Political choices are all about the future. Through democratic elections, citizens select which political personnel, what policies and which values will guide societies into the times that lie ahead. Yet, it remains uncertain what futures await a society, which policies will deliver what outcomes, or how elected officials will behave. To exercise their democratic rights, citizens need to imagine possible futures and evaluate these to inform their political choices.
In the present study, we investigate how voters rely on a wide range of resources and strategies to project their collective futures. We draw upon data from 25 focus group interviews, conducted over the duration of the two rounds of Israeli general elections in April and September 2019, which were marked by substantially different levels of political uncertainty. Five groups of 7-12 participants with heterogeneous political views (four groups of Jewish Israeli voters, thereof one with young adults, and one group of Arab Israeli voters) were reconvened five times each to discuss their expectations for the elections and the future course of the country. Applying an abductive discourse analytic approach, we studied participants’ discursive strategies for presenting, justifying and negotiating their respective expectations. Specifically, we identified how participants anchored their projections in available evidence, knowledge and experience, how these anchoring strategies differed under higher or lower uncertainty, and how participants’ projections, in turn, enabled them to derive political orientation and efficacy. In order to link participants’ projections to the available information environment offering possible anchors and projections, we additionally analyzed a broad repertoire of news coverage and social media feeds (by political actors, journalists, experts, other public figures).
Our analysis documents that voters rely on a broad range of anchors and inferencing strategies, routinely combining personal observations and convictions with a creative use of media narratives (or fragments thereof). Depending on the use of narrower or broader anchors, as well as the degree of political uncertainty, distinct implications arise for the specific kinds of projections that can be derived, and the degree of confidence that they inspire in the formed expectations. Given low uncertainty during the first election campaign, for instance, knowledge about the agendas and character of individual leaders sufficed to project broad governmental programs and their implementation. After the political crisis that led to the second election round, by contrast, the same knowledge carried no further than predicting parties' negotiation strategies; numerous additional anchors had to be mobilized to project broader implications for government formation and beyond. Media reliance increased with raised uncertainty, but served more to interpret present observations than to infer their future implications. Other anchors were resilient against raised uncertainty: For instance, the exaltation of specific leaders as political ‘saviors’ inspired unbroken confidence in their prowess to effect far-reaching implications. Likewise, most continuity heuristics withstood the raised uncertainty (e.g., predicting rising religious influence, stable democratic institutions, or politicians’ unchanging characters). Reviewing the underlying heuristics and interrogating those cultural scripts enabling the formation of different projections, we discuss implications of future-oriented discourse for political communication scholarship.
In past eras of limited publicity and professional multipliers, journalists dominated the procurement of viewpoint diversity, lending relevant contenders’ ideas visibility alongside hegemonic voices. Today, the algorithm-amplified activities of countless voices and audiences govern the visibility of competing viewpoints in the digital public sphere. However, as I shall argue, the enormous expansion and fragmentation of publicity has merely shifted, but not diminished the importance of journalism. As a point of departure, I submit that viewpoint diversity is suspended between two poles: the hegemony of one viewpoint, and the entropy of all available viewpoints – most of which are unsubstantiated or redundant. Accordingly, exposing audiences to relevant contestation is equally critical as is organizing the cacophony of voices and discriminating relevant from irrelevant diversity. In this effort, journalists navigate an information environment that is heavily pre-structured by algorithms.
In this paper, I review the existing literatures on viewpoint diversity and digital journalism to identify key contributions and conflicts that algorithms create for the management of relevant diversity. I propose that algorithms play a highly ambivalent role depending on which criterion of relevant diversity is considered. With regard to identifying diverse experiences, algorithms may be capable of identifying viewpoints shared by many in society, but remain limited at exposing other groups to these experiences. Herein thus lies a key journalistic contribution. At the same time, these algorithms also wash singular or contrived experiences to the fore where these appeal to common fears and stereotypes. With regard to identifying diverse knowledge, next, algorithms are largely useless: They detect only what is believed or contested, not what is important to know, and their proxies for truth – the beliefs of authorities and crowds – are dubious at best. Professional journalism remains indispensable for determining what claims valuably complement existing knowledge. Still, algorithms can flag widely held beliefs that require checking and, if necessary, correcting. With regard to procuring political-normative choices, finally, algorithms are generally useful for crystallizing alternatives, but also easily rigged. However, both their capacities and limitations are rooted in the strategic advocacy of political and social groups, and thus make little difference compared to ‘old-fashioned’ journalistic work. While journalists are no longer responsible for rendering contention public, their contribution by far exceeds the pointing-out of relevant contributions. By bridging distinct ‘filter bubbles’, verifying pertinent claims and exposing baseless viewpoints, journalism is at least as critical for managing excessive diversity as the amplification of suppressed contention.