Scientific and subversive: The two faces of the fourth era of political campaigning

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This article sets out the case that democracies are now entering a fourth phase of “data-driven” political campaigning. Building on the existing campaigns literature, we identify several key shifts in practice that define the new phase, namely: (1) an organizational and strategic dependency on digital technology and “big data,” (2) a reliance on networked communication, (3) the individualized micro-targeting of campaign messages, and (4) the internationalization of the campaign sphere. Departing from prior studies, we also argue that the new phase is distinguished, by a bifurcation, into two variants—the scientific and the subversive. While sharing a common core, these two modes differ, in that the former retains a commitment to the normative goals of campaigning, that is, to mobilize and inform voters, while the latter explicitly rejects and subverts these aims, focusing instead on demobilization and the spread of misinformation. Both are presented as abstract or “ideal” types, although we do point out how features of each have appeared in recent election campaigns by mainstream and populist parties. We conclude by discussing the implications of these trends for the long-term future health of democracy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)595-610
Number of pages16
JournalNew Media & Society
Issue number4
Early online date2 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2 Apr 2020


  • Big data
  • campaigns
  • populism
  • social media


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