Gianpietro Mazzoleni

(University of Milan)

Cristian Vaccari

(University of Loughborough)

The Long Way We Have Come

The past two decades of political communication research have witnessed epochal turns in the object of our investigation as well as the tools of such investigation. The users and uses of the web have grown considerably, political and nonpolitical actors have capitalized on increased opportunities for disintermediation, and the spaces in which politics is communicated have expanded. These and other phenomena and dynamics have prompted a fresh new wave of scholarly investigations, often supported by increasingly sophisticated methods and complex datasets.

Digital media are ‘bread and butter’ in today’s scholarly world. However, it is worth remembering that at the turn of the millennium the internet was in its early stage of diffusion in academic institutions. Universities were facing issues such as installation of expensive technology, limited bandwidth, and difficult access to databanks and scholarly publications still largely available only in hard copy. Wireless connection was not even in the dreams of researchers. In the media world, traditional outlets still dominated news production and dissemination, and the social media revolution was still looming in the minds of Mark Zuckerberg (who created Facebook in 2004), Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim (who launched YouTube in 2005) and Jack Dorsey (who started Twitter in 2006). Parties and candidates had begun to professionally employ digital technologies in election warfare, but politicians still had to withstand the brokerage of traditional gatekeepers to reach their constituencies.

A similar situation existed in the Italian academic community in the year 2000, with the additional limitation that the ‘discipline’ of political communication still enjoyed limited institutional recognition despite the rise in our domestic politics of Silvio Berlusconi—a media tycoon who had revolutionized traditional political communication and pioneered forms of populist politics that have now become commonplace across Western democracies. Two decades ago, demand for scholarly research into the ‘Berlusconi phenomenon’ had grown significantly and researchers were striving to highlight its features and explain its main causes and implications, albeit in the face of scarce resources and a peripheral place in the national scientific conversation. While scholars interested in comparative research were debating whether Berlusconi’s ascent confirmed Italy’s status of international anomaly, according to some, or of a ‘laboratory’ that anticipated phenomena soon to be observed abroad, another impulse for comparative analysis came from the growing diffusion of digital technologies among parties and movements in Italy and elsewhere. The global dimension of these changes prompted Italian researchers to study the ongoing transformations in political communication along two dimensions: applied (for instance, by analyzing the pioneering implementation of web-based strategies in election campaigns), and disciplinary (through the accumulation of evidence, knowledge and theory by various scholarly perspectives).  While a great deal of knowledge was produced and published in international journals, focusing mostly on events, leaders and political phenomena distant from the Italian context, there existed limited venues in Italy for showcasing the results of this research. The journal Comunicazione Politica, founded in 2000 by a group of scholars that were both active on the international fronts and engaged in pioneering research on the Italian context, was the response to this widespread scholarly need for a high-quality domestic platform, accessible and available to the growing community of students, scholars, intellectuals, practitioners, and receptive politicians interested in understanding political communication from an interdisciplinary social scientific perspective. While one of us (Mazzoleni) was the founding Editor of the journal, the other (Vaccari) benefitted immensely from the existence of the journal, where he published his first major research contribution in 2004 and went on to publish ten peer-reviewed articles between 2004 and 2011.

Since its foundation, the journal has published fifty issues, covering all areas of political communication scholarship and hosting contributions by most Italian senior and junior researchers working in the field. The journal’s original mission was to encourage inter-disciplinary approaches and to attract researchers studying political communication beyond the established confines of political science and sociology of communication. This mission is yet to be fully accomplished, but it remains a goal of the whole community of committed scholars that gathers around the journal. We hope that this special issue, which marks the 20th anniversary since the foundation of the journal, is a step in the right direction.

This Special Issue

To mark the fundamentally international and inter-disciplinary nature of the journal, we have invited contributions from nine of the leading national and international scholars in the areas of political science (Hanspeter Kriesi), media and communication (Silvio Waisbord), journalism studies (C. W. Anderson), computational social science (Fabio Giglietto), political psychology (Patrizia Catellani), linguistics (Stefano Ondelli), semiotics (Giovanna Cosenza), cultural studies and discourse analysis (Lidia De Michelis), and popular culture (John Street). We have asked this diverse group of scholars, some of whom are members of the scientific board of the journal, to answer a simple question: What does it mean, from their respective disciplinary viewpoint, to study political communication today?

