Political online communication is inevitable to survive in the political sphere. Be it as a politician or as a party. Undisputedly, social network sites (SNS) play a significant role in a political actors’ communication structure. As we are witnessing a vast growth in the political use of social network sites like Facebook or twitter few is known about the impact of digital communication structures on political actors’ (e.g. parties or governments) real life structures; and this in organisational perspective in modern democracies. What has not been investigated so far is twofold: First, the repercussions between online and offline communication in concerns of structures and effects have not yet been measured. Second, the quality of discourses on SNS have not been investigated with social network analysis (SNA). Such an approach could reveal the sort of linkages between highly engaged and discussing individuals on political actors’ profile sites on SNS.
At this point the study exemplifies how SNA could be a forceful tool for studying political online communication on SNS. Therefore, this methodological article specifically highlights the benefits of SNA for political online communication research. It examines how emerging digital party structures, understood as a new variety of linkage, could be measured by using SNA tools. Thematically, the suggested paper scrutinises the online communication structures in regard to repercussions between online and offline and the discussion culture on two social network sites: The focus lies on Facebook and twitter as most known and used SNS in the political sphere. The intention is to show how social network analysis could detect the migration of communication structures from offline to online and vice versa. Plus, SNA clarifies how people interact and engage on SNS in a relational perspective. Thus, conclusions into the direction of democratic quality of online discussions on SNS can be drawn. This leads to democracy-theoretic questions of the power and usage of the internet and its potential to create public spheres (Habermas, 2006; Razzani and Pomatto 2014).
Two case studies demonstrate the mentioned methodological impact of SNA. First, the German Social Democrats’ structural migration and replication of offline structures on twitter were investigated. Second, Facebook profile pages of three European governments (Germany, Austria, UK) were analysed in three different periods (one month from 2013 to 2015). Analysis uncovered discourse structures between Facebook users in concerns of the quality of the relevant discussion (Kersting, 2013). Each study worked with SNA tools such as homophily indices or modularity to identify clusters and communities (Newman, 2006). This was complemented by a qualitative analysis of the comment discourses on governments’ Facebook profiles. Data shows that on twitter exist several regional blocks replicating party’s real life. However, the promised and wished dialogue on governmental Facebook pages only exists between users of examined pages and not between pages owners and users as conceived of. SNA generally proved to be a powerful tool in inspecting types and clusters of linkages between individuals as well as between institutions and individuals in the meaning of community structure.