“It’s Complicated”: Facebook and Political Participation in Italy and the UK
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Casteltrione, I. (2015) "It's Complicated": Facebook and Political Participation in Italy and the UK, no. 364.
Drawing from an extensive and unique data set acquired by combining a cross-national comparative approach and a mixed methods methodology, this thesis examines the contributions of Facebook to citizens' political participation in Italy and the UK. In the last decade there has been a proliferation of academic studies investigating the links between digital technologies and citizens' political participation, with an increasing number of publications focusing on social networking websites (SNSs). Within this specific sub-field, research has produced contrasting evidence. Some scholars stress the positive impact of the Internet and SNSs on political participation (i.e., optimists), while others minimise their mobilising power, emphasising their tendency to reinforce existing participatory trends (i.e., normalisers) or highlighting their limited or even negative influence on political participation (i.e., pessimists). The present research differs from the majority of investigations in this area in three ways. Firstly, the data for this study were gathered mostly in a non-electoral period and thus the contributions of Facebook to citizens' political participation were assessed independently of the electoral process, which usually occasions a rise in political participation. In addition, this research tackled two conceptual weaknesses characterising many Internet and political participation studies: the failure to consider political participation as a multidimensional phenomenon and the over-generalised approach to Internet and SNS usages. It did so by differentiating between political communication and political mobilisation activities, and three Facebook non-political usages, i.e., information, interpersonal communication, and social recreation. Thirdly, in response to the lack of cross-national comparative studies in this subject area, the contributions of Facebook to citizens' political participation were examined in the different contexts of Italy and the United Kingdom. This thesis makes four main contributions to the field of political communication, and more specifically to the strand of research examining the impact of digital technologies on political participation. The first contribution is the Particularised Model of Facebook Political Participation. The model identifies a number of factors mediating the links between Facebook and political participation, demonstrating the relevance of both external, context-related factors related to the British and Italian media and political landscapes, and more personal, subjective ones such as self-presentation, pre-existing levels of political engagement, and the nature and size of the Facebook network. Secondly, this study sheds light on the ways that Facebook functions as a political platform, establishing that dynamics typical of both new and traditional media are in action on this SNS, and that Facebook holds the capacity to activate a virtuous circle, thereby generating an information-led mobilisation. The third contribution is the Dual Routes of Exposure Model which offers clarification on the alleged tendency of digital technologies to promote selective exposure and, consequently, political fragmentation and polarisation, and shows that Facebook can operate as a potential antidote to such trends. The fourth contribution is to the polarised debate between optimists, normalisers, and pessimist, with the present research further highlighting the sterility of such a debate and indicating potentially fruitful approaches for the development of the field.