Mainstream political science has been often criticized for neglecting the role of communication. However, this seems to be largely an issue of the past, as more recent political science research has increasingly acknowledged how the media, old and new, are intersected with leadership, government, international relations, populist surges, voters’ participation, and citizens’ emotions and attitudes. Hanspeter Kriesi, in his article “Political Communication Today – The Perspective of a Political Scientist Who Studies Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior”, provides a convincing overview of the advances made by international research on the effects of media and communication. This is surely an area where scholarship has benefited from cross-disciplinary fertilization, as political science has fruitfully incorporated theories, methods, and evidence coming from communication sociology, social psychology, and opinion research. Kriesi’s article is itself a good proof of ‘discipline integration’, as it provides a concrete example of how political science can build on insights from psychology to explain whether and how social media may generate filter bubbles: “Political communication serves to reinforce and activate party identifications, especially in polarized situations. […] Citizens’ identities put clear limits on the possible effects of political communication, since they are hard to change. […] Guided by their identities, citizens tend to resort to elites they trust and process information in a biased way in order to protect themselves. This opens the door for the ‘manufacturing of public will’ within the confines of specific group identities.”

Media and communication studies have a long tradition of investigating the causes and effects of political dynamics. For decades, the multiple editions of Denis McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory (McQuail, 1987) have updated our knowledge of the classic theories of mass communication and their ability to incorporate technological, social and political changes. As a result, sociological approaches to media systems, media content, and media effects in politics have changed substantially. Even if some classic contributions by Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues from the so-called ‘Columbia School’ have undergone a revival (e.g. Bennett & Iyengar, 2008), it is beyond doubt that political communication research is moving beyond the mass communication paradigm. This is one of the key arguments in the article by Silvio Waisbord “Interrogating the Analytical Value of ‘Media System’ for Comparative Political Communication”. The title says it all: is it still heuristically meaningful to use the classic conceptualizations of ‘media system’, which for decades served as departing point and target of countless political communication studies, or should scholars abandon holistic approaches and focus on more specific contextual factors? This is all but an idle question, carrying important implications for current and future research on political communication around such topics as “mediated activism, mediatization, disinformation, polarization, post-truth politics, conspiracy theories, alt-right news, filter bubbles and echo chambers, populism, media hybridization.” The global nature of these phenomena requires what Waisbord calls “problem-centered comparative research”. Rather than aiming to develop universal explanations by generalizing the experiences of individual countries – which often happens when scholars try to adapt theories generated in the United States to other countries, in spite of the exceptional features of the American media and political systems – scholars should “plac[e] theoretical questions, rather than countries, at the center” and study similar phenomena – such as the syndrome of mediated populism, conspiracy theories, and disinformation – in substantially different national media systems across the globe. This approach, which in comparative politics parlance resembles the archetype of the Most Different Systems Design, departs significantly from most current approaches in comparative political communication – including our own research – which have generally focused on classifying and studying the implications of political communication systems in Western democracies. Waisbord thus lays the gauntlet for a new generation of comparative political communication research that aims to explain global phenomena of substantial relevance to both democratic and authoritarian regimes across the Global North and the Global South.

