• Emma van der Goot

Pointing fingers in politics

Political campaigns are often filled with negativity and conflict. To convince voters of their qualification for office, politicians are not only concerned with promoting themselves but also with discrediting the reputation of their opponent. This is also called ‘mud-slinging. Prime examples of such mud-slinging can be found in former President Trump’s political smear campaign against Hilary Clinton in 2016 or against Joe Biden in 2020. Especially, when there are only two viable candidates running for office, the reason behind attacking the rival is clear: if the opponent becomes less attractive to voters, they will turn to you. After all, nobody wants to vote for a corrupt politician…

Yet, how does this work when politicians are faced with a range of opponents (individual parties, party leaders, blocks of parties, or “het partijkartel” in the Netherlands) and when politicians need to see eye to eye after the election? While theoretically the benefits of attacks seem less straightforward in a multi-party setting, reality proofs that politicians are still willing to take the risk. But is it worth it?

While it is interesting to assess if parties can benefit from attacking the opponent, it is also crucial to consider the potential side effects of the smear campaigns on citizens’ overall involvement in politics. This is why in our research, we aimed to understand how conflict in campaign messages affects voters’ political preferences and their political participation more generally.

Hereby, we focused on the online advertisements that were spread during the 2021 Dutch parliamentary election campaign and relied on a unique combination of innovative research methods: a four-wave panel survey, a content analysis of the advertisements people came across on their Facebook browsers, and a mobile experience sampling survey with data donations.

‘Yay’ for individual parties, ‘nay’ for democracy

The results of our study show that the number of conflict ads from a particular party increases the likelihood to vote for that party. So, by establishing clear boundaries vis a vis other parties and creating a common enemy, parties can activate and reinforce existing party preferences. Seems promising right?

The results regarding political participation, unfortunately, paint a less optimistic picture and show a potential pitfall for democracy: We find that conflict ads have a small demobilizing effect on citizens because overall exposure to conflict frames seems to cause citizens to be less likely to sign petitions, have political discussions, and inform themselves about politics. This is partly because conflict ads suppress feelings of enthusiasm and are not seen as informative. While citizens in a two-party system are used to harsh political fights, it may be experienced as more worrisome in a system that rests on consensus and where finger-pointing is potentially viewed as a waste of time. Given that citizens’ positive attitudes towards politics and their involvement in a range of political activities are essential elements of a vibrant democracy, the small demobilizing effect is not so encouraging.

So, to sum up, while we find that attacking the opponent also works in a multi-party setting if attack strategies gain popularity in these settings they may have negative democratic implications beyond direct electoral outcomes.

Our paper titled “The online battlefield: How conflict frames in political advertisements affect political participation in a multiparty context” is currently under review, once it is published we will link it here. It is co-authored together with Sanne Kruikemeier, Rens Vliegenthart, and Jeroen de Ridder.