Social media are nowadays widely popular and constitute an important part of citizens’ everyday lives: Facebook is about to reach one billion users and Twitter is nearing half a billion. Among internet users, about two-thirds of British and Italian citizens and one-half of Germans citizens are social media users and every month Italian and British users spend on average about six hours on social media, while Germans spend about four hours. Web 2.0 thus constitutes one of the social environments where citizens manage a relevant share of their relationships and learn about political information and opportunities to get involved in the public sphere. As a result, political actors must also engage with these platforms and their online communication strategies can contribute to increasing or decreasing citizens’ already declining trust in parties and institutions.

The project will address all these issues by integrating qualitative and quantitative methods in comparative perspective.

To understand the practices and processes related to the development of digital literacy and the concepts and forms of political participation among young citizens, we will conduct 120 interviews and 12 focus groups, equally distributed among the three countries, involving youth aged between 14 and 25. The goal of this part of the research will be to reconstruct these subjects’ life experiences and the meanings they associate to forms of digital citizenship and to the role of social media in building their identity. As part of this endeavor, the researchers will experiment with innovative ways of engaging the interviewees in the research process, in order to elicit their reflexivity about practices of internet use and digital citizenship, especially in socio-culturally marginal contexts. To study citizens’ online political behaviors, we will conduct two longitudinal surveys for each country included in our research: one will involve a sample representative of internet users, the other a sample representative of social media users who are interested in politics. Through these surveys, one of which will coincide with the 2014 European Parliament elections, we will collect data on respondents’ socio-demographic characteristics, political culture and preferences, mass media use, civic and political participation online and offline, digital skills, and practices of internet and social media usage aimed at finding and distributing political information and engagement opportunities. By interviewing panel respondents multiple times we will be able to verify the effects and implications of various types of political usage of the internet, thus generating much more reliable data than those that can be gathered with cross-sectional surveys. In order to analyze the ways in which citizens discuss politics on social media, messages with political contents posted on these platforms will be archived through dedicated software and analyzed with respect to their conversational features, distribution, and contents. By combining data on the contents of political messages on social media and those from the surveys on politically interested users, we will be able to comprehend whether and to what extent social media can promote forms of active citizenship at the national and transnational level, disclose more inclusive public spheres, and facilitate offline political activities.

With respect to political actors’ social media presence, the research will focus on five national party leaders and four city mayors (equally divided between conservatives and progressives) in each country. The goal of this part of the research is to evaluate the ways in which leaders and citizens interact online, leaders’ agenda-setting ability, and the relationship between web 2.0 and the mass media. Politicians’ online communication will be studied through a dual strategy: by monitoring the contents of their messages on social media during both campaigning and governing periods, and by interviewing the consultants and professionals that oversee their communication.

The use of the comparative approach constitutes one of the project’s most relevant strengths. We selected the countries under study – Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom – in order to compare political systems that are sufficiently similar at the systemic level (with respect to the duration and stability of their democratic regimes, parliamentary forms of government, socio-economic development, and membership in the European Union), but also differ on aspects that are particularly relevant in shaping political communication processes, such as technological development, media systems, party systems, and characteristics of the electorates. Moreover, all three countries will be involved in the 2014 European elections, during which national campaigns will likely be characterized by different degrees of intensity due to the uneven relevance of the EU in their internal public spheres and political debates. Moreover, during our research timeframe each of the countries studied will be involved in general national elections, which will offer further research opportunities on all the areas covered by the project.

By integrating different methodologies, leveraging on the comparative method, and experimenting with innovative research approaches and tools, our project will thus allow us to fully comprehend the peculiarities of political communication and participation on social media, the continuities and relationships between social media and mass media, as well as the development of digital literacy and its interaction with offline and online engagement. Our findings will thus allow us to draw important implications on the role, usage patterns, and likely systemic and political effects of social media environments, thus offering an outstanding contribution towards identifying obstacles and opportunities in building open and inclusive societies in Europe, thus strengthening its global role as well.

The project is apporved and funded by the Italian Ministry of University and Research