How Does Technology Transform Media and Public Opinion? A Conference with the Swedish Embassy in Den Haag at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht

HU Poster Digital Platforms conference

Last week I had the great privilege to host an event in collaboration with the Swedish embassy in Den Haag, Netherlands, on the highly urgent and somewhat controversial topic of ‘How Does Technology Transform Media & Public Opinion?” at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht.

Seven prolific speakers discussed current developments and challenges that come with the digitalisation of public communication and the rise of online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

The program was based on ‘fireside talks’ between the invited experts from academia, governments, and media; emphasis was placed on three aspects:

 

  1. Technological Foundations and the Revolution of Communication – How Big Tech Changes the Public Sphere

The first section deals with how the rise of Internet technology first provided seemingly endless potentials to new modes of communication and access to the public for individuals and marginalised groups. News Media is no longer the sole source of mass-distributed information.

The mass distribution of Internet access enabled the rise of big tech companiessuch as Google and Facebook, that responded with constantly evolving services to the needs of a highly interconnected digital society. Leading Internet companies have turned into complex multi-purpose platforms that aim for binding users to their brands with a diversity of functions. They create spheres of increasing economic, cultural and political influence.

The implications for freedom of expression become apparent in transformations in media consumption and production. Traditional news media find themselves in a tough spotbetween ethical considerations, political missions, business goals, and an increasingly sceptical audience with access to countless alternative sources for information. Finally, there is the emerging trend to rely more increasingly on artificial intelligence in many web services which comes with an additional baggage of ethical and political questions.

 

  1. Potentials vs. Threats – Assessing the Pro’s and Con’s for Free Speech

On one hand, there are progressive social movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter, that make use of the open accessibility of the Web and highlight how marginalised groups apply freedom of expression in the digital public sphere. On the other, the Web is often a highly toxic place where racism, misogynism, trolling, hate speech, misinformation, and cyberbullying thrive; the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ and current forms of right-wing populism partly originated from or made intensive use of online platforms. Groups apply the technologies in order to organize their members, spread the message, contest mainstream politics and media, and thus framing issues from their world views.

Fake news and filter bubbles are often-cited downsides of the rise of social media and personalised web experiences. But is the situation that black and white? It’s a fact that trust in mainstream politics and media is undermined and questioned and the fact that political factions engage in trench warfare and hate speech in various forms is a widespread problem.

Today, when determining freedom of expression one has to consider that no one really lives a completely private life in the age social media and search engines.

The question is also what the role of businesses, journalists/media and governments is in all of this? There are different levels of ‘public’ communication that are affected by current tech trends and obviously all three play central roles the digital public sphere but the relationships between them are changing.

 

  1. Responsibilities and Remedies

The question of responsibility where different social, economic and political factors need to be considered. Tech is not going away; the Internet is not some separate place we got to but has become an integral part of our daily lives in various ways. What is the role of journalism in a data-driven age? How can companies be creative and innovative without losing sight of mid- to long-term consequences? How can they balance ‘what they can do’ with ‘what they should do’? What is the role of regulators and governments? Finally, what are the responsibilities of the user?

You can watch a recording of the session here!

 

 

 

 

Europe, the Crisis, and the Internet – Now available!

 

 

22256528_1658407790845974_7153997000714402534_o.jpgFinally, the printed version of my first monograph about Europe, the Crisis, and the Internet is available via Palgrave MacMillan! It is based on my PhD research, which I conducted at the University of Hull between 2011-2015.

From the publisher’s website:

This book provides a detailed analysis of the transnational web sphere that emerged at the height of the Eurozone crisis between 2011 and 2013. During these turbulent years, a diverse spectrum of professional communicators from the media and political sectors as well as from opinionated individuals on blogs and social media discussed, and thus framed, the crisis in the digital public sphere. The analysis focuses on the various fields of contestation of the crisis that became detectable in the transnational online discourse and shows how conflict and fragmentation shaped political communication in this context. Nguyen concludes that there was not a single crisis but a chain of intersecting and profound political and cultural conflicts triggered by the economic upheavals, which led to the emergence of an extremely dynamic and unstable transnational digital public sphere, where different political and cultural viewpoints collided.

Soon, I will create a section where readers can download all graphs in higher resolution.

Thanks again to all people who supported this project!

New Book: The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere

The past four months have been incredibly busy, especially since I started a new job as a lecturer in Utrecht. Now that I have finally settled in I hope I will find the time to post here more frequently. I will try to place focus on my research, teaching experiences, as well as interesting developments in (transnational) media politics.

Another reason that kept me from writing for this blog was a publication project that drew a lot of energy/attention in its final stages – but now it’s “done”! In a few months our new volume on the digital transformation of the public sphere and its relation to crisis, conflict and migration will be available (published by Palgrave). Co-edited with my former PhD supervisor Dr Athina Karatzogianni and colleague Dr Elisa Serafinelli I am proud to present a brief sneak preview below.

