Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton April 15, 2020

Data-driven campaigns in public sensemaking: Discursive positions, contextualization, and maneuvers in American, British, and German debates around computational politics

  • Christian Pentzold EMAIL logo and Lena Fölsche
From the journal Communications


Our article examines how journalistic reports and online comments have made sense of computational politics. It treats the discourse around data-driven campaigns as its object of analysis and codifies four main perspectives that have structured the debates about the use of large data sets and data analytics in elections. We study American, British, and German sources on the 2016 United States presidential election, the 2017 United Kingdom general election, and the 2017 German federal election. There, groups of speakers maneuvered between enthusiastic, skeptical, agnostic, or admonitory stances and so cannot be clearly mapped onto these four discursive positions. Coming along with the inconsistent accounts, public sensemaking was marked by an atmosphere of speculation about the substance and effects of computational politics. We conclude that this equivocality helped journalists and commentators to sideline prior reporting on the issue in order to repeatedly rediscover the practices they had already covered.


Anstead, N. (2017). Data-driven campaigning in the 2015 United Kingdom general election. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 22(3), 294–313. doi:194016121770616310.1177/1940161217706163Search in Google Scholar

Anstead, N., & Straw, W. (2009). The change we need. London: The Fabian Society.Search in Google Scholar

Arceneaux, K., & Nickerson, D. W. (2009). Comparing negative and positive campaign messages. American Politics Research, 38(1), 54–83. doi:10.1177/1532673x0933161310.1177/1532673X09331613Search in Google Scholar

Baldwin-Philippi, J. (2019). Data campaigning. Between empirics and assumptions. Internet Policy Review, 8(4). doi: in Google Scholar

Bennett, C. J. (2016). Voter databases, micro-targeting, and data protection law: can political parties campaign in Europe as they do in North America? International Data Privacy Law, 6(4), 261–275. doi: in Google Scholar

Bimber, B. (2014). Digital media in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 11(2), 130–150. doi:10.1080/19331681.2014.89569110.1080/19331681.2014.895691Search in Google Scholar

Blake, A. (2014, October 21). Ranking the media from liberal to conservative, based on their audiences. Washington Post. Retrieved March 16, 2020 from in Google Scholar

Bodó, B., Helberger, N., & de Vreese, C. (2017). Political micro-targeting. Internet Policy Review, 6(4). doi: 10.14763/2017.4.77610.14763/2017.4.776Search in Google Scholar

Bowker, G. (2013). Data flakes. In L. Gitelman (Ed.), ‘Raw data’ is an oxymoron (pp. 167–172). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Search in Google Scholar

Castells, M. (2013). Communication power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Castleman, D. (2016). Essentials of modeling and microtargeting. In A. Therriault (Ed.), Data and democracy (pp. 1–16). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.Search in Google Scholar

Connerton, P. (2008). Seven types of forgetting. Memory Studies, 1(1), 59–71. doi:10.1177/175069800708388910.1177/1750698007083889Search in Google Scholar

Coppins, M. (2020, March). The billion-dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president. The Atlantic. Retrieved March 18, 2020 from in Google Scholar

Cowley P., & Kavanagh, D. (2015). The British general election of 2015. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.10.1057/9781137366115Search in Google Scholar

Cushion, S., & Jackson, D. (2019). Why journalism (still) matters. Journalism, 20(8), 985–993. doi:10.1177/146488491984545410.1177/1464884919845454Search in Google Scholar

Dobber. T., Trilling, D., Helberger, N., et al. (2017). Two crates of beer and 40 pizzas: the adoption of innovative political behavioural targeting techniques. Internet Policy Review 6(4), 1–25. doi:10.14763/2017.4.77710.14763/2017.4.777Search in Google Scholar

Esser, F., & Strömbäck, J. (2012). Comparing election campaign communication. In F. Esser & T. Hanitzsch (Ed.), The handbook of comparative communication research (pp. 289–307). New York: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Falguera, E., Jones, S., & Ohman, M. (2014). Funding of political parties and election campaign. Stockholm: Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.Search in Google Scholar

Gitelman, L., & Jackson, V. (2013). Introduction. In L. Gitelman (Ed.) ‘Raw data’ is an oxymoron (pp. 1–14). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Search in Google Scholar

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of Grounded Theory. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.Search in Google Scholar

Graham-Harrison, E., & Cadwalladr, C. (2018, March 17). Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian. Retrieved March 16, 2020 from in Google Scholar

Hajer, M. (1995). The politics of environmental discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/019829333X.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Harcup, T., & O’Neill, D. (2017). What is news? Journalism Studies, 18(12), 1470–1488. doi:10.1080/1461670X.2016.115019310.1080/1461670X.2016.1150193Search in Google Scholar

Harré & van Langenhove (1991). Varieties of positioning. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 21(4), 393–407.10.1111/j.1468-5914.1991.tb00203.xSearch in Google Scholar

Hersh, E. D. (2015). Hacking the electorate. New York: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781316212783Search in Google Scholar

Hersh, E. D., & Schaffner, B. (2013). Targeted campaign appeals and the value of ambiguity. The Journal of Politics, 75(2), 520–534. doi:10.1017/S002238161300018210.1017/S0022381613000182Search in Google Scholar

Holtz-Bacha, C. (2004). Political communication research abroad Europe. In L. L. Kaid (Ed.), Handbook of political communication research (pp. 463–477). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Search in Google Scholar

Holtz-Bacha, C., & Zeh, R. (2011). In love with Barack Obama: German press coverage of the U.S. presidential elections campaigns 2004 and 2008. In M. S. McKinney & M. C. Banwart (Eds.), Communication in the 2008 U.S. election: Digital natives elect a president (pp. 295–312). New York, NY: Peter Lang.Search in Google Scholar

