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Schwarzbözl, Tobias (2017): How Political Parties use Twitter as a Tool to Highlight Owned Issues. Empirical Evidence from the 2015 Election to the British House of Commons. ECPR General Conference. Panel Party Policy and Party Competition, Oslo, 6. - 9. September 2017.

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Social media outlets now constitute important platforms where competition between political parties takes place (Jungherr, 2015). Parties heavily rely on such websites to get their message out and voters use this content as a source of political information. Thus, party communication via social media makes an essential part in electoral contests in contemporary democracies. Regarding issue competition between political parties, this poses the question in what way parties make use of these platforms to communicate policy related content.

Existing research shows that parties do indeed spread policy related messages via social media (Conway et al., 2015), but the determinants of their attention on different topics have received little attention so far especially outside the U.S. context. However, understanding the driving forces behind parties’ decisions to highlight some issues over others is highly relevant to understand their use of social media platforms in election campaigns.

Focusing on Twitter, it is argued that the technical features the website offers political parties, makes it likely that they use it as a tool to boost their electoral fortunes by trying to bring issues on the public agenda on which they have a favourable position on compared to their competitors. Thus, it is hypothesized that issue-ownership theory (Petrocik, 1996) plays a crucial role to explain variation in parties’ issue emphasis on Twitter during election campaigns.

To test this expectation empirically, the study focuses on party communication during the election for the British House of Commons in 2015. A machine learning approach to document classification is employed to measure issue salience on official and verified party accounts for the six largest parties in the country. Issue ownership is investigated in its competence based understanding as proposed by Dolezal et al. (2014) on the grounds of the British Election Study Internet Panel (Fieldhouse et al., 2015).

Analysing roughly 11,000 Tweets, the study reveals that issue salience on Twitter is indeed strongly driven by issue ownership. This also holds when controlling for other factors such as voters’ issue priorities and systemic issue salience. It is therefore concluded that parties use Twitter to strategically highlight issues on which they have a favourable position on during electoral contests.

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