My chapter proposes an integrative methodology for the analysis of transnational web spheres based on my own research on the EU/Eurozone crisis. Also, I contributed to the chapter on the MIG@NET research project. The next major project is now turning my PhD thesis into a book (in talks with Palgrave as a potential publisher).

 

The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere: Conflict, Migration, Crisis, and Culture in Digital Networks

  • Introduction: The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere
    Athina Karatzogianni, Dennis Nguyen and Elisa Serafinelli

 

Part I Theorising Migration, Crisis, Culture and Conflict in the Digital Public Sphere

  • The Migration of Normative Principles and the Digital Construction of Transnational Ethics (Martin Gak)
  • The Digital Golden Dawn: Emergence of A Nationalist-Racist Digital Mainstream (Eugenia Siapera and Mariangela Veikou)
  • From Bulletins to Bullets to Blogs and Beyond: The Karen’s Ongoing Communication War (Geff Green)
  • Online Content Control, Memory, and Community Isolation (Artur Matos Alves)
  • The Critique of Videology: Games and the Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere (Luke O’ Sullivan)

 

Part II Cyberconflict and the Digital Diaspora: Nigeria, India, China, Mexico

  • Veterans of Diaspora Activism: An Overview of ICTs Use Among Nigerian Migrant Networks (Shola Olabode)
  • Online Gender Activism in India and the Participation of the Indian Diaspora 2012-2015 (Adrija Dey)
  • Beyond the Great Wall: Locating Expatriate Media Environments in China (Fan Mai)
  • Social Networks and Communicative Meaning in Mexican Migration Networks in the US (Joel Pedraza Mandujano)

 

Part III Migration and Crisis Discourses in the EU Public Sphere

  • Analysing Transnational Web Spheres: The European Example During the Eurozone Crisis (Dennis Nguyen)
  • Intercultural Conflict and Dialogue in the Transnational Digital Public Sphere: Findings from the MIG@NET Research Project (2010-2013)(Athina Karatzogianni, Oxana Morgunova, Nelli Kambouri, Olga Lafazani, NicosTrimikliniotis, Grigoris Ioannou, and Dennis Nguyen)
  • Understanding the Greek Crisis And Digital Media: A Cyberconflict Approach (Ioanna Ferra)
  • Digital Ethnicities and the (Re-)Construction of Ethnic Identities on Social Media (Slavka Karakusheva)
  • Frontex: Its Human Rights Obligations and the Role of the European Ombudsman (Nikos Vogiatzis)

 

Part IV Digital Culture and Communication Shifts in the Public Sphere

  • Political Selfies: Image Events in the New Media Field
    (Achilleas Karadimitriou and Anastasia Veneti)
  • Italian Migrants and Photosharing in the UK (Elisa Serafinelli)
  • The Politics of Transformation: Selfie Production of the Visually Marginalised (Patricia Routh)
  • YouTube, Migrant Rappers and the Early Cinema Aesthetics: Is there a Digital Public Sphere? (Giacomo Nencioni)
  • Banoptikon: Walking Through a Dystopia – European Project MIG@NET’s Digital Game (Ilias Marmaras)

 

BTW: Follow me on Twitter!

 

Image courtesy of Unsplash.com

Quick update – not dead, just distracted

…by preparing my move to Utrecht where I will be working as a lecturer from this month on. As soon as I have finalised the transition to my first work placement after completing my PhD I will post a brief summary of my “post-doc job-hunt” (i.e. an overview of my experiences and advice for all of you who are close to finishing or already have passed their viva).

I was also busy with some other projects, such as writing for a new online magazine with a focus on international and European politics: Vocal EuropeYou can read two of my analytical pieces on the Eurozone crisis as well as migration crisis there; both topics continue to dominate most discussions in the transnational public sphere on the continent.

The past few weeks saw heightened activity in the Eurozone crisis discourse, catalysed by the European lenders’ tough stance towards Athens and Alexis Tsipras’ subsequent call for a referendum on the last bailout. Once more, the extremely volatile relation between national sovereignty and transnational “solidarity” almost led to the infamous “Grexit” and a breakdown of European cooperation. Interestingly, the quite hostile dispute between the Greek government and their European counterparts also reinvigorated the left’s case for Euroscepticism – a political domain that was long a stronghold of the (extreme) right. And of course, there is the very peculiar case of Yannis Varoufakis – former Greek finance minister who held his post only shortly (there must be a reason why academics often fail in politics) – who seems to be an iridescent example for increasing personalisation in the otherwise extremely complex and confusing crisis discourse. I will soon post a brief article on the latter phenomenon by comparing him and Tsipras with their German counterparts, their predecessors, and other European politicians.

The cover image shows Hong Kong seen from Victoria’s Peek, which I visited for personal and professional reasons in June.

The Eurozone Crisis – the (Media) Drama continues

This is just a quick post since I am currently very busy with writing applications, articles, and getting books published (the usual “post doc” stuff). This is also the reason why I didn’t find the time to update this blog lately, despite so much going on right now in transnational Europe.

