, the media and the donor class – have been “cut out” as middlemen, said Gibbs. Outsider candidates have been able to “build an audience, deliver a message, and create a platform, all of their own construction.” Candidates can speak directly to voters through social media; Bernie Sanders in particular, despite a lack of media coverage compared to Donald Trump, was able to raise millions, said Gibbs. And although he has made extensive use of media coverage, Trump has circumvented both the Republican Party and the donor class.

– TIME’s Nancy Gibbs: The Disintermediation of Media and Politics

Essentially, this means that the media mix available to campaigns has changed dramatically. Most importantly, they can:

  • Become their own content creators on social media and push this content to the audience.
  • Leverage independent new media entities (especially those that favour the campaign) to push out content.

As a result, the weightage given to the traditional mainstream media is less, while that of the campaign’s owned content has increased. While this process has taken place over a number of years, the gap between the tone of the mainstream media’s campaign of the Trump campaign and the connection that campaign has built with voters is its most dramatic incarnation.

The very simplified diagrams below illustrate the change.

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