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Article

Gatekeeping, Technology, and Polarization  

Stuart N. Soroka and Mia Carbone

Research on media gatekeeping is focused on the factors leading to a distribution of information in media content that is systematically different from the “real world.” Early gatekeeping work examined editorial decisions, and emphasized the effect that a single editor’s preferences and beliefs could have on the content new consumers receive. The literature has gradually shifted to focus on more generalizable factors, however. These include organization-level assessments of newsworthiness and commercial/economic considerations; broader system-level factors including the impact of dominant ideologies and political and social norms; and common individual-level factors, including a range of cognitive and psychological biases. This article summarizes research on each of these factors, alongside recent work that uses a “distributional” approach to illustrate the gatekeeping process. The tendency for humans to prioritize negative over positive information is one cognitive bias that can be understood as a gatekeeping effect, and so this bias is discussed briefly here as one example of a set of organization-, system-, and individual-level “gates” that have a systematic impact on news content. Negativity is just one example, however. The impact that various cognitive and institutional biases have on news provision and consumption has shifted over time alongside technological change. Sensationalism, violence, and politically divisive content—all of these elements of media coverage can be considered effectively using the gatekeeping metaphor. This is the focus of the penultimate section of this article.

Article

Information and Communication Technology in Crisis and Disaster Management  

Deedee Bennett

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) cover a wide range of telecommunication devices and applications, which facilitate the flow of information. Within crisis and disaster management, these devices and applications may be used explicitly for hazards or crisis detection, information management, communication, situational awareness, search and rescue efforts, and decision support systems. Everything from cell phones and social media to unmanned aerial vehicles and weather stations are used to collect, disseminate, and monitor various types of information and data to provide a common operating picture. ICTs are continually evolving, with new features developed and deployed at a rapid pace. This development has had a unique impact on crisis and disaster management, allowing for real-time communication and situational awareness, as well as novel approaches to simulations and training. With the near-ubiquitous use of some devices, information is also no longer held solely by government or private sector officials; ordinary citizens are also able to contribute to and disseminate information during and after crises. For some segments of the population, this ability to meaningfully contribute is not only empowering but necessary to highlight unmet needs. Throughout the evolution of ICTs, new research and practical concerns have highlighted persistent unmet needs of more vulnerable populations due to growing interdependence and integration across jurisdictional boundaries worldwide. The continued expansion of ICTs will most likely have a profound impact on this field in the future.

Article

Information and Communication Technology, Transparency, and Accountability  

Catie Snow Bailard

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are rapidly, profoundly, and simultaneously changing three structural properties that define contemporary communication systems. How we encode information, the means for transmitting this encoded information, and the networks that determine who can send and receive that information have changed dramatically with the advent of the Internet and mobile technology. Although the political events, outcomes, and behaviors precipitated by the political opportunities created by these ICTs are neither uniform nor automatic, this dramatic reshaping of contemporary information landscapes does have clear consequences for the quantity and range of information available to citizens across the globe. There are also evident effects on the communication costs that are integral to political organization. Additionally, there are indisputable implications for the informational relationship shared by governments and their citizens. Each of these sets of effects creates new opportunities for accountability and transparency in the electoral process and for the processes of governance more generally, in the context of developed democracies but also in developing and non-democratic countries.

Article

Media, War, and Foreign Policy  

Sean Aday

Mass media play an important but often misunderstood role in wartime. Political elites try to marshal support for military intervention (or justify avoiding such involvement) through the press. Media sometimes serve as watchdogs, holding leaders accountable for their claims and actions in times of conflict, but more often appear to act as uncritical megaphones for bellicose rhetoric. The public, meanwhile, has little choice but to see war through the prism of media coverage, placing a great burden on the press to cover conflicts truthfully and thoroughly, a responsibility they sometimes live up to, but in important ways do not. Scholarship about these issues goes back decades, yet many questions remain unanswered or up for debate. There seems to be strong consensus that media coverage of conflict is even more elite driven than is domestic coverage, for instance, yet how much that matters in shaping public attitudes and support for war remains contested. Similarly, research consistently shows that the press shies away from showing casualties, yet the effects of exposure to casualty information and images are still not well understood. Finally, digital media seem to be important factors in contemporary crises and conflicts, but scholars are still trying to understand whether these platforms more serve the interests of protest or repression, peace or violence, community or polarization.

Article

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.