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.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.com

Web Sphere Analysis: A (Very) Brief Overview

Modern public spheres are based on mediated forms of communication that provide a shared catalogue of references for social collectives. The world that we know, including our broader cultural, economic, social, and political environment, becomes to large parts accessible through distorted representations distributed via mass media and the Internet. Especially web communication continues to gain in relevance as a crucial, highly personalised and customisable source for information about social reality.

Web discourses hence remain fresh and relevant subjects for research on public communication in networked, highly mediatised societies. But not only researchers in media and communications have an interest in theorising and empirically analysing digital public spheres; policy-makers, political consultants, and media monitoring agencies have recognised the relevance of the Internet as a space of resonance to political, economic, cultural, and social developments.

However, the precise identification and evaluation of web debates is a considerable methodological challenge. A very fruitful approach to define and approach these extremely dynamic communicative contexts provides the web sphere perspective as proposed by Schneider and Foot (2006). Their methodological proposal to understand web discourses as a condensation of related online communication, i.e. content, enables the critical observer to identify, analyse, and assess digital public spheres efficiently and link them to the underlying social and political currents that sparked their formation. This post provides an (extremely) short summary of its core ideas.

What are Web Spheres?

A web sphere is a collection of related online content that focus the same set of issues or events; the respective content thus shares a common context and is (potentially) held together by referencing and/or hyperlinking. A web sphere can integrate different kinds of online platforms and formats, which highlights the degree of interconnectedness that web content can display. For example, the war of frames/”digital words” between Islamic extremists and their opponents is not limited to one particular social media platform (e.g. Facebook) but includes the whole range of accessible web technologies.

Triggers for the formation of a web sphere are often irritations in everyday politics or society, such as scandals, disasters, terrorist attacks, but also seemingly trivial issues like celebrity news or the colour of a dress. One can basically differentiate between two general types in this respect: firstly, there are web spheres that are somewhat “predictable”, i.e. one can expect they will probably emerge in the context of a planned, ritualised event. Examples are web discourses on the next FIFA World Cup, the next general elections, or the next Academy Awards. Secondly, there are web sphere that emerge erratically as immediate “real-time” reactions to unforeseeable, ad-hoc developments and events. Accidents, disasters, unplanned revelations are often catalysts for an unscheduled torrent of online communication that potentially condenses into a web sphere. The sudden and still unsolved disappearance of an Malaysian Airlines plane in March 2014 is one such tragic event.

Web spheres can also differ in their degree of durability: some may vaporise as quickly as they formed, while others may persists over longer time periods. The issues that determined their emergence, i.e, their content, as well as the set of participating communicators, i.e. their underlying networks, are the most important factors that influence their duration.

How to Analyse and Evaluate Web Spheres?

Due to the virtually unlimited amount of web sources it is very difficult to define the actual borders of a web sphere. In fact, any meaningful empirical investigation is inevitably limited to a mere snippet of a potentially much larger web discourse. It comes all down to the general problem of sampling and representability of findings in online media research. However, these limitations have always affected analyses in media and communications to one degree or the other. When deciding what content is considered as part of a web sphere, it is absolutely crucial to explain its assumed relevance and to outline the limits of sampling.

Once a set of sources has been defined for analyses, it is recommendable to archive/store the respective websites (urls) with precise information on their origin, date of publication, authorship etc. for documentation. Online content is extremely dynamic and it can become very difficult to retrieve the original content after longer time periods.

The next step is to decide what the web sphere analysis is exactly focusing on; potential research questions can aim for demographic/ethnographic factors, networking patterns, and discursive practices (e.g. framing). For example, in my analysis of the EU crisis web sphere I combined frame- and network analyses to reveal how the Eurozone crisis was perceived from different cultural-political perspectives and what the social composition of communicators looked like. Data for both analyses was collected via a multi-step content analysis.

The in-depth screening of a web sphere in terms of its content and sociological properties therefore depends on the actual research interest and can be achieved through qualitative and quantitative content analytical methods.

In short, a web sphere may include the following steps:

  • Definition of the social phenomenon that causes online debates (e.g. a political development or cultural event)
  • Identification, sampling, and archiving of relevant online content (e.g. snow ball sampling, combination of non-probalistic and random sampling)
  • Qualitative and quantitative analysis of the web sphere’s content and/or sociological factors (e.g. frame analysis, discourse analysis, network analysis etc.)
  • Presentation of results (and potential predictions for future developments)

The public sphere – seen as a highly differentiated and dynamic network of media-based discourses  – experiences constant transformations; Internet technology is a driving force in these processes and understanding the structure and logic of web discourses is absolutely crucial for researchers and practitioners in public (political) communication. In this respect, the web sphere model provides a flexible, easily customisable as well as expandable methodological approach for comprehensive analyses – which is a starting point for grasping the complexity of public discourses in the networked society.

References:

Schneider, S. M. and Foot, K. A. (2006): ‘Web Sphere Analysis. An Approach to Studying Online Action’, in Hine, C. (ed.) Virtual Methods. Issues in Social Research on the Internet, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Image courtesy of http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/

Conference: Material Matters in Times of Crisis Capitalism

Later this year I’ll contribute to a panel that discusses the role of online media in the crisis discourse at a conference in Giessen, Germany. The event’s title is “Material Matters in Times of Crisis Capitalism. Transnational, Feminist, and Decolonial Approaches“. It will take place between the 13th and 15th of November. Among the esteemed cast of keynote speakers are academic heavyweights such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Rhoda Reddock.

