Digital Politics: Time for Researchers to Challenge the Hype


William Dutton on Digital Politics and challenging the hype

A decade ago, digital politics was viewed as marginal to the study of political communication or politics generally. Politics simply did not play a serious role in the use of the Internet, social media and related digital media. Nevertheless, popular perspectives on the Internet and politics were filled with great promise for (e-)democracy, the expansion of the public sphere, the potential for remote Internet voting, and the value of escaping from the limitations of the mainstream news media.  

How times have changed. Today digital media have virtually taken over the political domain. What better examples are there than from current responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Britain is establishing a more virtual Parliament. Public interest organizations are arguing for using new technology for keeping the US Congress in session during the pandemic. Presidential and prime ministerial press conferences are held in front of video conferencing screens to interact online with journalists. The US Supreme Court is moving online! Governmental directions on travel restrictions are texted to the public. Governments are implementing digital tracing of their demonym to protect their public from COVID-19. 

Ironically, at the same time that digital media have become more increasingly central to political institutions and politics, Utopian visions of the past decade have flipped to dystopian fears. Pundits and academics alike blame digital media, such as the Internet and its search algorithms and bots, for dangerous declines in the quality and diversity of political communication and information about politics. Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and disinformation are seen as explanations of presumed trends toward greater incivility, populism, polarization, and declining trust and confidence in government and politicians.  

In this context, it is difficult to remember a time when there was a greater need for systematic empirical research on political communication issues than right now. Today’s hyperbole over the Internet is reminiscent of the earliest years in the study of media and politics, which centered around the rise of mass media propaganda, and fear of Vance Packard’s ‘hidden persuaders’. It was in those times when a new scholarly field of media and politics was born. 

With digital politics appearing everywhere, what should be the priorities for research on the actual implications of digital media in the political sphere? There is a general understanding that research needs to move beyond overly broad speculation about the impact of the Internet on politics. The media are filled with such speculation anchored in specific instances and deterministic thinking. Specific examples are relevant but easy to overstate and over-generalize. The case of Cambridge Analytica has raised fears over the potential of campaigns exploiting data to manipulate voters, but the actual impact of this campaign remains unknown if not much overblown. Tweets not only give the public more direct access to audiences, but tweets from politicians have become a source of news, criticism and hand wringing, but little systematic research. Anecdotes gain momentum when tied to a technologically deterministic narrative – such that new media are assumed to have the intended impacts of their producers on their malleable audiences. 

Instead of technological deterministism driving anecdotal speculation, digital politics needs to be seriously embraced by systematic empirical research. Good research would be skeptical of deterministic reasoning and of generalizations based on anecdotal evidence. 

For example, the media’s fascination with echo chambers and filter bubbles provides one example of a deterministic thesis failing to be adequately researched. The idea that social media trap Internet users in an echo chamber, and that search algorithms feed into their failure to break out of these bubbles, simply does not square with research on the actual practices of Internet users. Those who are interested in politics get information about politics from multiple sources off- and on-line, making them less susceptible to a single narrative or political position than are those who are not interested or not online. 

Likewise, speculation about digital media being responsible for a rise in populism has been dramatically under-researched. The attitudes and practices associated with ‘populism’ – seldom defined –  are often tied to extremists. Actually, they are in many respects closer to the ‘new normal’. More of the public are simply more confident in their ability to obtain information about politics and policy and do not wish to simply entrust politicians to make decisions for them. Moreover, rather than populists being trapped in filter bubbles or echo chambers, they are more avid users of search and the diverse sources of information on the Internet than are individuals located at far left or far right political poles. Polarization, not populism or the Internet, is limiting the diversity of information individuals seek online. 

Researchers need to move away from overly general speculation about digital politics to focus on specific uses of particular media in well-defined contexts. For example, the coronavirus might well lead to more uses of virtual politics, such as online debate among distributed Supreme Court Justices. What difference with this make? Likewise, what will be the effect of virtual parliaments, and legislatures or remote voting.? Will the tracking and tracing of those tested for the coronavirus, along with those they contact, lead to longer-term and unanticipated privacy and surveillance issues? 

Given the enormously wide range of questions and potential topics for research, those engaged in the study of digital media might well be metaphorically caught in the headlights of the revolution in digital media and politics. Nevertheless, there is a pressing need for serious researchers to step up to this challenge, and not let the debate over digital politics be defined solely by the pundits, fear mongers and technocrats. Researchers across the disciplines need to take stronger positions of leadership and address the myriad issues of digital politics. There has never been a better time. We might well be on the cusp of inventing a new academic field around digital politics – one that could positively impact policy and practice while renewing the study of political communication, media and politics. 


¹ Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped’, The Conversation, 5 May:

² Dutton, W. H. and Robertson, C. T. (forthcoming), ‘The Role of Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers in the Rise of Populism: Disentangling Polarization and Civic Empowerment in the Digital Age’ in Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord (eds), The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. New York: Routledge, pp. forthcoming.


Dutton RA Digital


A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

William H. Dutton, University of Southern California, US, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and University of Leeds, UK

, , , , , ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: