Four potential mechanisms explore the linkages between partian media outlets and attitudinal polarization, as well as discusses how such outlets cause polarization and influence American politics more generally: partisan media outlets can have direct effects on their audience, indirect effects on the broader population, effects on the news media, and effects on political elites. Some challenges and questions remain to be answered in each area in the hopes of spurring more, and broader, work on these media institutions.
Partisan Media and Polarization: Challenges for Future Work
Using Experiments to Understand How Agency Influences Media Effects
Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson
Students of public opinion tend to focus on how exposure to political media, such as news coverage and political advertisements, influences the political choices that people make. However, the expansion of news and entertainment choices on television and via the Internet makes the decisions that people make about what to consume from various media outlets a political choice in its own right. While the current day hyperchoice media landscape opens new avenues of research, it also complicates how we should approach, conduct, and interpret this research. More choices means greater ability to choose media content based on one’s political preferences, exacerbating the severity of selection bias and endogeneity inherent in observational studies. Traditional randomized experiments offer compelling ways to obviate these challenges to making valid causal inferences, but at the cost of minimizing the role that agency plays in how people make media choices. Resent research modifies the traditional experimental design for studying media effects in ways that incorporate agency over media content. These modifications require researchers to consider different trade-offs when choosing among different design features, creating both advantages and disadvantages. Nonetheless, this emerging line of research offers a fresh perspective on how people’s media choices shapes their reaction to media content and political decisions.
The Content and Effect of Political Advertising in U.S. Campaigns
Matthew P. Motta and Erika Franklin Fowler
Political advertising, especially negative advertising, is a prominent feature of contemporary political campaigns in the United States. Campaigns use advertising strategically to persuade citizens their candidate is preferable to the alternatives; to mobilize like-minded supporters to get out to the polls to cast a ballot for their candidate; and to acquire citizen-personal information, so they can more effectively target individuals with appropriate persuasive or mobilizing messages. Online advertising is growing, but television advertising volume has largely been on the rise, too, with 2014 being a plateau. Evidence about trends in advertising content and effects of advertising on citizens come from television advertising in particular. Over the past decade, candidates have consistently sponsored a majority of advertising on the airwaves although their share does appear to be declining in legislative races. Interest group sponsorship of political advertising has grown, especially in Senate and presidential races, taking advantage of recent legal changes in the campaign finance landscape. Negativity is the dominant form of television advertising, constituting more than 65% and as much as 75% of all congressional general election ads (and as much as 87% of presidential ads) on air since 2006. Parties and interest group sponsors are more likely to air negative advertising by candidates, but candidates do not refrain from going negative. In fact, candidate negativity comprises roughly half of all negative ads on air. Negative ads are more likely to cite specific sources and therefore are generally considered more substantive. TV advertising is unlikely to contain partisan or ideological cues, in part, because it is targeted at swing voters. Early studies of advertising cast doubt on their effectiveness, but more recent work suggests that advertising effects are small (mattering at the margin in the most competitive contests) and often conditional. That is, advertising effects often vary in relation to characteristics of the messages being aired, the individuals who view them, and contextual factors relating to the campaign more generally. Scholarship suggests that advertising has persuasive but short-lived influence on citizens and that advertising volume and negativity may aid mobilization efforts (although the influence of negativity may be conditioned upon ad characteristics and timing). Technological advances in the way TV advertising is deployed is increasing campaigns ability to target citizens in a fashion similar to online advertising, which has implications for how well researchers can continue to study it. Scholars have made considerable progress in studying 21st-century advertising effects, but a number of logistical hurdles and unanswered research questions remain.
The Search for Real-World Media Effects on Political Decision Making
Thomas J. Leeper
Empirical media effects research involves associating two things: measures of media content or experience and measures of audience outcomes. Any quantitative evidence of correlation between media supply and audience response—combined with assumptions about temporal ordering and an absence of spuriousness—is taken as evidence of media effects. This seemingly straightforward exercise is burdened by three challenges: the measurement of the outcomes, the measurement of the media and individuals’ exposure to it, and the tools and techniques for associating the two. While measuring the outcomes potentially affected by media is in many ways trivial (surveys, election outcomes, and online behavior provide numerous measurement devices), the other two aspects of studying the effects of media present nearly insurmountable difficulties short of ambitious experimentation. Rather than find solutions to these challenges, much of collective body of media effects research has focused on the effort to develop and apply survey-based measures of individual media exposure to use as the empirical basis for studying media effects. This effort to use survey-based media exposure measures to generate causal insight has ultimately distracted from the design of both causally credible methods and thicker descriptive research on the content and experience of media. Outside the laboratory, we understand media effects too little despite this considerable effort to measure exposure through survey questionnaires. The canonical approach for assessing such effects: namely, using survey questions about individual media experiences to measure the putatively causal variable and correlating those measures with other measured outcomes suffers from substantial limitations. Experimental—and sometimes quasi-experimental—methods provide definitely superior causal inference about media effects and a uniquely fruitful path forward for insight into media and their effects. Simultaneous to this, however, thicker forms of description than what is available from close-ended survey questions holds promise to give richer understanding of changing media landscape and changing audience experiences. Better causal inference and better description are co-equal paths forward in the search for real-world media effects.
The Media and Political Behavior
Hajo G. Boomgaarden and Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck
Media are key for the functioning of democracy. It is the essential link between politics and citizens, providing critical information and interpretation of politics and room for debate. Given this central role of the media for democratic political processes, questions about how mediated political information would affect citizens’ perceptions of and attitudes toward politics, as well as ultimately political behavior, have been dominant in research in the field of political communication. While vast amounts of mid-range theories and empirical insights speak in favor of influences of media on citizens, there is little in terms of a universal theoretical framework guiding political media effects research, which makes it difficult to give a conclusive answer to the question: how and, in particular, how much do the media matter? It may matter for some people under some conditions in some contexts relating to some outcome variables. Technological changes in media systems pose additional challenges, both conceptually and methodologically, to come to comprehensive assessments of media influences on citizens’ political cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors. Research needs to be clearer as to which conceptualization of media is followed and how such conceptualization may interact with other dimensions of media attributes. Measurement of media use and reception needs to take into account the increasing complexities of how citizens encounter political information, and it requires alignment with the conceptualization of media. Political media effect theories should not continue developing side by side, but should attempt to find a place in a more comprehensive model and take into account how they relate to and possibly interact with other approaches. In sum, the field of political media effects, while vast and covering a range of aspects, would do well to consider its role and purpose in increasingly complex media environments and, accordingly, provide more integrative perspectives, conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically.
Media, Electoral Accountability, and Issue Voting
Jennifer Jerit and Jason Barabas
Issue voting concerns the extent to which citizens reward or punish elected officials for their actions or inaction on legislative issues. There are debates about styles of issue voting as well as whether it takes place in the United States, but nearly all theoretical models elevate the role of political knowledge. That is, voters must know where politicians stand on policy issues as well as their own positions. While there are a variety of ways citizens could learn about policy positions and actions, the mass media are presumed to play an important role. Yet, demonstrating the empirical linkages has been difficult in the past due to ever-present challenges with data and research designs. More research is needed to understand the various mechanisms underpinning representative democracy.
Social Media and Elections in Africa
The analysis of the diffusion of social media in Africa and its relevance for politics has been caught in a paradox. On the one hand, social media have been saluted for their newness and for their ability, especially in connection with increasingly accessible portable tools such as mobile phones, to offer a level playing field for individuals to participate in politics and speak to power. On the other hand, this very enthusiasm has evoked relatively tired tropes used to frame the advent of other “new” technologies in the past, stressing what they could do to Africa, rather than exploring what they are doing in Africa. Early research on the relationship between social media and elections in Africa has tended to adopt normative frameworks adapted from the analysis of electoral contests in the Global North, presupposing unfettered citizens using social media to root for their leaders or demand accountability. A more recent wave of empirically grounded studies has embraced a greater conceptual and methodological pluralism, offering more space to analyze the contradictions in how social media are used and abused: how humor can be turned into a powerful tool to contest a type of power that appears overwhelming; or how armies of professional users have exploited people’s credulity of new media as “freer” from power to actually support partisan agenda. Interestingly, this latter approach has brought to light phenomena that have only recently caught global attention, such as the role of “fake news” and misinformation in electoral contests, but have played a determinant role in African politics for at least a decade.
Crisis communication may be understood as the process of creating and exchanging messages between interdependent stakeholders in conditions of high uncertainty, threats to high-priority goals, and the need for immediate response created by a crisis. This process occurs through established channels and networks of communication, using a variety of message forms. Feedback, message consistency, message tailoring, message reach, transparency and openness, immediacy, credibility, and coordination with key groups, among other factors, are related to effectiveness. Communication within the context of crisis is necessary for coordination, sense-making, effective response, recovery, renewal, learning, and the development of resilience. Processes of communication generally follow the developmental nature of crises from pre-crisis conditions where risks develop and incubate to post-crisis conditions where social and organizational structures, processes, and norms are reconstructed. Crisis communication is closely related to risk communication that concerns the ongoing process of exchanging messages to monitor, understand, and manage risks. Effective communication is essential to the successful management of crises, and communication functions should be included in crisis and risk policy formation and planning as well as response and recovery. Communication may also promote the development of resilience and contribute to system renewal.
Typology of Media Systems
Daniel C. Hallin
Typologies are a central tool of comparative analysis in the social sciences. Typologies function to identify common patterns in the relationships among elements of a media system and wider social system, and to generate research questions about why particular patterns occur in particular systems, why particular cases may deviate from common patterns, and what the consequences of these patterns may be. They are important for specifying the context within which particular processes operate, and therefore for identifying possible system-level causes, for specifying the scope of applicability of particular theories and for assessing the validity of measurements across systems. Typologies of media systems date to the publication of Four Theories of the Press, which proposed a typology of authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and Soviet Communist media systems. Hallin and Mancini’s typology of media systems in Western Europe and North America has influenced recent work in comparative analysis of media systems. Hallin and Mancini proposed three models differentiated on the basis of four clusters of variables: the development of media markets; the degree and forms of political parallelism; journalistic professionalism; and the role of the state. Much recent research has been devoted to operationalizing these dimensions of comparison, and a number of revisions of Hallin and Mancini’s model and proposals for alternative approaches have been proposed. Researchers have also begun efforts to develop typologies including media systems outside of Western Europe and North America.
Priming in Political Judgment and Decision Making
How do people make political judgments and decisions? Each day, people are faced with a host of political issues. They also possess a limited amount of cognitive resources and must grapple with topics on which there is not necessarily an objectively correct answer. In turn, people rely on accessible information to facilitate their political judgments and decisions. Information is accessible when it is activated in a person’s mind. The information can either be chronically accessible, such as the political issues that are consistently important to a person, or made accessible through the situation, such as the issues that the media choose to cover in a given time and place. Situational information becomes especially accessible when the context activates available information stored in memory or the information is consistent with a person’s motivations and goals, such as media coverage rendering civil rights more accessible for racial minorities. Priming refers to the usage of accessible information when making judgments and decisions, such as deciding whether to sign a petition or how to vote in an election. In recent years, considerable debate has emerged about the generalizability of findings and current conceptual models of accessibility and priming across people and contexts. As research on accessibility and priming progresses, scholars continue to examine these topics in novel areas (e.g., social media) and push in building nuanced theoretical frameworks that help to explain variability in priming across contexts. Overall, understanding how people use accessible information in political judgments and decisions stands as an important factor in developing a comprehensive picture of political life.
The Mass Media and the Policy Process
Annelise Russell, Maraam Dwidar, and Bryan D. Jones
Scholars across politics and communication have wrangled with questions aimed at better understanding issue salience and attention. For media scholars, they found that mass attention across issues was a function the news media’s power to set the nation’s agenda by focusing attention on a few key public issues. Policy scholars often ignored the media’s role in their effort to understand how and why issues make it onto a limited political agenda. What we have is two disparate definitions describing, on the one hand, media effects on individuals’ issue priorities, and on the other, how the dynamics of attention perpetuate across the political system. We are left with two notions of agenda setting developed independently of one another to describe media and political systems that are anything but independent of one another. The collective effects of the media on our formal institutions and the mass public are ripe for further, collaborative research. Communications scholars have long understood the agenda setting potential of the news media, but have neglected to extend that understanding beyond its effects on mass public. The link between public opinion and policy is “awesome” and scholarship would benefit from exploring the implications for policy, media, and public opinion. Both policy and communication studies would benefit from a broadened perspective of media influence. Political communication should consider the role of the mass media beyond just the formation of public opinion. The media as an institution is not effectively captured in a linear model of information signaling because the public agenda cannot be complete without an understanding of the policymaking agenda and the role of political elites. And policy scholars can no longer describe policy process without considering the media as a source of disproportionate allocation of attention and information. The positive and negative feedback cycles that spark or stabilize the political system are intimately connected to policy frames and signals produced by the media.
From Crisis to Stasis: Media Dynamics and Issue Attention in the News
Amber E. Boydstun and Annelise Russell
Media coverage does not ebb and flow. Rather, media coverage rapidly moves from crisis to stasis and back again. The result of these attention dynamics is news reporting that is disproportional to the breadth and pace of policy problems in the world, where some balloon in the news beyond expectations and others fade quickly (or never make the news at all). These patterns of news coverage result from the powerful role that momentum plays in the news-generation process. Forces of positive feedback drive news outlets to chase each new hot story quickly, while negative feedback forces drive news outlets to stay locked onto a hot story at hand. Together, these forces drive news coverage to lurch and fixate, lurch and fixate, again and again. Thus, although previous research has conceived of the news-generation process functioning either as a “patrol” system (where news outlets act as sentinels, tracking each policy problem as it unfolds in the world) or as an “alarm” system (where news outlets move in quick bursts from one policy problem to the next, with little to no in-depth coverage), both these previous models tell only half the story. Rather, the news-generation process is best understood through the alarm/patrol hybrid model, where news outlets often lurch from one hot item to the next but sometimes become entrenched in an unfolding storyline. The alarm/patrol hybrid model helps explain the particular phenomenon of “media storms” that can occur, where a sudden surge in media attention can vault a previously ignored issue into the center of public and political attention; think of the Catholic priest abuse scandal, or the scene in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s death. The lurching/fixating dynamics of media attention have far-ranging implications for citizen information and political response, contributing to a wider system of disproportionate information processing where some topics are attended to and others are largely ignored. In particular, because policymakers take so many of their cues from the news, it is likely the case that the lurching/fixating patterns of our media system exacerbate the punctuated patterns of government in turn.
Political Agenda Setting and the Mass Media
Stefaan Walgrave and Peter Van Aelst
Recently, the number of studies examining whether media coverage has an effect on the political agenda has been growing strongly. Most studies found that preceding media coverage does exert an effect on the subsequent attention for issues by political actors. These effects are contingent, though, they depend on the type of issue and the type of political actor one is dealing with. Most extant work has drawn on aggregate time-series designs, and the field is as good as fully non-comparative. To further develop our knowledge about how and why the mass media exert influence on the political agenda, three ways forward are suggested. First, we need better theory about why political actors would adopt media issues and start devoting attention to them. The core of such a theory should be the notion of the applicability of information encapsulated in the media coverage to the goals and the task at hand of the political actors. Media information has a number of features that make it very attractive for political actors to use—it is often negative, for instance. Second, we plead for a disaggregation of the level of analysis from the institutional level (e.g., parliament) or the collective actor level (e.g., party) to the individual level (e.g., members of parliament). Since individuals process media information, and since the goals and tasks of individuals that trigger the applicability mechanism are diverse, the best way to move forward is to tackle the agenda setting puzzle at the individual level. This implies surveying individual elites or, even better, implementing experimental designs to individual elite actors. Third, the field is in dire need of comparative work comparing how political actors respond to media coverage across countries or political systems.
Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Dramatic changes in the way the public acquires information and formulates its attitudes have potentially altered the opinion and foreign policy relationship. While traditional approaches have treated public opinion on domestic and foreign matters as largely distinct, the culmination of a series of changes may eliminate the effective distinction between foreign and domestic policy, at least in terms of how the American political system operates. All the factors central to the opinion and foreign policy process, such as information acquisition, attitude formation, media effects, the effect of opinion on policy, and presidential leadership now appear to mirror the processes observed at the domestic level. This analysis reviews historical trends in the literature on public opinion and foreign policy that has focused on the rationality of the public’s opinions, the structure of its attitudes, and its influence on foreign policymaking. The traditional Almond-Lippmann consensus portrayed an emotional public with unstructured attitudes and little influence on foreign policy; however, revisionist views have described a reasonable public with largely structured views on foreign policy that can, at times, constrain and even drive those policies. More recently, the rise of “intermestic” issues, contain both domestic and international elements, such as globalization, inequality, terrorism, immigration, and climate change, have interacted to transform the domestic and international context. The bulk of this analysis highlights emerging new research directions that should be pursued in light of the changes. First, scholars should continue to evaluate the “who thinks what and why” questions with particular attention to differences between high- and low-information individuals, the effect of misinformation, and information sources. In doing so, research should build on research from non-American contexts that points to the important influences of societal and institutional factors. In addition to continued examination of traditional demographic factors such as partisanship and ideology, additional attention should turn to consider potential genetic and biological foundations of attitudes. Finally, researchers should continue to evaluate how the new media environment, including social media, affects how the public accesses information, how the media provides information, and how political elites attempt to shape both. Given these changes, scholars should consider whether it continues to make sense to treat public opinion dynamics regarding foreign policy as distinct from domestic policy and its implications.