Understanding political communication across multiple contemporary contexts also requires taking stock of the ways in which news organizations and journalists contribute to the production and diffusion of publicly relevant information. As relevant as the study of journalism is today, twenty years ago, when this journal was founded, journalism studies was not even a recognized scholarly field. In his contribution, titled “The State(s) of Things: 20 Years of Journalism Studies and Political Communication”, C. W. Anderson offers a sweeping historical review of how journalism studies has grown as an independent research community in the past two decades and what its main contributions have been that are relevant to political communication. In an irony that does not escape its practitioners, journalism research has grown in relevance and status just as its object of study has undergone a seemingly permanent state of crisis. Anderson goes under the skin of this generic crisis framing to uncover four distinct eras in the history of digital news: the “participatory era”, the “crisis era”, the “platform era”, and the “populist era”. Anderson analyzes the crisis of journalism – and the transition of the field to “digital journalism” – as comprising at least three separate problems: “a crisis of culture and trust”, “an organizational and workflow crisis”, and “an economic crisis”. The current stage is termed the “populist era” to highlight the difficult tension that journalism, as a mainly liberal-democratic institution, is experiencing in dealing with the rise of anti-liberal political actors. In criticizing mainstream journalism, pushing the boundaries of what can be considered legitimate news, and mobilizing partisan amateurs, the populist era has turned many of the idealistic aspirations of the earlier participatory era in its head, notes Anderson. He then goes on to survey the most salient current debates in journalism studies, dividing the main approaches between American and international, and between dominant and alternative. All these approaches provide useful insights for political communication—from the Bourdieauian analysis that is common in dominant American approaches to the boundaries of journalism to the positivist, large-scale comparative approach that is relevant in mainstream international research, to the more context-sensitive focus that characterizes alternative approaches (including those stemming from Science and Technology Studies) in both US-based and international literatures. Anderson’s discussion of these currents is both comprehensive and inclusive, and thus shares our own view of how the field of political communication can develop by combining contributions from a variety of disciplines and approaches. His concluding remarks suggest that “perhaps the most important aspect of digital journalism studies within the field of larger political communication research is that it has remained sensitive to the changing context in which it is embedded. While the larger field of political communication has had a tendency to be overly structuralist and focus on permanent categorical types, the presentist nature of journalism studies has pushed the field to try to keep up with the times.”

Sensitivity to change has been a key characteristic for another subfield which is generally known as computational social science. The transition from mass communication to a hybrid system of political communication where mass and digital media both contribute to shaping the flow of public discourse is one of the key developments of our times. As well as raising new questions for the health of our democracies, digital media confront scholars with new challenges. Studying millions of social media posts containing both textual and visual messages, understanding complex networks of relationships and interactions, and doing so over time and across multiple contexts and languages are increasingly relevant problems that traditional methods of political communication research are poorly equipped to tackle. In his contribution titled “Three Consequences of Big Data on the Practices and Scholarships of Political Communication”, Fabio Giglietto reflects on the key contributions that research based on computational social science methods and relying on digital trace data has made and can make to our understanding of political communication. Giglietto discusses three crucial substantive changes that have been enhanced by digital media: the increasing fluidity in the boundaries of political movements and organizations, the diffusion of micro-targeted advertising enabled by social media, and new forms of propaganda and media manipulation. These three interrelated vectors of transformation pose new challenges and opportunities for political communication research and can be studied based on a combination of classic and new methods of inquiry. While our understanding of these complex and evolving phenomena is still partial, particularly outside of the United States where most research on these topics has been conducted so far, a huge amount of effort and scholarly innovation are being devoted to these issues. Besides shedding light on specific aspects of contemporary online political communication, scholars of digital media and politics are also illuminating more profound changes in the broader ecosystems in which political actors and citizens interact. The deluge of content and opportunities to interact with its producers have made attention an even more important resource than in the past, with important implications for how scholars can measure and model exposure to politically relevant content in a fragmented environment. Giglietto concludes his overview by proposing the theoretically fruitful concept of “permanent potential influence”. As he argues, “While most citizens know how to resist persuasion attempts coming from traditional sources of influence (advertising, media and politicians) and in specific settings (e.g. while consuming news), […] ubiquitous persuasion attempts performed by unpredictable actors in a highly entertainment-dedicated space (e.g. social media) tend to reach undecided voters more frequently and catch their audience less prepared against influence.” This hypothesis, which would move the field towards a revival of the “strong effects” tradition, merits serious scholarly consideration and robust empirical inquiry. It also raises important normative considerations on the conditions under which citizens in liberal democracy can meaningfully exercise their rights and duties.