So why this update now? Well, it looks like the Eurozone crisis and the Greek dilemma are back on the top of the news agenda across the European media landscape. In recent weeks the transnational discourse, or more precisely, the blame-game between EU member-states, focused on the still unresolved migration crisis and relatively limited attention was given to the continuously swelling financial- and debt crisis (though it was always there). However, the political row between Greece’s creditors and the current Syriza government has yet again gained in momentum with the threat of a “Grexit” allegedly closer than ever (which has been repeatedly claimed over the past five years and thus has lost some of its actual shock potential).

A closer look at the different comment pieces, analyses, and reports reveals that actually no new arguments, visions, or plans have entered the discourse. The only real difference to the years 2010 to 2014 is that Tsipras, Varoufakis & co. are much less compliant than their predecessors – which is also a factor to consider in the intensifying ideological-cultural conflicts that are currently unfolding in the shadow of the economic-fiscal dispute. Just to give you a few examples for how the crisis made it back into the top news, here’s a selection of stories that were published on different international and national news media websites this week:

The Guardian Online provides yet another “live blog” on the latest developments and cites the Bank of Greece in its headline, which warns about an “uncontrollable crisis without bailout deal” (the thriller continues!).

The Wall Street Journal picks up the same apocalyptic quote for its headline.

This morning on German Zeit Online economist Hans-Werner Sinn repeats his argument that Greece was better off out the Eurozone and explains why Europe was on the wrong track for the past five years. However, he also says that Greece should have the opportunity to return to the Eurozone after it has stabilised its economy and introduced necessary reforms.

Meanwhile, reports on EKathimerini show that the Greek media closely observe political developments and -statements in Germany, where “Merkel’s Bavarian allies” allegedly said that “Greeks act like clowns in debt talks”.

Foreign Policy’s Daniel Altman argues that the Greek bailout are “incredibly stupid” due to their focus on short-term solutions for longterm problems – an approach that was doomed to fail.

The British Independent focuses on Tsipras’ claims that the IMF had a “criminal responsibility” for the rather intricate affair the Greek government and its creditors find themselves in.

Peter Eavis of the New York Times has a slightly more optimistic view than most on current events  when he argues that a “Greek exit would shake, but most likely not shatter, the Eurozone”.

Whether this week is actually more decisive for the Eurozone’s future than any other remains to be seen but the increased activity in the transnational web sphere at least indicates that the dispute between Athens and its creditors will probably return to the centre stage of the European public sphere.

Premediation in the Eurozone Crisis

The seemingly never-ending Eurozone crisis made it into the news again this week with various media commentators arguing that the “Grexit” was (maybe) finally here. After all, the current Greek government seems yet again struggling to meet its “obligations” towards its European lenders, mainly represented by the ECB. A crisis meeting has already been announced, but it remains to be seen whether it will produce a real breakthrough. The month of April, so it seems, will decide over Greece’s future  in- or outside the Eurozone. Déjà vu anyone?

The same had been said about January 2015, when the majority of Greeks resisted to the prevailing austerity drive by voting for radical left Syriza. In fact, similar claims about an end to Greece’s membership in the single currency union, if not even to the Euro’s continued existence as such, were made whenever the acting Greek government had to report to their international creditors over the past four years (see here, here, here, and here).

A potential “Grexit”, its probable impact, and an eventual collapse of the Eurozone have been repeatedly discussed by a variety of political commentators as well as economists – and for many it has long lost its “shock effect”. Not that anything has really changed in regards to the fundamental, potentially dramatic -and probably traumatic- consequences it would have for the single currency union and the political framework of the EU altogether.

However, it has become “the new normal” (Grusin 2010, citing brilliant comic artist Art Spiegelman) to live in an economic climate of constant crisis, fear for the future, depression, lack of innovation (not only in an economic but also political respect!) etc., just as Western societies have somehow accommodated themselves with a constant fear of religious terror since 9/11 (ibid). Against this background it is not really surprising that more optimistic assessments of the Eurozone’s future appear rather unconvincing to many.

What’s interesting here from an analytical perspective on the EU crisis debate in the media is that almost any thinkable outcome of the crisis has been brought up in the transnational public sphere – and new analyses, evaluations, as well as prognoses are added on an almost daily basis. These seem to differ only slightly in their general narratives, which can be broadly separated into two categories: stories about the end of the Euro and stories about its eventual survival and/or success. However different both are in their general prognoses for Europe’s future, they seem to fulfil a similar function: they are attempts to reduce the level of surprise and to provide orientation for future actions.

Indeed, it seems that there hardly is a scenario that has not been thought through yet and the spectrum of expectable outcomes for the crisis were brought down to a handful of possibilities. Economists, political commentators, journalists and other public communicators are central drivers of this process since they, willingly or unwillingly, pre-fabricate “potential futures” through media communication (pre-mediated). These are repeated over and over again with small updates (re-mediated).