LGBTQ Politics in Media and Culture
Thomas J. Billard and Larry Gross
As the primary vector by which society tells itself about itself, popular media transmit ideas of what behavior is acceptable and whose identities are legitimate, thereby perpetuating and, at times, transforming the social order. Thus, media have been key targets of LGBT advocacy and activism and important contributors to the political standing of LGBT people. Of course, media are not a monolith, and different types of media inform different parts of society. Community media have been an important infrastructure through which gays and lesbians and, separately, transgender people formed shared identities and developed collective political consciousness. Political media, such as newspapers, news websites, and network and cable television news broadcasts, inform elites and the mass public alike, making them an important influence on public opinion and political behavior. Entertainment media, such as television and film, cultivate our culture’s shared values and ideas, which infuse into the public’s political beliefs and attitudes. Generally speaking, the literature on LGBTQ politics and the media is biased toward news and public affairs media over fictional and entertainment media, though both are important influences on LGBTQ citizens’ political engagement, as well as on citizens’ public opinion toward LGBTQ rights and their subsequent political behaviors. In the case of the former, media—particularly LG(BT) community media—have played an important role in facilitating the formation of a shared social and then political identity, as well as fueling the formation of, first, separate gay and lesbian and transgender movements and then a unified LGBTQ movement. Moreover, digital media have enabled new modes of political organizing and exercising sociopolitical influence, making LGBTQ activism more diverse, more intersectional, more pluralistic, and more participatory. In the case of the latter, (news) media representations of LGBTQ individuals initially portrayed them in disparaging and disrespectful ways. Over time, representations in both news and entertainment media have come to portray them in ways that legitimate their identities and their political claims. These representations, in turn, have had profound impacts on public opinion toward LGBTQ rights and citizens’ LGBTQ-relevant voting behavior. Yet, the literature on these representations and their effects overwhelmingly focuses on gays and lesbians at the expense of bisexual and transgender people, and this work is done primarily in U.S. and Anglophone contexts, limiting our understanding of the relationships between LGBTQ politics and the media globally.
The Media and Foreign Policy
In this critical overview of the research to date on media and foreign policy, the relationship between media and public opinion and key international relations theories is described and two key research strands are examined. The first research strand concerns the liberal-pluralist approach to analyzing media and foreign policy and considering the media (and public opinion) as both a constraint on foreign policy and an instigator of policy. The second strand concerns the elite-driven model and theorizes media as largely subservient to foreign policy elites and, frequently, as an agent of manipulation and influence with regard to public opinion. It is argued that, on balance, there is greater theoretical and empirical evidence in support of the elite-driven model. Before concluding with a suggested research agenda for the future, two key developments concerning the new media environment and contemporary propaganda are discussed. In particular, it is maintained that research on media and foreign policy needs to give closer attention to propaganda activities and that urgent questions remain unanswered about whether or not the new media environment is increasing or decreasing the power of publics and media to influence foreign policy.
The Politics of Public Broadcasters in Africa
National broadcasters are a standard feature across Africa. Set up by colonial regimes, they dominate media landscapes with their unrivaled geographic reach. Radio continues to be the main—and often only—source of information outside urban centers, where commercial media struggle to survive and illiteracy remains a challenge. Although access to new media has risen exponentially, use of mobile technology continues to be prohibitively expensive. Some national broadcasters are official state broadcasters: owned, run, and editorially controlled by government. However, many claim to be public broadcasters. By definition, these are accountable to the public rather than the government of the day: accessible to a universal audience, inclusive of a wide range of views; and fair, balanced, and independent in their journalism. This aspiration is reflected in national and supranational policy such as the African Charter on Broadcasting and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. In reality, these broadcasters lack de jure independence, the basic condition for them to be considered “public.” They are, in law and in practice, state broadcasters—owed to a range of historical, social, financial, and political determinants despite attempts by journalists and civil society to change this. Principally, the political will has been lacking—in colonial as well as postcolonial elites—to relinquish control of newsrooms and open up space for dissent. There is one exception: the South African Broadcasting Corporation was granted de jure independence following apartheid and enjoys unrivaled (though contested) legal guarantees and journalistic freedom. Its ongoing difficulties to fully meet its public broadcasting mandate despite this relatively conducive environment demonstrate that de jure independence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful broadcasting transformation, and that organizational culture is an important variable to be taken into account.
