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[ecrea] PhD studentship available at Northumbria University

Sun Mar 01 12:15:46 GMT 2015

An International Study of the Impact of New Technologies on Political Communication

Fully-funded (£14k pa) PhD studentship available at Northumbria University (Department of Social Sciences) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to start in October 2015

The Internet and other new technologies (smartphones, social media, Web 2.0, etc.) are revolutionising political communication (e.g. during election campaigns). Traditionally, politicians and their political parties devised a set of election campaign themes and messages and conveyed these to the electorate, or particular sections of the electorate, via advertising on billboards, in newspapers, and on radio and TV. In addition, they enlisted an army of canvassers to go door to door, posted out election flyers and other campaign materials, targeted swing voters by telephone and concentrated their resources on key marginal constituencies. More sophisticated election campaigns utilized commercial geo-demographic systems such as Mosaic, or developed their own (i.e. the Conservatives’ Voter Vault and Labour’s Contact Creator), in an attempt to reach particular categories of voter. The essential point is that such election campaigns were centrally-organized and top-down and they attempted to connect with the electorate as a collection of aggregated individuals.

Contemporary politicians and political parties, by contrast, are using the Internet and other new technologies to deliver decentralized and personalized election campaigns that connect with voters as individuals. Having been pioneered by Barack Obama in the United States (US) Presidential Election in 2008, and having been finessed during the 2012 Presidential Election, modern election campaigns are utilizing big data mining (i.e. algorithms) to construct detailed and sophisticated profiles of individual voters; huge data banks and supercomputers; multiple digital platforms; real-time experiment-informed programmes, to test the efficacy of campaign messages, in addition to the traditional focus groups and survey method; micro-targeting; social media, etc. Furthermore, using apps on smartphones, plus other technologies, canvassers on the streets and coordinators at campaign headquarters can engage in a constant and two-way process of data collection and data retrieval about individual voters – as the Obama team so effectively demonstrated in 2012. Modern election campaigns are thus more dynamic and responsive than traditional ones.

While the 2010 General Election was described as the first Internet election, Britain is arguably engaged in a process of technological catch-up with the US. Nevertheless, the recruitment of former members of the Obama campaign team by the Conservative and Labour parties for the 2015 General Election, namely Jim Messina and David Axelrod respectively, suggests that British election campaigns are also in the process of being transformed as techniques such as big data mining, micro-targeting, personalized messages and real-time experimentation are imported and applied. This PhD project is original in four senses:

(a) It will compare recent election campaigns in the US, Britain and elsewhere to ascertain whether there is a general trend to emulate the evolving US model. Furthermore, it will explore what effect differences in national political, media and legal systems have had on the use of such techniques outside of the US.

(b) It will break new ground by going beyond the existing literature, which predominantly focuses upon technological capabilities, to investigate the impact of such techniques on citizen’s privacy, issues of awareness and informed consent, and digital exclusion.

(c) It will break new ground by generating, for the first time, empirical British data about these effects of these techniques on voter mobilization and voter preferences.

(d) It will investigate what the use of such techniques – involving as they do issues of commercial confidentiality and personal data protection – means for the academic study of elections and political communication more generally.

Mullen, A. (2013) ‘Selling Politics: The Political Economy of Political Advertising’ in C. Wharton (Ed.) Advertising as Culture, Bristol: Intellect

Mullen, A (forthcoming) The Battle for British Hearts and Minds on Europe: Anti- and Pro-European Propaganda, 1945-2015, London: Bloomsbury

For more info see

Dr Andy Mullen, Senior Lecturer in Politics

(andrew.mullen /at/

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