Tracking the effects of negative political communication during election campaigns in online and offline communication environments

Funded by the German Research Foundation DFG (2021-2023)



During election campaigns, many of the political messages citizens receive are negative – be it via strategic negative campaigning, media coverage or uncivil online conversations. Many studies in political communication and psychology have already focused on the effects of negativity on citizens’ reactions, e.g., attention and emotions, evaluation of politicians, or voting behavior. Most of these studies, however, investigated citizens’ political communication in isolation focusing on just one channel. Studies that focus on effects of negative information received from mass media as well as interpersonal communication environments online and offline (in the following MIC), are to the best of our knowledge non-existent – despite the obvious interactions in terms of processes and effects.

In addition, most studies on negativity in campaigns either focus on traditional explanations of its effects on political outcomes through survey self-reports or they try to analyze the information processing of negative information, mostly within experimental designs. It has hardly been possible to observe the effects of negativity on fast-lived variables like attention and emotions in-situ and to analyze its effects on political outcomes in an integrated research design. As a consequence, the state of research regarding the overall impact of negative political communication on important political outcomes such as evaluation of political actors, voting behavior and affective polarization so far has been fairly inconclusive.

In this project, jointly led with Michaela Maier (University of Koblenz-Landau) and Lukas Otto (Amsterdam School of Communication Research), we aim to comprehensively analyze the effects of negativity in MIC during election campaigns to make a fourfold contribution to the state of research: First, we examine the dynamic exposure of citizens to negative political communication in various communication environments during an election campaign. Thereby, investigating the different communication types in one research design also allows us to analyze the reciprocal relations between mediated and interpersonal communication online and offline. Second, we analyze the short-term effects of negative contents on attentional and emotional processing, and third, longer-term effects on political outcomes. By taking a longitudinal perspective, we conceptualize and measure exposure to and effects of negativity during campaigns as dynamic processes. Fourth, we methodologically contribute to the state of research by using an innovative methodology that allows us to observe the aforementioned processes in a real-world setting: we combine approaches of offline and online tracking to continuously observe citizens' engagement in political communication, surveys to assess their short-term and long-term reactions, and automated content analysis to link participants' reactions to concrete communication contents. The study will be conducted during the hot phase of the German federal election campaign in September 2021.