Howard, P. N. (2006). New media campaigns and the managed citizen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511615986Search in Google Scholar

Issenberg, S. (2013). The victory lab. New York: Broadway Books.Search in Google Scholar

Jaworski, A., Fitzgerald, R., & Morris, D. (2003). Certainty and speculation in broadcast news reporting of the future. Discourse Studies, 5, 33–49. doi:10.1177/1461445603005001020110.1177/14614456030050010201Search in Google Scholar

Jungherr, A. (2016). Four functions of digital tools in election campaigns: The German case. International Journal of Press/Politics, 21(3), 358–377. doi:10.1177/194016121664259710.1177/1940161216642597Search in Google Scholar

Kaid, L. L., & Strömbäck, J. (2008). Election news coverage around the world: A comparative perspective. In J. K. Strömbäck & L. Lee (Ed.), The handbook of election news coverage around the world (pp. 421–431). New York, NY: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Kalla, J., & Broockman, D. (2018). The minimal persuasive effects of campaign contact in general elections. American Political Science Review, 112(1), 148–166. doi:10.1017/S000305541700036310.1017/S0003055417000363Search in Google Scholar

Karpf, D. (2016, October 31). Preparing for the campaign tech bullshit season. Civicist. Retrieved March 16, 2020 from in Google Scholar

Karpf, D. (2017). Analytical activism. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190266127.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Kennedy, H., & Moss, G. (2015). Known or knowing publics? Big Data & Society, 2(2). doi:2053951715611145Search in Google Scholar

Kreiss, D. (2012). Taking our country back. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199782536.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Kreiss, D. (2016). Prototype politics. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199350247.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Kreiss, D., & MacGregor, S. (2018). Technology firms shape political communication. Political Communication, 35(2), 155–177. doi:10.1080/10584609.2017.136481410.1080/10584609.2017.1364814Search in Google Scholar

Madrigal, A. C. (2012, November 16). When the nerds go marching. The Atlantic. Retrieved March 16, 2020 from in Google Scholar

Marantz, A. (2020, March 2). The man behind Trump’s Facebook juggernaut. The New Yorker. Retrieved March 15, 2020. in Google Scholar

Michael, M., & Lupton, D. (2016). Toward a manifesto for the ‘public understanding of big data’. Public Understanding of Science, 25(1), 104–116. doi:10.1177/096366251560900510.1177/0963662515609005Search in Google Scholar

Milan, S., & Treré, E. (2019). Big data from the south(s): Beyond data universalism. Television & New Media, 20(4), 319–335. doi:10.1177/152747641983773910.1177/1527476419837739Search in Google Scholar

Nickerson, D. W., & Rogers, T. (2014). Political campaigns and big data. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28(2), 51–74. doi:10.1257/jep.28.2.5110.1257/jep.28.2.51Search in Google Scholar

Nielsen, R. K. (2012). Ground wars. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.10.1515/9781400840441Search in Google Scholar

Pearlman, N. G. (2012). Bootstrapping an enterprise: NGP and the evolution of campaign software. In N. G. Pearlman (Ed.), Margin of victory (pp. 189–202). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.Search in Google Scholar

Pentzold, C., & Fischer, C. (2017). Framing big data: The discursive construction of a radio cell query in Germany. Big Data & Society, 4(2). doi: in Google Scholar

Schudson, M. (1993). Watergate in American memory. New York: Basic Books.Search in Google Scholar

Shorey, S., & Howard, P. (2016). Automation, algorithms, and politics. International Journal of Communication, 10, 5032–5055.Search in Google Scholar

Sides, J., & Vavreck, L. (2014). The gamble. Princeton: Princeton University Press.10.2307/j.ctt7ztpn1Search in Google Scholar

Smith, M. (2017, March 7). How left- or right-wing are the UK’s newspapers? YouGov. Retrieved March 16, 2020 from in Google Scholar

Strömbäck, J., Painter, D. L., & Fernandes, J. (2011). International media’s love affair with Barack Obama: Anti-americanism and the global coverage of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. In M. S. McKinney & M. C. Banwart (Eds.), Communication in the 2008 U.S. election: Digital natives elect a president (pp. 275–294). New York: Peter Lang.Search in Google Scholar

Stromer-Galley, J. (2014). Presidential campaigning in the internet age. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199731930.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Sullivan, M. L. (2012). A new model: VAN and the challenge of the voter-file interface. In N. G. Pearlman (Ed.), Margin of victory (pp. 133–146). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.Search in Google Scholar

Thompson, N. (2012, March 3). International campaign finance. CNN. Retrieved March 16, 2020 from in Google Scholar

Tufekci, Z. (2014). Engineering the public. First Monday, 19. in Google Scholar

Van Aelst, P., Vliegenthart, R., & Boydstun, A. E. (2018). The whole world is watching. Comparing European and United States news coverage of the U.S. 2008 and 2016 elections. International Journal of Communication, 12, 4731–4753. doi: 1932–8036/20180005Search in Google Scholar

Vliegenthart, R., Boomgarden, H. G., Van Aelst, P., & de Vreese, C. (2010). Covering the U.S. presidential election in Western Europe: A cross-national comparison. Acta Politica, 45, 444–467. doi: 10.1057/ap.2010.210.1057/ap.2010.2Search in Google Scholar

Zelizer, B. (1998). Remembering to forget. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2020-04-15
Published in Print: 2020-11-18

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 3.12.2023 from
Scroll to top button