The Political Impact of Digital Communication

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

Digital communications are a growing part of local, national, and global political conversations. Learn how the use of digital forms of communications are having both positive and negative impacts on elections, policymaking, and global politics.

Evolving Political Communications

Politics and policy have long been subjects of public discussion. Until the 20th century, face-to-face or printed materials were the only form of political communications. Information and discussions were therefore limited to a few hundred or a few thousand people at a time.

In 1920 radio began to reach out to millions of people, and by the 1940s it was used to spread political and propaganda messages globally. In the 1960s television displaced radio as political conventions, debates, and speeches were televised to hundreds of millions of people.

As the reach of technology has expanded, with over two-thirds of the world's population now having a mobile phone, so has involvement of general citizens in the political process.

Social Media and the Political Process

The digital media revolution began in the early 21st century and rapidly invaded the political space. Social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have all become key mediums in the global political landscape. They are seen as leveling the political playing field because of their low cost, easy access, and global reach.

Government bodies both large and small use social media to engage with their stakeholders as well as with the general public. Citizens in turn use social media to educate themselves, debate issues, and engage with like-minded individuals. Politicians use social media to engage with their constituents and promote policies and positions, as well as their own election!


Candidates, advocacy groups, political parties, and government entities have all created Facebook pages, and citizens interact directly with each of those groups. In fact, Facebook has become the most common source for political and government news among Millennials.

As Facebook has become an integral part of the lives of adults, it's seen as not just timely but also influential. Research into the intersection of digital communications and politics via Facebook has demonstrated that it has a direct, measurable effect on not just self-expression but voting participation.


While daily news seems to revolve increasingly around the use of Twitter by politicians, as a news source it ranks well behind Facebook, with around 10 percent of adults seeing it as a news source compared to at least 60 percent for Facebook.

With only 280 characters, tweets must be short and to the point. The democratic, open access nature of the medium and the exchanges have been compared to town hall meetings, but with millions participating instead of hundreds.

The downside of Twitter is its no-holds-barred approach with no mediating forces of context and factual support.


Traditional video forms of political communication such as television have rapidly been overtaken by YouTube. The ability to post online political content, videos of current events, and political messages has brought the world onto everyone's mobile device.

It has also created much higher levels of transparency when statements and events can be filmed and posted in near real time. For governments and politicians it has proven to be a powerful means of targeting video messages to specific demographics and territories at a fraction of the cost of traditional television advertising.

A Global Political Organizing Platform

Social media has been used as a political organizing platform around the globe. Starting in late 2010 with the Arab Spring uprisings against governments and leaders, activists in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen used ''Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world,'' said one activist. With international journalists often banned, social media platforms were a way of relaying news to the world.

Highlighted countries participated in Arab Spring, using social media to organize
Arab Spring map

For the Occupy Movement in the U.S., social media platforms were the vehicle of choice because they were seen as more democratic, allowing for a wider diversity of voices to be heard and accessed versus the traditional news outlets often controlled by a single editorial group.

As the Occupy Movement spread to Hong Kong with Occupy Central or the ''Umbrella Movement'', where Beijing's government policies were protested, millions of tweets were recorded and images shared globally with social media used to document police brutality as well as mobilize and coordinate activists.

Occupy Central demonstrators protest in Hong Kong
Occupy Central photo~

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