Premediation and the Eurozone Crisis – a Very brief Overview

Richard Grusin, Professor of English at Wayne State University, describes this process as ‘premediation’ (2010: 38), a logic ‘in which the future has always been pre-mediated‘ (ibid, original italics). According to him, in today’s highly mediatised society public communicators engaged in a style of discourse that moved away from the past and present to a mode of communication that placed increasing emphasis on “what could happen next (and what could come after that)”. Different scenarios and their outcomes are played through in public discourse by e.g. journalists, government representatives, experts etc. so that no eventual outcome comes truly unexpected.

Think of the different scenarios that exist for the outcome of austerity politics in the European context: while leading German politicians argue that fiscal discipline will lead to an economically stable, prosperous future, dissident voices claim that the same could actually increase the suffering caused by economic hardship across struggling Eurozone countries.

However, premeditation should not be confused with prediction, since premeditation served not for finding an ideal “result” to a specific development:

Unlike prediction, premeditation is not about getting the future right. In fact it is precisely the proliferation of competing and often contradictory future scenarios that enables premediation to prevent the experience of a traumatic future by generating and maintaining a low level of anxiety as a kind of affective prophylactic. Premediation is not like a weather forecast, which aims to predict correctly the weather for tomorrow, or the weekend or the week ahead. To premediate the weather would be to try imagine all of the possible scenarios that might conceivably arise so that the weather could never come as a surprise (ibid).

Grusin uses the US media landscape after 9/11 and during the War on Terror as his primary empirical example to describe the mechanisms of premeditation but his observations are transferable to other crises and conflicts, including the current Eurozone crisis. The political implications and the entailed clash of different future scenarios ingrained in framing processes, which dominate public communication, are of particular relevance for understanding the transnational public discourse in Europe:

To think of premeditation as characterizing the media regime of post-9/11 America is therefore to be concerned not with the truth or falsity of specific future scenarios but with widespread proliferation of premediated futures. Premediation entails the generation of possible future scenarios or possibilities which may come true or which may not, but which work in any event to guide action (or shape public sentiment) in the present. These scenarios are perpetuated both by governmental actors and by the formal and informal media […] (ibid: 47)

Premediation can serve as an instrument for framing a particular problem in a very specific way in order to achieve concrete political goals; claiming to know how the future will turn out often comes with precise agendas for how to organise current social, economic, and political orders. Seen from this perspective, the transnational public sphere currently takes the shape of a conflict-loaded communication sphere in which polarising scenarios compete with each other; this turns the crisis into a contest about the future as much as about the present.

There are plenty of examples, which include the debates on austerity/anti-austerity, integration and sovereignty, isolation and solidarity, Eurobonds, the financial transaction tax, bailout programmes, structural reforms etc. Once the future has been pre-mediated, it is instantly fed into the constant flow of remediation, i.e. the pattern of repetition in public discourse which creates an atmosphere of constant insecurity and anxiety that seems to characterise  the “new normal” for many people in Europe.

References

Grusin, R. (2010): Premedation. Affect and Mediality after 9/11, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Retrospective: The UK General Election 2010 in the Political Blogosphere

With the UK general election 2015 only a few weeks away (May 7th), the major parties’ campaigns have become hot topics across British political online platforms, which in turn caused the formation of a nationally oriented web sphere that is not only moulded by the classic Tory-Labour fault line but has extended to the (former) political fringes, especially on the right with the growing importance of the Eurosceptic UKIP . To promote their framings for current issues in UK politics in the public sphere all major political players, media observers, and commentators disperse polarising problem definitions, causal interpretations, ethical judgements, and – most importantly for the election context – recommendations for actions (Entman 1993) based on seemingly irreconcilable values.

I think it is in this respect appropriate to take a look back at the last general election in 2010, for which each political party invested considerable efforts into online campaigning. Back then I conducted a comparative content analysis of British political web blogs with a focus on the general election for my MA thesis at Coventry University.

The main research question were: how open are political online platforms in terms of a pluralism of attitudes/opinions? How do sub-genres of political blogs differ in regards to their discourse potential? Who does actually partake in online debates via commenting and how do they express their opinions? The sample included online articles and their comment sections from twelve popular British political online platforms and news media sites published between April 6th and May 5th 2010:

The platforms were separated into three larger categories, which are political party blogs, “independent” but politically-affiliated A-List bloggers, and news media sites. Altogether the selected weblogs/websites produced 3150 articles with 105293 comments left by readers who engaged in relatively few but partly quite intensive follow-up discussions. Due to certain practical limitations (this was a only an MA thesis), the enormous amount of potential research subjects had to be reduced; otherwise the study would have remained unfeasible to accomplish with the given temporal and human resources at my disposal (less than three months, one graduate student).

The empirical sample eventually included 120 articles and 2286 comments; this is less than ten percent of the total population and all claims must be interpreted with clear limitations to the overall representability of the final analysis.

However, since it was a pilot study that analysed an equal amount of articles per platform in considerable detail,  I think its results are still interesting for the assessment of current modes of political online communication in the UK election context. The most important findings concern the limited levels of dialogue, tendencies towards fragmentation, verbal/textual violence, and the digital transformation of public discourse. It became quickly apparent that online media indeed played a central role in the election campaigns across the British political landscape – with ambivalent implications for trends in political online communication and public debates.

