The research project aims at reaching both theoretical and methodological goals.

On the theoretical level, the research units will investigate the relationship between social media and politics from a comparative perspective, taking into account both the top-down – online political communication of institutional political actors – and bottom-up – online political uses among citizens – dimensions. In recent years, the development of web 2.0 and social media – as a result of media and technological convergence – and the emergence of participatory culture – with respect to uses and consumption practices – are altering the relationship between production and consumption in all fields of human agency: from the reception of media contents and cultural products, to the production of knowledge (in the form of peer to peer cooperation, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding), to the practices of civic and political participation. These developments have significantly affected also political communication, which has been transformed from a traditionally top-down, unidirectional communication flow into a hybrid communicative environment that increasingly appropriates the practices, styles and languages of digital cultures. On the background of this increasing intersection between production and consumptions, which involves new actors and has the potential to transform the public sphere, our research project will focus on the following specific objectives:

1. With respect to the institutional political actors (national party leaders and city mayors), the project is aimed at investigating their use of social media in order to answer a set of research questions, which are still unanswered due to the recent adoption of these online tools by political actors and the lack of comparative research on the topic. The first goal is to map the uses of social media tools in political communication, in order to identify commonalities and differences, and to understand whether web 2.0 is adopted to promote citizens’ engagement or, conversely, to reproduce one-way, top-down communication models. Other questions concern the interaction between leaders and citizens on social media, political leaders’ agenda-setting power on digital media, the relationship between the agendas of the online communication by political actors and of the mainstream media, possibility that mayors may achieve greater visibility on the national mass media thanks to their social media presence and the transformations of local electoral competitions.

2. As regards political uses of the internet among citizens, the two longitudinal surveys on political uses of the internet and on political users of social media will provide data on respondents’ socio-demographic characteristics, their political behaviour, their digital literacy, and practices of politically relevant internet usage. This will help us comprehend, in a comparative perspective, the process of appropriation of web 2.0 platforms as sources of information and participation, engagement and mobilisation as part of citizens’ everyday lives. Because one of the waves of our surveys will be conducted d during the campaign for the European elections of 2014, we will be able to investigate the process of Europeanization of the public sphere, which has received much attention in the literature: in particular, we aim at understanding to what extent and how political actors and citizens’ communication contributes to the emergence of a European public sphere. The study of online political users and uses will be complemented by an analysis of citizens who take part in political discussions on social media through surveys of representative samples of politically interested users of these platforms. In addition to collecting data on respondents’ socio-demographic characteristics, political culture and preferences, media diets, civic and political participation online and offline, digital literacy, the survey is aimed at offering a detailed picture of social media use in order to answer the following research questions: how frequently and under what circumstances do they produce and share political contents? Do they, more or less intentionally, look for information sources which match their political preferences, or are they exposed to a diversity of political opinions? How do they perceive their influence over other users they are connected with, and others’ influence over themselves? Who are the subjects that they perceive to be the most influential? To what extent, and how do social media change their perceptions of their relationships with institutional political actors at the national, European and global level? How do they understand and internalize the nationalization, Europeanization or globalization of online political discussions?

3. The third theoretical objective will be attained through the analysis of political messages on Facebook and Twitter, aiming at constructing a typology of citizens’ political uses and discursive activities on social media, in order to understand whether and how these digital environments can be conductive to the emergence of forms of active citizenship at a national and transnational level, and promote a more inclusive public sphere. Moreover, the comparison with data on political users of social media will enable us to assess whether forms of active citizenship through social media can translate into political or civic actions in other domains of the public sphere, as well as evaluating the reverse causal path.

4. With regard to young people, the project is aimed at investigating the relationship between digital literacy, online participation and offline civic and political participation, in order to answer the following research questions: can digital literacy promote the engagement in forms of online participation? Can critical and information skills reduce the impact of socio-demographic variables – age, gender, socio-economic status, cultural background and education – on offline political participation, therefore promoting greater social inclusion, especially among more vulnerable social groups? Are online participatory practices able to trigger a deeper offline engagement with politics and issues of public concern, the development of a civic culture and a collective European identity?

5. Comparing Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom will remarkably augment the project’s potential by allowing us to test hypotheses related to the effects of systemic and institutional factors such as the penetration of ICTs, the regulatory system, the party system, the media system and characteristics of the electorates. Research questions and hypotheses in this respect are numerous and involve all the areas that the project will investigate. For example, does the penetration rate of ICTs in Germany, Italy and the UK affect the ways in which citizens use social media and contribute to online political discussions? Does it encourage political actors to innovate their online communication? How do minor parties and their supporters communicate online in a two-party majoritarian system as opposed to a multi-party proportional system? How, and within which social groups of young people, does digital literacy change in relation to divides in material and/or usage access? What informational role do citizens and young people attribute to the internet and social media in countries where the mass media tend to practice journalistic objectivity, or, conversely, in countries where the media are tightly intertwined with politics and practice forms of political collateralism? What is the impact of the degree of systemic support to political authorities and institutions in national political cultures on participation and political discussion on social media, and on the process of development of digital literacy and online civic cultures?