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2021 Conference of the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender

Attention Dynamics between Right-Wing Populist Parties and their Social Media Followers: Tracing Issue Directionality on Facebook during the 2019 EP Election

Political Parties
Social Media
Matthias Hoffmann
Freie Universität Berlin
Curd Knüpfer
Freie Universität Berlin
Vivien Benert
Freie Universität Berlin
W. Lance Bennett
University of Washington
Annett Heft
Freie Universität Berlin
Matthias Hoffmann
Freie Universität Berlin

Research interested in attention dynamics on social media by now mostly focused on audiences’ attention and engagement patterns. We propose a new way of thinking about attention dynamics by theorizing three distinct types of attention which are enabled through social media’s interactive characteristics.
Beyond the attention given by social media users through “likes” and “shares” of parties’ and politicians’ communicative activities (Zhang et al. 2017), a second, bottom-up type of attention is generated when audiences receive the attention of the communication source. Here, social media feeds, walls and comment sections are digital spaces through which the directionality of top-down information flows, which political communication research usually attributes to the interaction between political parties or elites and their supporters, is potentially reversed. Meanwhile, a third type of attention dynamic can be theorized, by which communicators and audiences signal towards outside sources or third parties that they consider worth paying attention to. These external reference points, on which attention may subsequently converge, can be introduced by linking or directing to other locales of discourse.
Our paper sets out to explore those attention dynamics between right-wing political parties and their followers on Facebook during the 2019 EP election campaigns. We present findings from an analysis of right-wing parties’ and politicians’ Facebook posts, user comments on those posts, and the interaction patterns between top-down and bottom-up communication. In analyzing these two types of data we are thus able to address the following three research questions which highlight our conceptual differences in the types of attention we seek to map:
1) What issues and types of top-down communication garnered the most audience attention?
2) What (if any) issues led to spill-over from comments sections into official posts?
3) What external points of reference did audience signal towards via hyperlinks or off-topic cross-posting and were these addressed or acknowledged in official posts over time?
We analyze data from right-wing political parties in six European countries (Germany’s AfD; Italy’s Lega Nord; Sweden’s Sweden Democrats; France’ Front National; Austria’s FPÖ; and Poland’s PiS) in order to compare various context factors and determine the conditions under which the various types of attention are generated. In teasing out key differences between the country and party cases, we thereby address the overarching question: Under what conditions do right-wing populist parties expand their attention ecologies?
To answer these questions, our analysis includes (1) traditional markers of engagement as measured by social media specific forms of interaction (comments, likes, replies); (2) a comparison of the topics addressed in politicians’ posts and user comments; (3) a hyperlink analysis comparing the sources related to by politicians’ and individual users. A longitudinal perspective will let us trace the development and interrelations between both groups’ information spheres over time.
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