“No Response” – Limited Levels of Dialogue

There was considerable activity on part of the different communicators, i.e. operators of the sampled websites, who produced large amounts of content on a daily basis (over 3500 in four weeks). These articles also stimulated on-site communication in form of commenting in even larger quantities (over 105000).

However, it seemed that this high-frequency level of online communication seldom transformed into genuine dialogues or deliberation-based discussions. For example, less than half of all comments in the sample were directly connected to each other; readers did express their opinions in various forms but only in a few instances longer exchanges of arguments took place.

comments in political blogosphere UK election
Table 1: Direct responses to comments per platform type

A lot of people posted their comments but most never stimulated any responses from neither the post’s author(s) nor other readers. In fact, most bloggers and journalists hardly engaged in the comment sections at all and left the field entirely to their site visitors.

commenting on UK political blogs
Table 2: Sources of responses to comments per blog type

Only  a few bloggers – e.g. Hopi Sen or Charlotte Gore – engaged on the comment level with their audiences in mentionable frequencies, if compared to the other websites in the sample. However, only a fraction of these responses dealt with actual political issues; most were mere expressions of gratitude, approval, or non-political messages in irrelevant, de-contextualised side debates.

To sum up, the different online platform hardly became integrative-democratic stages for the reasoned exchanged of arguments but rather resembled transmitters for unidirectional communication flows and collections of mostly isolated messages that did not condense into meaningful conversation.

Fragmenting Tendencies

Though the majority of commenting users did not express any distinct ideological affiliation, many platforms still showed tendencies towards political fragmentation or balkanisation (Sunstein 2007).

Table 3: Comments that express party affiliation per party blog
Table 3: Comments that express party affiliation per party blog

Quite unsurprisingly, it were party blogs in particular that seemed to attract like-mined people in the respective comment sections.

Table 4: Comments with partisanship info per platform type
Table 4: Comments with partisanship info per platform type

The findings implied that back in 2010 users with similar political attitudes tended to “flock” on the same online platforms. This does not mean that there were no comments that expressed diverging opinions at all, but it happened only occasionally that a staunch conservative left a message on a Labour blog and vice versa. This probably limited the chances for real on-site contestation between site visitors on party- and A-list blogs. However, in these particular contexts forms of in-group deliberation sometimes materialised:

Example 1: In-group deliberation on LabourList (http://www.labourlist.org/the-super-size- election-why-this-campaign-is-w hetting-my-appetit 10/09/10)
Example 1: In-group deliberation on LabourList (http://www.labourlist.org/the-super-size- election-why-this-campaign-is-w hetting-my-appetit 10/09/10)

On news media sites, due to their broader scope, the situation looked a bit different and a polarising attitudes beyond the context of intra-party micro-politics met in higher frequencies. Quite interestingly, over half of all posted comments on party- and A list blogs were not directly related to the actual article but dealt with some form of side issue or sub-topic; these were not always “political” in a strict sense but focused on “soft issues” (jokes, socialising between users etc.). The analysis showed that conservatives were especially “talkative” on their respective websites/blogs:

Table 5: Comments per party- and affiliated A list blogs
Table 5: Comments per party- and affiliated A list blogs

The UK’s political right appeared extremely active on the Web and aggressively campaigned against the then-ruling Labour government.

Exclusion and Verbal/Textual Transgression

The analysis further showed that  only a small group of highly engaged users produced the majority of comments, who probably presented a mere fraction of the UK’s entire population. This observation tends to support the argument that political discourses on the Web are often limited to a handful (relatively speaking) of interested and invested users. It seems that mainly “hardcore” politics nerds and professionals in the field felt compelled to actively participate in online debates.

This leaves an ambiguous impression: on one hand, this appears as a considerable shortcoming in terms of pluralism (many political attitudes, especially different nuances, are not really represented); on the other, even if limited in their ideological scope, these on-site debates still tend to expand the informative content of each blog/website in a technical sense: potentially critical, different, or new perspective are added to the the original article. However, the ‘tone’ of debate reached partly extremely toxic levels and, depending on the context, could became downright aggressive.

Manifestations of verbal violence not unlike discursive forms that one normally associates with extreme forms of racism and dehumanisation frequently emerged in the sample. Especially politicians and other public figures became targets for offensive, hostile and vulgar comments:

Example 2: Verbal violence in political blog comment (http://order-order.com/2010/04/25/labour-say-now-want-serious-policy- focus/ 01/08/10)
Example 2: Verbal violence in political blog comment (http://order-order.com/2010/04/25/labour-say-now-want-serious-policy- focus/ 01/08/10)

It is indeed difficult to assess in how far these comments were genuine political positions or mere “trolling”. In any case, individual seemed to take advantage of their online anonymity to express their personal, sometimes very emotional positions in a rather uncivilised, practically violent manner that displayed features of hate speech.

