Problem Definition in the Digital Democracy (PRODIGI)

(ERC Advanced Grant, 2021-2025)


How does an issue become a political problem? No issue inherently requires political responses. Instead, political actors construct arguments regarding the nature of a given problem and connect them to particular policy actions. For example, and to preview PRODIGI's substantive focus, some see digital technology as a threat to democracy and advocate for stricter regulation, while others emphasize its potential to improve participation and argue that tighter rules stifle innovation. This phenomenon, known as "problem definition," has long been recognized as a fundamental aspect of any policymaking process. Theoretically, PRODIGI argues that the notion of problem definition needs to integrate the dynamics induced by digital technology, such as new forms of political communication that bypass traditional gatekeepers. The state of the art does not adequately describe these new dynamics. On the one hand, the literature on digital technology and politics has not explicitly recognized problem definition as a key aspect. On the other hand, the agenda setting and problem definition literatures have not integrated the role of digital technology in their arguments. Specifically, PRODIGI pursues four objectives: 1) develop a theory of problem definition that accounts for the role of digital technology; 2) develop new methods to measure problem definition based on computational social science; 3) analyze problem definition in the case of policy responses to digital technology's implications for democracy; and 4) analyze the effects of problem definition on opinions using survey experiments. PRODIGI breaks new ground in two ways. First, it puts forward original theory and methods to study a longstanding question that has acquired new relevance in digital environments. Second, it applies the new theory and methods to an important societal challenge, namely, how politics responds to digital technology's impact on democracy.



PRODIGI is organized in four Work Packages.

Work Package 1 lays the theoretical foundations for the project. It consists of three tasks:

  • Theorize the connection between problem definition and digital media
  • Operationalize problem definition
  • Develop the connection between problem definition and framing effects

Work Package 2 develops methods to measure problem definition using computational social science approaches. It consists of three tasks:
  • Identify relevant texts for subsequent analysis
  • Identify specific subtopics to be analyzed more in detail
  • Develop new methods to identify policy frames within the subtopics, and therefore measure how the problems are defined

Work Package 3 analyzes problem definition in two countries, the USA and Germany, focusing on one specific issue area, policy responses to digital technology’s implications for democracy. It consists of five tasks:
  • Select more specific issue areas within the broader area of policy responses to digital technology’s implications for democracy
  • Construct a comprehensive list of actors that potentially can shape the agenda in the specific issue areas
  • Constructs the corpus needed to measure policy frames, including social media posts, news media, press releases, parliamentary debates, and party manifestos
  • Establish the connection between the policy frames used by political actors and the political agenda
  • Determine which kinds of policy frames are more likely to spread from political actors to the political agenda

Work Package 4 conducts survey experiments in the USA and Germany to test the effects of policy frames on opinions. It consists of three tasks:
  • Formulate specific hypotheses
  • Design the survey experiments
  • Analyze the experiments