Beliefs and Stereotypes About LGBT People
Gary R. Hicks
The public’s perception of, beliefs about, and interest in LGBT individuals and the issues impacting them has long had great significance to the community’s social, political, and legal progress. The last decade has seen monumental changes in public attitudes about LGBT people and the laws that affect them in the United States and around the world. Much of this change has been positive, including the landmark Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage. In some parts of the world—even those that have witnessed great strides for LGBT equality—there have also been signs of a backlash against the community’s newfound rights and visibility in society. Stereotypes of LGBT individuals, mostly negative, have been responsible for much of this reaction, as well as their historically negative view in by the public. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the mass media has played a major role in creating and perpetuating these stereotypes.
Homosexuality in Francophone West Africa: The International Context of Local Controversies
Since the mid-2000s, certain expressions of hostility against homosexuality in Africa have received wide international media coverage. In different countries, one of the main targets of this hostility is gay mobilizations. At the same time, these expressions of hostility often promote the development of gay mobilizations. Thus, taken together, these opposing mobilizations form a system, as shown in the cases of Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa. Each of the two contexts presents specific local characteristics. In Senegal, the 2000s saw a rise in political Islam. In this context, the gay man gradually became a figure used variously in public debate, with power struggles within political and religious spheres influencing positions on homosexuality. In Côte d’Ivoire, the situation must first be understood through the political crisis affecting the country since the early 2000s and its ambivalent relationship with France, particularly since the post-election crisis of 2010–2011. In both countries, the opposing mobilizations are not limited to “social movements” in the strict sense but involve myriad heterogeneous actors (including at least one or more quasi-official gay groups) focused on a single problem, who sometimes work haphazardly and generally in opposite directions. Added to this heterogeneity of actors are their public positions which offer few clues to easily separate them into pro- and anti-camps. The fact remains that a disconnect often exists between the most prominent actors. However, this distinction is also ambiguous in that it subjects the opposing mobilizations to an interdependence: not only that the actions of one side can largely depend on another’s, but that another’s actions can also benefit actors. Finally, the controversies playing out in and dependent on specific national contexts are also largely constructed in relationship with the “international,” both as a context and an actor, and more generally as a reference figure.
Communication Technology and African Politics
Sharath Srinivasan and Stephanie Diepeveen
From global amplifications of local protests on social media to disinformation campaigns and transformative state surveillance capabilities, digital communications are changing the ways in which politics works in Africa and how and with whom power accrues. Yet while digital information technology and media are relatively new, the role of communication in state power and resistance on the continent is not. The “digital revolution” provokes us to better account for this past to understand a rapidly changing present. From language and script, to print and broadcast, to mobile applications and digital databases, how information is circulated, processed, and stored is central to political power on the African continent. The story of political change in Africa cannot be told without attention to how power manifests with and through changes in the technologies that enable these communication practices. A communication technology perspective on the study of politics in Africa provides a more sober analysis of how power relations circumscribe the possibilities of political change than more normative approaches would. Even so, a communication approach allows for social and ideational factors to mix with material ones in explaining the possibilities of such change. Communication technologies have been central to what political actors in Africa from the precolonial past to the early 21st century can and cannot do, and to how political change comes about. Explorations across time, political era, and technological development in Africa allow us to unpack this relationship. In the precolonial period, across forms of centralized and decentralized political organization, oral communication modalities reflected and enabled fluid and radial logics of authority and power relations. Changes in moral and practical ideas for political organization occurred amid early encounters with traders and Islamic scholars and texts and the movement of people to, from, and within the continent. Colonialism, which heavily focused on narrow extractive aims, required alien central authorities to overcome the vulnerability of their rule through knowledge production and information control. Equally, the same communication technologies valued by colonial authority—intermediaries, print, radio—became means through which resistance ideas circulated and movements were mobilized. In independent Africa, political aims may have changed, but communication infrastructures and their vulnerabilities were inherited. The predicament facing postcolonial governments had a communications dimension. Later, their ability to forge rule through control and allegiance had to contend with a globalizing information economy and demands for media pluralism. A communications perspective on the history of power on the African continent therefore guides a fuller understanding of change and continuity in politics in a digital age by drawing attention to the means and meanings by which legitimacy, authority, and belonging have continued to be produced and negotiated. Transnational configurations of information flows, global political economy logics of accumulation and security, and communicative terrains for contesting authority and mobilizing alternatives have been shown to possess both distinctly new characteristics and enduring logics.