Example 3: Verbal violence in political blog comments (http://order-order.com/2010/04/25/labour-say-now-want-serious-policy- focus/ 01/08/10)
Example 3: Verbal violence in political blog comments (http://order-order.com/2010/04/25/labour-say-now-want-serious-policy- focus/ 01/08/10)

Depending on the blog and audience, such provocative statements could find wider approval and initiate “rants” against the person or group in focus, who mostly happened to have a different political position. In this regard, party and A-List blogs in particular seemed to foster the rifts between political camps and hardened the fronts.

The Digital Transformation of Public Discourse

To sum up, in 2010 online media, especially political blogs, played an increasingly relevant role as information sources on different campaign programs; they also extended the spectrum of publicly communicated positions and attitudes, though different social filters determined the scope of actively partaking audiences. Party- and A list blogs tended to attract people who shared a certain set of political values, which diminished the potential for contestation and deliberation across ideological “silos”; at the same time, they occasionally served for intra-party discussions that could display the democratic-integrative features of consensus-seeking, deliberative discourse. However, forms of verbal violence, mostly addressed at the respective political opponent, were also part of political online debates and could reach extremely aggressive levels in some cases.

From a normative perspective, this leaves an altogether ambivalent impression and raises the question of whether this trend leads to a better informed, more transparent society – or whether it rather causes an increased fragmentation of our socio-economic lifeworld.

A significant different between the today and the last general election is the rise of the Eurosceptic-nationalist UKIP and the question about a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, which has gained  in relevance over the past few years (the Eurozone crisis and systemic inconsistencies in the EU’s political framework may have contributed to this situation). The transnational developments on the European level are therefore potentially more relevant factors than in the previous election. In this respect, the entailed battles over national identity, sovereignty, transnational realities but also austerity measures may cause (or already have caused) extremely polarising, toxic online debates.

It is hardly disputable that the modes in which political stakeholders organised and executed their communication campaigns was accompanied by an increasingly relevant digital element, which only grew in importance in the past five years; more than ever, our current digitalised communication environment illustrates on a daily basis how media-based public discourse roots in a complex network of communication flows that are not confined to some separated “online” or “offline” space; both are intrinsically linked to each other and mutually affective.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.com

Addendum

Election campaigns tend to focus on ideals of justice/rightfulness, fairness, and morality. The current austerity debate and questions about immigration as well as nationalism are prime examples for this year’s general election. What is actually perceived as morality in politics is alway a question of framing.

George Lakoff’s work as a cognitive linguist is in this regard invaluable, since he shows the complex yet strong links between language, perception, values, morality and politics – all very important aspects that researchers in political communication need to consider:

The EU Crisis: A Complex Network of Interconnected Conflicts

For my PhD thesis I analysed web content published on different political online platforms from across the EU’s political landscape; the analysis covered the 24 months between March 2011 and March 2013, which includes some of the most decisive events and turns in the EU-/Eurozone crisis – most importantly the intensification of the Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and Cypriot crises. The final sample covered 21 online platforms in total. Over 13.000 (N1) articles published by these sources were subject of a quantitative content analysis, while another 1350 publications (N2) from this sample were selected for an qualitative in-depth analysis. The overall aim was to look for points of convergence and difference in the perception, processing, and evaluation of the entailed social, cultural, economic, and political developments in various member-states by different political stakeholders as well as by the central EU institutions (i.e. the commission, the council, and the European Parliament).

To further narrow the research focus I decided to look for frames and networking behaviour to analyse the transnational web sphere comprehensively. Part of this multi-level analysis was the identification of central frame elements as proposed by Entman (1993), which were in my specific case the main conflict areas, causal interpretations, moral/ethical evaluations and concrete recommendations for action that emerged during the course of the crisis. To achieve this I applied a qualitative content analysis to the sampled articles to search and define relevant textual manifestations; each article was read in-depth and coded for elements that fall into one of the categories mentioned above. Its results provided the variable set for the subsequent quantitative analyse to cluster similar content, in order to identify whole frames  (following the procedure proposed by Matthes & Kohring 2008).

conflict areas during eurozone crisis
Main fields of contestation during Eurozone crisis (2011-2013)

One of the most important findings of the qualitative identification of conflict areas was that the overall crisis discourse appeared to consist of a whole network of mutually affective, closely interconnected yet somewhat distinct fields of contestation: the largest and most important one covers polarising issues related to crisis developments and policiesthe clash of proponents and opponents of austerity measures or the Eurobonds debate are characteristic for this larger area of dispute; another example is the North-South divide that sees the more prosperous Northern part of the EU and the allegedly less productive South drift further apart. The first field of contestation also includes controversial discussions on very specific fiscal and economic problems, such as the Target II trap.

The second discernible field of contestation shifts focus from crisis- and economics related issued to more fundamental questions about the EU’s political framework. Concerns about the alleged lack of democracy, the level of integration but also calls for “reforms” (which became a heavily contested issue themselves) are central to this conflict area. The notion of a two-tier EU that is divided into Eurozone and non-Eurozone members is particularly relevant for this subsection of the overall crisis debate.

