In ancient Greece, a central part of social life took place at the agora. At this physical venue, citizens did not only trade all kinds of commodities, but also deliberate about important societal issues and politics. Therefore, the agora can be considered as the birthplace of democracy. Today, social media seem to bring this ancient Greek idea into a digital world: Services such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram enable citizens not only to publish political thoughts or initiatives in the form of videos, pictures, or status entries but also to have civically relevant interactions with other citizens at large scale. While this might be seen as a potentially enriching tool for democratic societies, nowadays, it also has to be discussed in the light of less desirable observations such as uncivilized exchanges (“hate speech”), the spread of misinformation (“fake news”), the presence of manipulative entities (“social bots”), or communication in ideologically homogeneous spheres (“filter bubbles” or “echo chambers”).
Empirical evidence in the field of computer-mediated political communication has grown in the last decades. Still, it remains a pressing need for researchers to systematically identify the circumstances under which politically relevant communication over network technologies can become beneficial versus detrimental for individuals and societies. What are the boundary conditions under which social media serve as marketplaces wherein citizens can contribute to deliberation and rational exchanges of arguments? Which factors influence whether this can lead to better informed (political) decisions? Which kind of citizens benefit most or least when using social media in political contexts? What are long-term consequences of political discourses via social networking platforms? How can computational methods be used to understand the mechanisms within these platforms better and to improve the conditions for the user? What are ethical implications of political deliberation online and how can we come to a well-grounded normative stance? Answering these questions clearly demands a multi-disciplinary approach combining communication studies, psychology, computer science, social media analytics, ethics, and political science. This Summer School, hosted by the Forschungsverbund NRW Digitale Gesellschaft and organized by the University of Duisburg-Essen and University of Bonn, intends to bring these disciplines together and to offer a fruitful setting for senior and junior scholars to jointly work on current questions of political communication in computer-mediated contexts.