Book Review: Politicking in the Digital Age

Exploring the effects of new media on the political landscape.

"Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns" by Eds. Victoria A. Farrar-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn (NATIONAL JOURNAL)

Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns

Eds. Victoria A. Farrar-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn, New York University Press, 2015


If Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was the first to experiment with the power of social media, the 2012 cycle presented the first real opportunity to study its impact on electoral politics. Farrar-Myers and Vaughn did that and more, commissioning 13 research papers on the effects of new media on the political landscape, looking at everything from whether Facebook "likes" translate into votes to the hyperpartisanship of newspaper comment sections. Controlling the Message presents each study and its findings, collectively painting a nuanced portrait of social and other new media's current place in politics.


Campaign managers; digital directors; ad-makers; online-community managers; editorial-page editors; professional tweeters; political scientists.


Success "is far more likely to come to those who blend traditional campaign fundamentals with modern social media than to those who ignore or underemphasize the former while focusing on the latter. The seemingly revolutionary nature of new and social media causes people to forget a simple fact about them: new and social media are tools to convey a message, not the message itself."


It is too early draw any firm or final conclusions from the research that has begun to roll in on the relationship between politics and new media, so readers should enjoy this fascinating work without taking it as gospel. This is particularly true because social science can be slippery in general: As the authors of one chapter note, trying to establish a causal relationship between a campaign and an individual's or group's behavior "is a bit like the research on violent video games. It stands to reason that there should be some effect, but documenting this effect is empirically difficult."


Digital directors and social-media gurus may want to check out the study by Meredith Conroy, Jessica T. Feezell, and Mario Guerrero on the connection between Facebook use and notions of civic duty. Their work includes evidence that active Facebook users are more likely to donate to or volunteer for campaigns and participate in rallies, boycotts, and petitioning—a rejoinder to those who deride "clicktivism" as a substitute for real-life engagement.


The great democratization of politics that new media was expected to usher in has yet to arrive. The major political parties and corporate media still control the process; they have simply transferred their efforts to new platforms.