Defining digital media

1.1. Defining digital mediaΒΆ

First, we need to be clear about how we are using the term digital media going forward. In talking about digital media we need to account both for the technology as well as the institutions and organizations that develop, provide, and maintain digital technology. In our book Retooling Politics Gonzalo Rivero, Daniel Gayo-Avello, and I defined the term digital media accordingly as:

"We refer to institutions and infrastructures that produce and distribute information encoded in binary code. On the one hand, this anchors us with uses of a specific technology: the production, encoding, storing, distributing, decoding, and consumption of information in binary code. On the other hand, it allows us to broadly discuss institutions, organizations, and practices associated with the use of this specific technology."

[Jungherr, Rivero, and Gayo-Avello, 2020], p. 7-8.

This definition foregrounds that in order to examine the impact of digital media on society, we need to move beyond digital media narrowly understood as technology and account for their societal embedding. At the same time, technological aspects are also important and cannot be neglected. Accordingly, digital media in politics and society can be studied on different levels: We can study digital media by focusing on technology, the affordances they provide to users and providers, user psychology, or societal structures digital media are embedded in, shape, and mutually are shaped by. Focusing on either of these levels alone won't tell the full story of how digital media work in politics and society. Instead, we need to combine findings from different analytical approaches in order to understand where different levels interact, opportunities emerge, or where there are limits on the impact of digital media on politics and society.

For example, it might be that people encounter misleading information in digital communication environments and on the basis of these information learn false facts or even be persuaded by a position misleadingly argued for. This would be a psychological effect. At the same time, people also encounter information on television, in newspapers, or in their social environment. As a consequence, they encounter many information directly contradicting the misleading information they encountered online. Accordingly, they can be expected to unlearn the information they picked up. Social structures - news media or social embeddedness - thus counteract the structure digital communication environments and limit the strength of effects only emerging there. To think about digital media in politics and society sensibly, we need to account for both these levels and their interaction. If we neglect this, we will misdiagnose their impact. Only focusing on the psychological effects of digital media, we would overestimate the effect of digital media on society. Only focusing on the structural embeddedness alternatively would mean underestimating their effect. Only the combination of both levels allows us to characterize the role of digital media in politics and society correctly. This will be a recurring motive going forward.