The disruptive processes and transformations brought about by digital media imply, among other things, a reduction in the power of traditional political and journalistic gatekeepers. While in mass-mediated political communication elites had substantial power in policing the boundaries of public discourse, contemporary media environments are more chaotic and open to multiple influences. In this context, citizens’ response to political messages has arguably become even more important to the study of political communication, as can be seen by the flourishing of studies that try to take stock of the effects of misinformation, targeted advertising, and hyper-partisan media, to name just a few. Political psychology has been an important anchor for much of this research, as it enables researchers to develop and test theories about how these new phenomena tap into old, and well-known, predispositions and mechanisms in our brains. Hence, in her article “Cognitive and Psychosocial Factors in Online Political Communication”, Patrizia Catellani highlights some fruitful lessons and insights that political communication research can draw from social psychology in studying exchanges between citizens and politicians in digital environments characterized by disintermediation and easy and immediate communication. “Speed, immediacy and limited available time characterize our way of relating to politics online” observes Catellani, and that “brings with it increasing risk of manipulation, of people being closed-off to change and of people developing unreasoned opinions”. Catellani holds that those risks can be reduced if social media users employ what psychologists term  “slow thinking”, where “citizens are more able to evaluate political news and politicians critically, to detect contradictions or inconsistencies, and to reflect not only on what is being said but also on the underlying communicative intentions.” Psychology’s contribution to the scientific study of communication dates back to the early studies of voting behavior and has consolidated throughout the decades, well into the current digital age. Framing, priming, and agenda setting are the most known areas of rich contamination between the disciplines. Verbal vs. non-verbal interactions, the role of affect, the importance of emotions in politics and in the communication of politics continue to be areas of fruitful cross-disciplinary investigation. While at times some purely psychological approaches to politics are only capable to uncover tiny sectors of reality, Catellani’s essay reflects on various helpful “application proposals […] on how to intervene to support citizens so that they can make the best use of their personal resources to understand and live politics as protagonists”.

The themes of change and adaptation are also at the forefront of Stefano Ondelli’s article “Political discourse: a perspective from Italian linguistics”. By focusing on how the Italian language has been used in political communication, Ondelli highlights some relevant transformations in the language of politics – and of politicians – in the last two decades. He notes, for example, personalization and spectacularization, as “external factors” affecting political discourse as a whole, leading to a widespread “simplification of political texts”. However, Ondelli hastens to add that the resulting linguistic changes in political discourse “do not necessarily translate into improved readability.” The issue of simplification is of primary concern to linguists and has been at the center of several recent studies published in Italy. Ondelli provides a critical account of where linguistics stands, underlying the need for a methodology based on “readability indexes and lexicometric measures” and the relevance of “diachronic comparisons, especially in connection with the linguistic competences of the Italian population”. The intensive use of social networks by leading political figures such as Matteo Renzi and Matteo Salvini has prompted fresh analyses by Italian linguistics, aware that the traditional tools of linguistics analysis might need to adapt to incorporate fast changes in the media and politics.

Traditionally, the contribution of semiotics to political communication scholarship has been far less influential than that of other disciplines. Giovanna Cosenza speaks of a “systematic void” rooted in semiotics’ analytical vocation to “concentrate on exemplary cases and texts of limited size”. However, semiotics’ hitherto limited influence on mainstream political communication scholarship does not mean that it has nothing to add to our understanding of the complex phenomena we are interested in. Italian research, inspired by the thoughtful and brilliant writings of Umberto Eco, has produced a number of significant works in the field that deserve greater consideration by other disciplinary traditions. Accordingly, the article by Cosenza aims to show that semiotics has a lot to say, especially when it comes to providing a critical approach, on issues that are relevant to political communication. She targets two recurrent features in scholarly jargon – “[the] tendency to construct binary oppositions and the storytelling fashion” – and offers a thorough deconstruction of both narratives, unveiling their underlying fallacies. First, Cosenza argues that semiotics can help scholars fully grasp the “binary oppositions, both visual and verbal, which the global political media have been increasingly constructing and disseminating around the world” thanks to “componential semantic analysis”, which is one of the most widely used tools in the semiotics methodological arsenal. Secondly, Cosenza claims that semiotics provides helpful theoretical resources, such as narrative analysis, enunciational analysis, and emotional analysis, that can help scholars understand the functioning of stories without resorting to the trivial simplifications that have marred most approaches to storytelling. This is an important message to scholars of neighboring disciplines: semiotic approaches can help researchers investigate and understand several content and textual dimensions of what we call political communication.

