Research Spotlight: Did Elite Discourse Shape Public Debate after the Parkland Shooting?

Social scientists have long been interested in political claimsmaking and, more specifically, what ideas influence how individuals think and talk about political issues. However, understanding the potential influence of political actors on individual claimsmaking is complicated for a couple of reasons. First, our contemporary media system is complicated and, consequently, it can be difficult to track how ideas travel across the media ecosystem and to trace whose promoting them. Second, and central to our paper, understanding the potential influence of political actors on individual claimsmaking is complicated by dynamics among actors such as competition and amplification.

Competition and Amplification

Why do political actors compete with one another for attention?

Public attention is a scarce resource and, political elites vie with other actors, such as social movements, to garner support for their ideas. This is true even in the digital age because the number of outlets catering to niche political predispositions, and the actors competing for these audiences, abound. Consequently, it is not always easy for political actors to reach a larger audience, let alone shape how they understand political issues.

In an effort to get public attention, political actors will sometimes choose to amplify one another’s ideas. This can be done selectively. For example, political actors can selectively amplify the ideas that will resonate with their supporters and that help them achieve goals. Moreover, in the digital age, political actors can select what forums on which to promote shared ideas.  For example, a group may decide not to compete with their allies for mainstream media attention and work to amplify shared ideas online instead.

Our paper looks at discourse the two weeks before the passage of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act (SB 7026) in Florida and assesses whether competition and amplification may have influenced public debate. To do so, we analyzed stories after the Parkland shooting to identify the relevant political actors, assess what they were saying about the shooting and how they were promoting their ideas, and, then, examined what ideas dominated broadcast and print news coverage in 316 stories during this two week period. To assess whether and how political actors’ ideas were used by individuals, we content analyzed 438 Letters to the Editor and Op-eds, 4,962 emails sent to then-governor Rick Scott, and 1,000 tweets during the same two-week period.

Competition and Amplification Matter

We find that amplification and competition shape the relative  visibility  of  political actors’ ideas and  the  frequency  with  which individuals use the ideas in their Letters to the Editor, emails and tweets. Generally speaking,  gun  control  and  progressive  groups  selectively amplified ideas associated with the emerging, student-led Never Again Marjory Stoneman Douglas movement and aspects of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act that were consistent with their goals. This seems to have increased the visibility of these ideas in mainstream outlets and influenced the ideas individuals drew on in their own argumentation insofar as individuals drew on amplified frames across the forums relatively frequently. This was not true of ideas opposing gun control. Gun rights groups bickered with Florida politicians and among themselves. As a result, gun rights ideas were less prevalent in mainstream discourse and in individuals’ arguments across all three forums.

The final version of the paper may be found on the Information, Communication & Society. A preprint of the paper is available on SocArXiv.  

Dr. Deana A. Rohlinger is a Professor of Sociology at Florida State University, who researches mass media, political participation, and politics in America. You can learn more about Dr. Rohlinger here.

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