Politics on social media: An investigation of the news-sharing-behavior of European politicians


There is still little known about the background of the news-sharing-behavior of politicians on social media. A new study reveals the characteristics of news posts that politicians regularly share with their supporter groups on Facebook and the potential information biases that can arise as a result.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉ adriana.palloks@univie.ac.at)

Political information and knowledge are crucial for the political participation of citizens in a democracy. In addition to traditional news formats such as newspapers, radio and television, social media are increasingly being used as a source of information – particularly for younger generations. "At a time when young voters in particular are gathering political information directly from politicians via social media, it is important to gain a better understanding of what kind of news stories politicians disseminate on social media", explains study author Tobias Heidenreich. "Our concern is that an overly strategic behavior of politicians could contribute to or reinforce an information bias", he continues. Following this logic, researchers from the University of Vienna and the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) studied the Facebook profiles of politicians from a number of countries with different political systems and inspected their news-sharing-behavior. They investigated the question: "What affects the likelihood of online news items to be shared by political actors on social media?"

The scholars identified 1,022 profiles of politicians from Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom and 276,405 Facebook posts were collected between December 2017 and November 2018. For the researchers, it was important to consider not only the shared posts of the politicians, but also those news items that were published by the news providers in the same interval, but not shared by the politicians. With this approach, they were able to examine the significant characteristics of a message that the politicians considered worth sharing. In addition to the first data set, they also acquired 623,919 news items from 22 online newspapers from the investigated countries. In the course of the statistical analysis, three overarching findings on the news-sharing-behavior of European politicians were identified.

In the first step, the researchers found that an important factor to share a news item is whether it refers to the party of the politician. This characteristic was confirmed in the three countries studied, although it appears to be more pronounced in Germany and Spain. Politicians from the United Kingdom "seem to be more willing to also share news articles that do not necessarily mention their own party".

The topics or issues that a politician's party "owns" also play a role in the dissemination of news. The study revealed that when a party is engaged in a specific political issue, politicians tend to share posts that relate to that issue with their followers more often. The final result is based less on the content of the news, but rather on the media outlet itself. Thus, politicians increasingly share news articles from news providers that are read preferentially by their followers. The researchers compare this news-sharing-behavior with that of private users, who align news sharing with the interests and preferences of their audience.

The present analysis of the news-sharing-behavior of politicians hints towards the fact that they seem to want to strengthen their public reputation and legitimacy by sharing content-specific news as well as to gain the support and attention of their followers. In other words, "politicians are very strategic when it comes to disseminating news items on social media. However, if the news consumption of voters is increasingly based on the pre-selection by political actors, this can lead to the reinforcement of already existing political attitudes and contribute to the polarization and fragmentation of the public in the long term", the research team warns in conclusion.

Publication details

Heidenreich, T., Eberl, J.-M., Tolochko, P., Lind, F., & Boomgaarden, H. G. (2022). My voters should see this! What news items are shared by politicians on Facebook? The International Journal of Press/Politics. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/19401612221104740

Authors of article

Tobias Heidenreich • Berlin Social Science Center

Jakob-Moritz Eberl • University of Vienna, Department of Communication

Petro Tolochko • University of Vienna, Department of Communication

Fabienne Lind • University of Vienna, Department of Communication

Hajo Boomgaarden • University of Vienna, Department of Communication

Given the importance of political information as a prerequisite for the political participation of citizens in a democracy, researchers from the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) and the University of Vienna studied the news-sharing-behavior of politicians on Facebook in Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The study looked at Facebook posts with news content that the politicians shared with their followers on their profiles. It was also examined which news posts were not shared by collecting political news from the same period. For the analysis period between December 2017 and November 2018, 1,022 political profiles of 20 different parties were collected and a total of 276,405 Facebook posts as well as 623,919 news items were examined. The study provides insight into the characteristics of news posts that are crucial in order to be shared by politicians on Facebook. (Image © _greenwish)