From Media Power to People’s Power: A Systematic Literature Review on the Reverse Agenda-Setting Effect of Political Discussions on Social Media


While the traditional agenda-setting theory describes how the salience of a given issue transfers from news media to the publics (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), the emergence of social media in recent years also arouses discussions on how the agenda-setting power is shifting from traditional news organizations to the ordinary people. Earlier communication scholars stressed “media power,” which is the non-coercive bargaining power that media have to influence key actors in the society, and regarded audiences as passive receivers of the frames set by news media (Couldry & Curran, 2003). The low entry-threshold and interactive nature of social media enable the once salient mass to actively voice themselves and to reversely have more control over the larger discourse, which leads to accumulating literature that is calling for the new theorization of the “people’s power.”

On the other hand, while many are celebrating the democratization effect of the more equalized platforms (e.g., Yang, 2009), some are also expressing concerns on “slacktivism,” blaming social media for over-simplifying social movements and reducing offline political participation (e.g., Shirky, 2011). This paper aims to fill the gap between the two contesting schools by revealing the growing evidence on the real-life impact of the words posted on social media.

With the abundance of relevant literature, we also notice a lack of consistency in the terminology used. For instance, some scholars define political discussion on social media as a type of emerging media content (Harder et al., 2017) while others regard it as users’ expressive behaviors (Russell Neuman et al., 2014). Some treat social media discussion in a holistic way whereas others differentiate the types of accounts. Also, the terms referring to the agenda-setting power of social media discussion are messy (e.g., intermedia agenda-setting in Harder et al. (2017), social media power in Freelon et al. (2016) and agenda trending in Groshek and Groshek (2013)), which requires systematic comparison and explication.

Drawing from the framework of connective action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013), this systematic literature review looks at how that scattered political discussion on social media can produce a detectable and quantifiable impact on news and policy agenda, which may shift the discourse and result in concrete social changes. The PRISMA protocol will be adopted to ensure an exhaustive and unbiased systematic literature review process (Moher et al., 2009). A series of keywords will be used to search in the databases for empirical academic papers published (1) from 2010 to 2020, (2) in English, and (3) on peer-reviewed academic journals. By synthesizing and analyzing the screened papers both quantitatively and qualitatively, the objectives are to answer:

  1. What are the distributions of (1) publishing years, (2) publishing location; (3) field of study?
  2. What (1) theories and (2) research methods are used?
  3. How are political discussion on social media and the agenda-setting power (1) conceptualized and (2) measured?
  4. What is the direction of the agenda-setting relationships revealed?
  5. What are the factors that influence the agenda-setting power of political discussion on social media?