The traditions of cultural studies and critical discourse analysis (CDA) can also offer relevant epistemological contributions to contemporary political communication scholarship. In her article titledReflecting on New Media, Post-Truth and Affect through the Lenses of Cultural, Literary and Discourse Studies“, Lidia De Michelis provides an illuminating example of how Stuart Hall’s concept of “conjunctural crisis” can contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon of populism. De Michelis also highlights the “fictional thematization of politics”, or the ways in which a growing number of works that engage in “anomalous” and “post-factual” narrative modes, such as the emerging corpus of British fiction conventionally referred to as “Brexlit”, represent, interpret, and shape reality. Critical discourse analysis, very much like semiotics, provides theoretical tools that enable to deconstruct metaphors, narratives, and modes of storytelling. Hence, argues De Michelis, these tools can enable scholars “to resist the most manipulative, obfuscating and morally disabling biases implicit in the current communication environment”.

Finally, John Street with the article “Popular Culture and Political Communication” winds up our polyphonic reflection on political communication as an inter-disciplinary field of investigation by restating key arguments such as: “popular culture is a form of political communication”, “a political persona can be created and disseminated via popular culture”, and “conventional politics features in the entertainment of many viewers.” In spite of some resistance among proponents of more conventional definitions of what constitutes politics and political communication, ‘pop politics’ and ‘celebrity politics’ are undoubtedly thriving subfields that deserve attention by international research. They comprise phenomena that we can observe, albeit with some cultural and contextual differences, in most contemporary democracies, where popular culture is constantly produced, circulated, discussed, and reshaped across traditional and digital media, generating imageries (and entertainment) for millions of people. Writes Street: “Trump is not the first politician to draw upon popular culture […] – see, for example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the UK , Beppe Grillo and the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the election of Volodymyr Levensky in the Ukraine, or that of Imran Khan in Pakistan”, to whom we might add the recent performances of Matteo Salvini in Italy. Pop celebrities treading the political stages are anything but a minor facet of politics, as “celebrity involvement in an issue can affect the political attention that it receives and can help to shape political agendas.”  In the end, the extent to which citizens get involved in the communicative actions performed by ‘popular’ political actors is a key question for political communication because it involves the scope and quality of political participation – and with that the health of democracy. Hence, we concur with Street that there is great need for fresh research on “how the political performances to which [popular culture] gives rise resonate with, or act upon, audiences who may more often resemble fans than the citizens of classical democratic theory.”

The Long and Winding (and Exciting) Road Ahead

Taken together, the contributions to this special issue inform us on what political communication research has achieved, as a diverse and plural field of study, and highlight what new challenges it can, and should, tackle in the future. Concerns for the spread of misinformation and disinformation – online but also in traditional media – and for the diffusion of the power of influence – to activist citizens who spread messages on social media, to shadowy organized and resourceful outsiders, and to unaccountable corporate platforms based either in the United States or China – are spawning a new wave of research on the potentially negative implications of digital media after two decades of relatively optimistic assessments of the role of the internet in politics. Underlying this renewed pessimism lies an arguably more profound scholarly shift from a rather benign outlook on citizens’ ability and willingness to inform themselves, deliberate impartially, engage responsibly with others, and participate fairly in democratic competition, to a more somber return to what we had arguably known all along about human cognition, emotion, and interaction—that most citizens most of the time cannot be realistically expected to behave as idealistic views of (digital) democracy speculate that they should. The ongoing crisis of political and journalistic institutions forces scholars to trace and take stock of the multiple ways in which crucial functions for democratic governance, such as the aggregation and articulation of interests and preferences and the production of public knowledge, can be reinvented in a turbulent and fragmented environment. The blurring of the boundaries between elite and popular discourse encourages scholars to rethink some classic analytical categories and to understand how narratives, fiction, celebrity culture, social media memes, and many other components of citizens’ everyday lifestyles and informal interactions contribute to political communication and intervene in shaping its construction and its outcomes.

