Political Framing on the Web?

On: October 19, 2009
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About Han Rusman
I'm a MA student and also a freelance consultant and designer in e-commerce. I've started my own company about 5 years ago. Social links; http://twitter.com/hfr http://www.linkedin.com/pub/han-rusman/5/47/968


USC professor Manuel Castells’ new book Communication Power theorized how the media is the place where power is decided at large (especially in democratic countries). According to Castells political framing is one of the major weapons in the political process.

In his third chapter Networks of Mind and Power, Castells summarized about political framing with the help of his Californian’ colleagues: neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and linguistics professor George Lakoff. Damasio theorized that the brain is physical in it’s working. In short: you can’t be rational without emotions. Emotion is chemical in the brain, epinephrine for ‘negative’ emotions and dopamine for ‘positive’ emotions (Damasio, 2005). Out of that come six basic emotions: fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness and anger (Castells 2009). Emotions are perceived as feelings in the brain (Damasio 2005). Framing according to Damasio is physical too, you learn by making frames in your brain. Because of frames you can understand social narratives. Again, the process of framing is physically. The more neurons are used the synapses become stronger (Damasio, 2003).

Such a recruited circuit physically constitutes the metaphor. Thus, metaphorical thought is psychical […] Such simple metaphors can then be combined via neural binding to form complex metaphors (Lakoff, 2008: 84)

Political framing is the process of making a frame for political purposes. Castells uses the example of the war on terror. Since 9/11 the Bush Administration shaped the ‘war on terror’-frame. They coupled the ‘war on terror-frame’ to emotions like fear and especially patriotism. Because the excellent frame it became very hard to be against the war on terror. Most elites feared to appear as unpatriotic (2009).

According to George Lakoff framing is natural, without framing you can’t interpret. The mind doesn’t only frame linguistics but visuals also. Human beings can’t be fully rational; you can’t be rational without emotions. Therefore there are five key factors in political campaigning: values, communication-skills, authentic and reliable (trust) charisma, inspiring and identifying (Castells 2009; Lakoff, 2008). Given that fact Lakoff thinks progressive should use framing techniques a lot more. The [American] conservatives build a good system around the process of framing, he said (2008). They have think tanks with enormous budgets occupied with the job of framing and they own a huge percentage of the media. The difference between conservatives and progressives is conservative’s aim at emotions and progressive’s aim at rationality (Lakoff, 2008b).

Although I personally think political framing is a very interesting topic in general, I will not go deeply into political framing, but further focus on the question, what can (and did) new media change(d) in political framing? I personally think new media adapt on, and resonate existing frames. The Google search query “War on terror” returned approximately 40.400.00 results.[i] YouTube only has got 152000 about “war on terror”.

Because the use of frames is natural, acceptance of frames seems also be natural, and although some leftist blogs deny to accept the frame (i.e. war on terror) I don’t think the big difference is in the acceptance of frames. But if we go back to emotions and the five key factors in political campaigning I think new media and it’s different characteristics have different impact than mass media in general.

I think if we analyse the five key factors Lakoff assigned to political campaigns in the light of the Obama campaign we can get a glance on how new media play a role in (re)framing.

  1. I think Obama’s communication-skills especially his (and Jon Favreau) speeches were very successful. But the remix of the artist Will.I.Am started a remix trend, which resulted in a lot of positive remixes at YouTube and DeviantArt. New media in this case enabled people to cooperate, but also extend the frame.
  2. Trust is a key factor in the current political process. Both republicans and democrats used character assassination as an important weapon. The website Fightthesmears.com effectively used and mobilized the Obama-fans to regulate the mudslinging-campaign of the republicans. Lakoff says Obama’s calm/cool and friendly behaviour mirrors on his audience because of mirror neurons (2008b).
  3. According to Lakoff the Obama campaign is based on the empathy-frame. Obama’s speeches on- and offline contains messages with caring. Patriotism is caring, Obama said (Lakoff 2008). Identifying with Obama and his campaign might become easier because of the social tools. Mybarackobama.com, the social networking site of the Obama campaign enabled people the connect with each other.
  4. Obama was not only inspiring people in his speeches. You can say interaction is enabling and activating people in various ‘web 2.0 expressions’. But like Michael Stevenson showed in his Interactivity is Affectivity there are a lot contradictory theories about the activation through interactivity.“The critical drive to show that interactivity will never really be offered to consumers keeps intact the notion that interactivity is enabling while its absence is disabling or controlling, and thus holds on to the fallacy of the excluded middle.” (Stevenson, 2007)

  5. Lakoff offers some really interesting insights in the difference in political-values; nevertheless I don’t think new media play a big role in this part. Castells et al. show that people tend to think in their frames. The try to fit information in their frames. Information that challenges their existing frames will be treated a lot more suspicious than information that proves their frames (2009). The web is often seen as hybrid for the like-minded, which makes it even easier to stick to your own conclusions.

Yes, it is uncertain what the result of these differences was (and will be), and it is impossible to exclude all other factors from the campaign, but I guess new media change political framing. The question is how.

The theory of political framing is based on three USC theorists (even Jenkins is on his way to USC).

Further reading

http://reason.com/archives/2005/01/12/the-man-who-framed-himself (Interesting critique on Lakoff by Jesse Walker)

http://henryjenkins.org/2008/09/framing_the_candidates_a_close.html (Analysis political framing from a fan-studies perspective by Henry Jenkins)



Castells, Manuel. Communication Power. (2009) Oxford: Oxford Press.

Damasio, Antonio. Descartes Error. (2003) Pinguin.

Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. (2008a). Pinguin.

Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Video (2008b). < http://fora.tv/2008/06/20/George_Lakoff_on_The_Political_Mind > (opgevraagd op 10 oktober 2009)

Stevenson, Michael. Interactivity is Affectivity. (2007) < http://whateverbutton.com/blog/wp-content/interactivity_is_affectivity.pdf > (opgevraagd op 10 oktober 2009)

[i] http://www.google.com/search?hl=nl&client=safari&rls=en&q=war+on+terror&btnG=Zoeken&lr= (11-10-2009 10:50)

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