A third field of contestation emerged on issues related to migration, free movement, and racism. During the economic and political turmoil that dominated the EU another crisis unfolded (and continues to this day) with the increasing numbers of migrants who try to reach European shores by crossing the Mediterranean. The Lampedusa drama and the discussion about the re-introduction of border controls in several member-states, which directly contested one of the main achievements of the EU, are only two of the most important examples. Since many of the recent migrant waves arrived in countries that suffered most under the economic problems, especially Greece and Italy, there was in many cases an obvious link between these issues and the overall EU crisis discourse.

In short, the fiscal and economic problems across the Eurozone seemed to have triggered a highly dynamic, extremely controversial and thus potentially divisive transnational discourse that quickly transcended beyond the realm of economics into different political, social, and cultural dimensions – which should ultimately affect debates on the sense and future of the entire union. Somewhat ambiguously, the analysis showed that a transnational public sphere – understood as the condensation of related communication across different political-cultural areas in Europe (Hepp et al. 2012) – actually materialised for the crisis context but it was rather driven by conflict and not democratic-integrative tendencies as proposed in the Habermasian tradition. In other words, European political stakeholders identified and debated the same set of issues and acknowledged that they shared a common economic-political context but came to partly very different if not downright contrary evaluations of this situation.

References

Entman, R. M. (1993): ‘Framing. Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm’, in Journal of Communication 43 (4), 51-58.

Hepp, A., Brüggemann, M., Kleinen-von Königslöw, K., Lingenberg, S. and Möller, J. (2012): Politische Diskurskulturen in Europa. Die Mehrfachsegmentierung europäischer Öffentlichkeit, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Matthes, J. and Kohring, M. (2008): ‘The Content Analysis of Media Frames. Toward Improving Reliability and Validity’, in Journal of Communication 58, 258-279.

Upcoming book: The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere

I am currently co-editing a volume with my former supervisor Dr. Athina Karatzogianni (University of Leicester) and colleague Elisa Serafinelli (University of Hull). The full title is The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere – Conflict, Migration, Crisis and Culture in Digital Networks. Publication is scheduled for September 2015. The book is a collection of articles related to the digital transformation of media-based public spheres with particular emphasis on the impact of Internet technology as well as the mutual affectivity of conflicts, migration, and public discursivity.

I am going to contribute a chapter on the transnational web sphere that emerged during the Eurozone crisis between 2011 and 2013; I will post a full contents list later this month, once we have the final draft ready. Below read a summary of the introductory chapter, which also provides an overview of the book’s overall purpose and aim:

A constantly evolving set of digital media technologies affects communicative interactions between individuals and collectives, which inevitably leaves an impact on the shape, scope, and function of contemporary public spheres. These can no longer be seen as normative discursive formations limited to the national context as proposed in the Habermasian tradition; they should rather be analysed in terms of their mediality and their increasingly transnational orientation. The various available online media in particular catalyse the speed and range of communication flows and dissolve physical, but also social and cultural boundaries in various contexts.

This again affects the perception and negotiation of crises, the reconfiguration and materialisation of conflicts, and the reproduction as well as distribution of popular culture; each one is a “quasi-object” in itself that triggers the formation of publics of different sizes, potentially spanning around the globe. Migration, migrant communities and the role of media technologies in their formation and continuity become adequate empirical research subjects in this respect, since they often touch several of these discursive fields at once.

They are prime examples for the transnationalisation of discursive relations through the accommodation of digital media technologies. Migrant issues are also at the centre of contemporary political and social conflicts, which tend to result from transnational economic crises. In sum, they provide a starting point for critically analysing the current and continuous digital transformation of the public sphere.

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The PhD Viva

Last week I finally had my PhD viva which I passed successfully (no corrections). It marks the end to the most intensive period in my professional career thus far. The weeks before this very special type of final examination in British academia have been quite stressful, as I tried to prepare myself the best I could – which basically meant: I read my own thesis over and over again. In the end, it (luckily!) turned out to be much more of a friendly conversation among colleagues than a classic oral examination situation.

So, I can honestly say that my viva was a very pleasant experience; it was nowhere near any of the stories that I heard in past years about five hour long interrogations and mean spirited examiners. I would like to share a few tips that, I think, helped me to be better prepared for the viva and pass it with a satisfying result. However, it is important to keep in mind that each viva is a highly personalised examination; it depends on a variety of variables and any of the recommendations here may not apply to specific cases; the following points merely give some rough guidelines. Still, I think considering some of them will potentially improve your chances.

What is a PhD Viva?

Most PhD students will know this but for our non-academic colleagues here a brief description: the PhD viva is a traditional oral examination at the very end of the PhD programme at UK universities. It takes place after the thesis was submitted and read by the appointed examiners. Its main purpose is to verify whether the candidate in question has actually written the submitted work and to give her examiners a chance to ask questions, clarify points made in the thesis, and to express criticism. It usually includes the external examiner, the internal examiner (i.e. a member of staff from you home department), the candidate and, more frequently these days, an independent chair who acts as an impartial “referee”. Aside from this, there are no further rules or institutionalised processes, i.e. no fixed guidelines for how the examination proceeds, what examiners are allowed to ask/not to ask, or even how long the viva should be.