To some extent, contemporary political communication scholars are facing an embarrassment of riches as they enjoy a flurry of opportunities to conduct compelling, innovative, socially relevant research. We have arguably never been better placed to deploy our unique approaches and expertise towards societally relevant knowledge-building and problem-solving. However, we also face new constraints and challenges that we have not fully taken stock yet. We conclude this Introduction by highlighting what we see as the five most relevant currents and crosscurrents the discipline will need to navigate.

First, societal and academic debates are increasingly centered on issues that we study and on which we can provide relevant insights, evidence, and expertise. And yet, the goal of providing cumulatively valid knowledge on contemporary political communication sits uneasily with the fact that contemporary media environments, their individual components, and users’ behaviors around them change so constantly and rapidly that we cannot really be sure whether and how many, if not most, of the results of one study at one point in time can be generalized, and for how long (as recently observed by Karpf, 2019; Munger, 2019). To name just one simple example, how should we interpret the findings of a study that argues that online disinformation does (or does not) influence the behavior of certain voters if the main social media platforms subsequently take meaningful action to reduce the spread of disinformation? In sum, we can provide many valid and helpful answers to compelling societal questions, but we also need to be increasingly aware that this knowledge may come with an expiration date—and it may not be obvious what that date is.

Secondly, our theoretical, conceptual, and methodological toolkits are as rich as they have ever been, largely because most political communication researchers have generally been more interested in what we can learn from other disciplines than in policing the boundaries that divide them—as we hope this special issue demonstrates. And yet, we are a long way from being able to rely on a shared set of cognitive maps that can consistently orient our analyses and enable us to truly speak the same language. The positivist imperatives of deductive theorizing and hypothesis-testing has enabled us to answer important questions, for instance on the effects of political communication, but they have also arguable led to an undersupply of crucial descriptive research, both qualitative and quantitative (Abbott, 2001; Karpf et al., 2015; Luker, 2009). These research gaps often result in the propagation of flawed myths such as those surrounding “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” in contemporary social media (Dubois & Blank, 2018; Vaccari & Valeriani, forthcoming). To put it differently, we have a much better understanding of the “known unknowns” that we try to uncover, but in a constantly shifting environment we probably need to be more mindful of the “unknown unknowns” that we ignore at our own peril. [1]

Third, our ability to access useful data to answer our questions has arguably increased thanks to the digital revolution—as highlighted by Giglietto in this special issue. And yet, most of what happens in public, semi-public, and private interactions on digital media platforms – from Facebook to Instagram, from WhatsApp to TikTok – remains by and large inaccessible to independent researchers, while the companies that own these data are running tests and analyses whose results are as societally relevant as they are removed from outside scrutiny and public utility (Bruns, 2019; Tromble & McGregor, 2019). As digital platforms’ adoption and use are now close, if not past, the point of saturation in most corners of the world, as political actors become increasingly skilled at exploiting them to reach citizens, and as online communication moves away from the public and semi-public model that characterized the first wave of social media towards a greater emphasis on private and semi-private interactions (as foreshadowed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2019),[2] the implications of these data asymmetries for academic knowledge and the public good will become even more troubling than they currently are. In other words, we have the questions, we have useful methods to answer them, and we can access lots of interesting data—but the best data, the right data, are slipping away from us.

