A Thriving Digital Public Sphere - The Overlooked, Yet Critical Role of Political Parties and Politicians


As important as a focus on tech platforms is, there is growing and persuasive empirical evidence that political parties and politicians themselves and their behavior online play an even greater role for a healthy public sphere. While platforms can dramatically amplify bad dynamics of online misinformation and uncivil political discourse, it is politicians and parties that are instrumental in creating these bad dynamics in the first place.


Introduction – an online public sphere under attack with tech platforms at the center

Escalating hate speech online and high volumes of quickly spreading disinformation on social media platforms contribute to a poisoning of the political discourse all around the world.  Survey data from 142 countries suggest that disinformation ranks as the single most important concern related to social media use. It is regarded as a problem by more than half of all regular internet users.  Digital propaganda and online political mudslinging fuel and are fueled by the exacerbation of political polarization, and an erosion of trust in politics and democracy more broadly. In some countries, these phenomena are also associated with an uptick in political violence. As a tragic corollary, trust in news has also been eroding across the world.  Social media platforms and their business models that place a premium on attention-grabbing, inflammatory content are regularly identified as the main culprit in these developments. Most efforts to improve the health of the public online sphere are therefore focused on the dominant tech platforms. They concentrate on stepping up content moderation and fact checking, as well as on design changes that make dubious pieces of content less visible and less viral.

But this is not the full picture.

Why social media is not everything and why parties and politicians matter, probably even more

As important as a focus on tech platforms is, there is growing and persuasive empirical evidence that political parties and politicians themselves and their behavior online play an even greater role for a healthy public sphere. While platforms can dramatically amplify bad dynamics of online misinformation and uncivil political discourse, it is politicians and parties that are instrumental in creating these bad dynamics in the first place. Political elites are often found to model disrespectful political behavior online and contribute to the establishment of a new normal of an extremely polarized, non-compromising view of political opponents and a disregard for democratic principles. In addition, politicians and their party machineries often pick up marginal misinformation and share it with their large numbers of followers, thereby giving online lies and half-truths the necessary boost in visibility and respectability to enable their viral spread.

Some data points help illustrate this issue:

  • One of the most comprehensive studies to track the spread of political disinformation across the entire media environment in the US identifies political leaders and their influencer networks as the super-spreaders of misinformation.
  • In a large-scale public opinion survey, citizens across 40 countries cited “domestic politicians” most frequently as a source of misinformation. Experts concur that this behavior is on the rise in a large number of countries.[1]
  • Several experiments and empirical accounts confirm that the polarization or sectarianism of political elites exerts a ripple effect, creating similar antagonistic tendencies in the broader society.
  • Parties can also have a positive, moderating effect on public opinions and on the willingness of their followers to compromise even when concrete material interests are at stake. In Denmark for example, they were found to be able to persuade their followers to temper some more extreme demands in salary negotiations.

In other words, the main driver for the erosion of trust and civility in democratic discourse are political elites when they behave in uncivil ways and exhibit a profound disregard for their opponents, reasoned discourse, democratic institutions, and, most fundamentally, truthfulness. The integrity of the public sphere stands or falls with the integrity of political elites.

Professional service providers help turn sinister political intent into impactful propaganda. The thriving and expanding industry of social media operatives working in a legal grey zone stands ready to supply political candidates with the latest propaganda services from automated “bots” that disrupt or dominate particular online conversations or fine-tuned micro-targeting of specific voter segments to the more sinister seeding of misinformation through coordinated inauthentic accounts.  In 2020, the use of some form of such computational propaganda in campaigns by politicians and parties has been documented in more than 60 countries.

Avenues for change – how to promote online political integrity for a healthier public sphere

At first sight, the prospects for improving the online conduct of political elites do not look too promising.  Politicians face very little pushback and constraints on bad online behavior. Platforms, even if they are committed to regulating online speech by politicians, are unlikely to have the resources to do so effectively outside their immediate home markets. Facebook, for example has more than 90% of monthly users outside the U.S. and Canada, but deploys only 13% of its 3.2 million annual hours of content moderation outside the US.  Punishment at the ballot box is also unlikely. Heightened partisanship also means that voters are increasingly reluctant to punish undemocratic behavior of “their” ideologically preferred candidate. Experiments show that in the US, only 3.5 percent of voters are realistically prepared to  vote against their party if their preferred candidates violates democratic norms.

Nevertheless, there are several approaches that can encourage more responsible online behavior by political parties and politicians. Such efforts typically combine self-regulatory aspects with updates to bring existing rules and regulations into the digital era. They include:

  • Plugging transparency loopholes in digital political communication: Disclosures of campaign funding, campaign expenditures and political advertising activities are long-standing instruments for opening the black box of political communication. Yet, so far, no country has updated these rules sufficiently to make them fit for the digital era and for the growing toolbox of online politicking. Two out of three countries in the broader European region do not make it mandatory for politicians and political parties to share information on their online spending at a meaningful level of detail; 28 countries across Europe provide insufficient information about online campaigns.  Parties and politicians should at a minimum be required to provide detailed reports about their online campaigning activities and expenditures, including their handling of citizen data, their online audience segmentation (microtargeting), their work with influencers and coordinated third-party campaigns.
  • Expanding political ad repositories: Social media platforms that run paid political ads are in a unique position to provide consolidated, searchable public access to political ads for posteriority and public scrutiny. Some of the major platforms have already set up such repositories. Now the challenge is to expand and standardize the information to be provided, work on timely and high-quality data provision and ensure roll-out in more countries.  Facebook quite notably already includes in its ad repository so-called issue ads by third parties including businesses and non-profits. Similarly, the elections committee in Israel regards ads with political content as electioneering information and requires the disclosure of its sponsors – both are a very important next step as campaigns increasingly rely on “outsourced” support by third parties that are often not subject to political disclosure requirements.
  • Integrity pacts for online campaigning: Political tactics online evolve continuously and are thus very difficult to regulate. Further, regulation is not relevant in the many countries that accord a special free speech protection to parties and political speech. This makes codes of online political conduct particularly appealing, as they offer an opportunity for political actors to showcase their commitment to integrity and ideally, to create momentum for others to join in and raise norms in the medium term.  The list of inspiring examples is growing. A presidential candidate in the US issued an online integrity pledge for her 2020 campaign. Official electoral commissions from New Zealand to India have issued social media guidelines for campaigning. Civil society in Germany has led efforts to engage political candidates for the 2021 election to sign on to a code of conduct for fair online campaigning, and the Dutch government has brokered a similar pact for both platforms and political parties in the run-up to its 2021 parliamentary elections.

As these examples show, there are many things that can be done to encourage political parties and candidates to live up to their paramount role in nurturing a healthy political discourse and public sphere. Some of these measures can be implemented through regulations, while others require the cooperation of the major online platforms. Yet at the end of the day, the buck stops with politicians and political parties themselves and the way their conduct shapes the norms of political discourse.

Further reading

  • Tucker, J., Guess, A., Barberá, P.  et al. (2018). “Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation: A Review of the Scientific Literature.”https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3144139 [An in-depth discussion of the main problems with political disinformation, authored by some of the leading scholars in the field]

[1] Author calculations based on http://digitalsocietyproject.org/data-version-2/

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tel Aviv and/or its partners.