Hence, some PhD students may pass within an hour, while other have to defend themselves for more than four hours (the lack of regulation has been repeatedly criticised). Since the outcome of the PhD viva can still decide whether the student has passed or not, the UK version is quite different from its more symbolical counterparts in Europe (e.g. the Netherlands or Germany). It is also held in a private setting and not open to the public. Due to this degree of “non-transparency” and its potential impact on their future careers, PhD candidates are often quite anxious and stressed in the weeks and days before their viva. However, as I said above, how exactly the viva is conducted and what the climate will be like can vary vastly in each individual case.

Write a good thesis

This may seem pretty obvious, if not trivial, to some but I personally think it is the most important thing you want to have before you go into the viva: a thesis that you feel confident about and which is interesting to read – not only for the expert but a broader audience. Try to work on a topic that has real relevance and topicality in your field and look for ways to communicate broader implications beyond your research area. Think of a good structure and do not deter from experimentation to find efficient, maybe even creative forms to share your knowledge. However, cohesion and logic must not suffer under new ideas. Having an honest and good relationship with your supervisor(s) is absolutely crucial for achieving a high quality thesis (which means you need to be open for criticism and be able to re-examine your reasoning).

Find a good external (and internal) examiner

This is almost as important as writing a good thesis: try to find an external examiner who is active in your research area and who will really understand what you’ve been working on the past three years. This raises the chances of having a meaningful, productive conversation about the content of your thesis. You do not want to meet an examiner who doesn’t have a clue about your theoretical framework, methodology, and research subject; he or she may not be able to evaluate your work adequately or, in the worst case, could even dismiss it as irrelevant.

Researching for an external examiner should start roughly a year in advance of your viva and the process should ideally involve your supervisor, as it all comes down to networking at some point. A good supervisor will guide you through the process and help you with the final decision. It is also recommendable to present papers related to your thesis at conferences and to discuss them with high-ranking individuals in your academic field. However, finding an examiner who can relate to your work does not mean that you will pass on the basis of sympathy. It is still about hard work and being able to defend your research professionally.

Read your thesis “sceptically”

It is easy to fall in love with one’s own work, especially if one is very confident about the findings and the thesis altogether; maybe you have already received positive feedback from your supervisors and colleagues (e.g. at conferences). It is indeed very important to be confident about your research, as it often indicates a level of expertise that is absolutely necessary for a PhD degree. However, in the weeks before the viva you need to become your own worst enemy in a sense, by re-reading your thesis from a highly critical perspective.

Try to question everything and make notes on what could be its greatest weaknesses. Come up with your personal worst case scenario and develop counter strategies. The aim of this is not to bring yourself down but to scan your work for potential weak spots and to prepare adequate explanations; you basically need to think of critical questions in advance and prepare good answers. This can minimise the level of surprise and allows you to avoid unpleasant situations; you do not want to appear “caught off guard” and shift into a passive role during the examination. You need to know your thesis by heart, which shouldn’t be too difficult since you’ve (hopefully) written it.

Summarise your thesis

After having read my thesis several times I decided to summarise it in bullet points, with the most important bits of information and potentially controversial aspects listed for each chapter. The new document was roughly 20 pages long and became my constant companion in the final days before the viva. It helped me to memorise key questions, order my thoughts, and structure my replies. When it comes to something as important as your viva, there is no such thing like “being over-prepared”.

Show “passion” for your work

In a way, the viva is also a psychological test in which academic professionals try to assess whether a candidate fits the profession of a researcher (however, whether you actually continue your career in academia is a totally different question). It is in this respect important to show your “passion” for your project, i.e. to communicate that you are truly engaged and motivated when it comes to your work. This alone can indicate a high level of confidence and expertise. You do not want appear as if you could have worked on any random topic but that you have genuine interest in advancing your field of research.

React to criticism professionally and productively

No academic work is perfect and there is always something that is missing or could have been done differently. The trick is to be aware of this and acknowledge one’s thesis’ limits. If your examiners observe shortcomings or missing points, try to explain why you made the decision to leave something out. As long as you can provide a reasonable explanation for each step you took in your thesis, no one can really harm you. After all, you cannot cover everything that is relevant within the limits of 100,000 words.

However, it is also important that you show willingness to accept criticism and to indicate that you can come up with solutions – for instance, by outlining how you would include missing bits in your thesis or by pointing to the potential of future research. Again, honest conversations with your supervisors and presenting papers at conferences are great opportunities to exercise this. It is also recommendable to have a “mock viva” with your supervisors playing the examiners.

Finally, it is very important to keep in mind that the viva is not just a burden or an obstacle. It is a chance to discuss your work with people who have actually read your thesis form page to page – and to present your skills as well as knowledge. It is an opportunity to network with experts in your field and to take the next step in your professional career.

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