Fourth, the global spread of digital media – with their troubling as well as encouraging implications – is prompting and enabling political communication scholars to develop original comparative designs that combine varieties of countries that would have been much more difficult to study, either individually or simultaneously, in the pre-digital era. While there are differences in the ways in which, for instance, Facebook and TikTok operate across, say, China, Germany, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States, these differences are arguably smaller than those that characterized the mass media institutions that shaped 20th century political communication—consider, for instance, differences between public service media such as the British BBC, the Italian RAI, the German ARD, the Polish TVP, and the American PBS. And yet, being able to access social media data, conduct online surveys, or execute experiments in countries that differ so much from each other pushes the boundaries of our comparative analyses dangerously close to the perils of “conceptual stretching” identified fifty years ago by Giovanni Sartori (Sartori, 1970). In this special issue, Waisbord’s critique of the concept of “media system” and Anderson’s discussion of the tension in journalism studies between large-scale comparative research that, by necessity, tries to bundle and standardize systemic properties of individual countries and a “contextual approach” (Powers & Vera-Zambrano, 2018) that is more sensitive to country specificities, both illustrate conundrums that apply to most political communication research that aims to travel beyond a single country. In sum, comparative political communication research is as relevant, as viable, but also as challenging as it has ever been.

Fifth, the questions political communication scholars aim to answer have acquired unprecedented relevance for the health of democracy, where it exists, and the struggle for its establishment, where it is lacking. The post-2016 reckoning (Tucker et al., 2017; Chadwick, 2019) has spurred new regulatory debates in many democracies, particularly in the European Union, and political communication scholars can play a crucial role in informing these discussions, if we are ready and willing to genuinely engage with stakeholders in their own terms (Nielsen, 2018). Political communication has a long tradition of providing robust, empirically grounded criticism of the ways in which news-making and campaigns (fail to) achieve normatively desirable democratic goals. Italian scholars have always played a prominent role in these debates, as we have been tasked to study what has often been considered a rather problematic media and political system. Contemporary political communication research, however, is arguably dealing with higher stakes than was the case twenty or thirty years ago. Challenges to democracy abound – from policy failures to institutional backsliding to the electoral success of authoritarian populists, just to name a few – and authoritarian regimes, after a first phase in which they seemed to be challenged by digital technology, have now developed their own internal countermeasures, as well as aggressive external strategies by which they deploy these tools in an attempt to destabilize democracies. It is a fact that changes in political communication have accompanied these democratic challenges, but as social scientists know, correlation is not causation, and as scholars of political persuasion have repeatedly shown, it is very difficult to change mass opinions and behaviors. And yet, the urgency of the problems we are facing suggests that we cannot simply dismiss these questions based on established theories and evidence accumulated over the years, but we need to answer them with the best and freshest empirical data we can. Some of us are concerned that political communication is now a huge part of the problem with democracy. If they are right, we need to know where the main problems lie so that our societies can take action. Some of us are less worried, or at least suggest that the roots of the problems lie mainly – or solely –elsewhere. If they are right, we need to know with as much certainty as possible so that our societies can avoid rushing into draconian regulatory changes that may excessively limit freedom of information and expression – thus bolstering the authoritarian threat that reformers aim to thwart – or bestow exceedingly large power and responsibilities on digital platforms in deciding what content we see – thus further augmenting the grip of unaccountable monopolists on what should ideally be a free marketplace of ideas. In sum, political communication scholarship is having to rethink the uneasy relationship between its normative and empirical contributions. That this is happening while substantial segments of the population in many democracies are increasingly keen to challenge the value of expertise and consider most academics to be biased against socially conservative worldviews makes this task even more daunting, but all the more inescapable.

The first twenty years of Comunicazione Politica have accompanied and helped the consolidation of the discipline in Italy, as well as facilitating a fruitful dialogue with the international scholarly community. In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, it is crucial that Italian scholars continue contributing to the global debates highlighted in this Introduction and in the contributions that follow. We trust that Comunicazione Politica will continue to play a useful role in this enterprise by offering a relevant, open, pluralistic, and innovative forum where scholars from different disciplines and approaches can come together as equals and share their contributions to knowledge around some of the most pressing questions of our time.

[1] This distinction was famously proposed by the United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld at a NATO press conference in 2002. In response to a question from a reporter, Rumsfeld said: ‘Now what is the message there? The message is that there are no “knowns.” There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that’s basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.’ A transcript of the press conference is available at This conceptual distinction has often been adopted in scholarly epistemology and research: see for instance Pawson et al., 2011.

[2] See

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