In my paper I will focus on the lack of representation of various marginalised groups in online media debates based on political communication in what I describe as the transnational web sphere on the EU and Eurozone crisis – a digital public sphere that transcends the cultural, social, and political borders of individual nation states and that serves as the discursive context for communicative actions on the crisis. During the empirical analysis of crisis related web content I noticed that women are hardly partaking in the relevant online debates; they are almost invisible, at least as active communicators, i.e. participants in the respective online platforms (as commentators, observers, reporters etc.).

A significant gender gap still seems to persist when it comes to the social composition of the group of people who struggle for meaning in the crisis discourse. At least that’s the case for the European context. Moreover, it emerged that migrants often lack any agency in the crisis debate as well; they are mostly depicted as a somewhat “faceless” challenge or problem, not unlike a natural disaster. Migrant flows increased during the height of the crisis, especially when the Arab revolutions in Libya and Syria accelerated, and the arrival of refugees triggered heated political debates and conflicts across the EU and in its Southern areas in particular (e.g. Lampedusa); other examples are the partly very hostile and heavily medialised debates on the integration/disintegration of Roma and Sinti but also fears over work migration within the EU as a result of the Eurozone crisis.

A third group who had a hard time to make its voices heard in the crisis discourse and its local manifestations are various ad-hoc protest groups that formed as a response to austerity politics in the so-called crisis states (or PIIGS, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). Especially public institutions such as governments and the EU hardly ever mentioned nor responded to the multitude of protest movements that emerged across Southern Europe and Greece in particular, which saw strikes on an almost daily basis.

News media platforms also provided only limited space for such groups to explain their viewpoints, motivations, and goals in their own words. These observations can be backed by hard empirical data (statistics/graphs) on the topic menus of political online platforms, the set of represented political actors in media content, and discursive networks that materialised during the height of the EU crisis between 2011 and 2013.

Image courtesy of https://unsplash.com

Presentation at the PhD Conference in London (LSE), 15th June 2012

After months of reading and drafting for my actual PhD thesis, I finally found some time to post an update on this still very lively blog.

As some of you might already know, I will present a paper at a PhD conference/symposium in London – at the London School of Economics (LSE), to be more precise. I am going to present the findings of my research on the ‘European Blogosphere’ which I conducted in the context of my German MA thesis last year. However, I am currently revising my theoretical framework and take a fresh look at the empirical data I gathered in long weeks of coding. Read here the original proposal that was accepted by the committee. Comments are more than welcome!

The ‘European’ Blogosphere in Times of Global Crisis

Chances and Limits of Transnational Public Spheres on the Internet

Contemporary online media facilitate the exchange of information beyond geo- graphical, social, cultural, as well as political borders – and possibly stimulate com- municative interactions between members of different national backgrounds in a trans- or supranational context. This aspect is of considerable relevance for the aca- demic (and political) discussion on the chances and limits of transnational public spheres as well as ‘postnational’ identities in the context of Europe or the European Union, respectively. Little empirical research on these very issues exists so far. This is quite surprising, especially if one considers the broad dissemination of the Internet on the continent and its obvious potential for the emergence of transnational online discourses.

The present project attempts to narrow this gap by analysing a representative sample of political blogs covering EU-/European issues, published in English and German. Blogs have been repeatedly characterised as particularly suitable online media for open, multilateral debates and are one of the predominant modes of communicative interaction online. The central research questions are: Which topics are considered to be ‘European’? In which discursive networks are the blogs embedded? When do individuals leave their ‘national’ backgrounds behind and engage in discussions on transnational issues? Do participants express a certain identity? If yes, is it rather the national or a post-/transnational one (or a mixture of both)? To gather sufficient data, the complementary content analysis integrated quantitative and qualitative aspects.

This paper will finally show how we can observe transnational online public spheres as context-depending, dynamic communicative phenomena and that both the na- tional as well as transnational dimension do not exclude each other but do exist in parallel and often overlap. The ‘European’ blogosphere, however, appears to remain an elite project of limited social scope.

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Publication Project II: Censorship, Online Media, and Digital Culture

As stated in an earlier post, I am currently working on a number of research projects alongside my PhD. In the first of these ventures I collaborate with Tomi Oladepo from Warwick University for an analysis of transnational online public spheres in Africa and Europe. A second one will deal with forms of and conditions for censorship in digital culture.  This second project will be conducted in cooperation with my colleague Jennifer Eickelmann from the Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany). She is also a PhD student (as well as lecturer) and currently works on (postmodern) modes and techniques of content production on the Internet. Before that, she finished her MA in 2010 with a high quality thesis on performance, resistance, and Youtube. You can read one of her articles here (in German).

We will discuss in our article contemporary forms of censorship in cyberspace –  i.e. the multidimensional practice of information control that often combines social, cultural, and political modes of sanctioning content production as well as -distribution. It will focus on the disciplining of the expression of utterances as a mode of power, so to say. Forms of ‘censorship’ need thereby to be assessed against their specific cultural and historical (i.e. discursive) background since they emerge in various different contexts and are subject to constant change; the same goes of course for the definition of concepts like ‘classified information’ or ‘political correctness’. As Wikileaks and the follow-up discussion it caused have shown, the issue of controlling what can be made publicly available and what not is an urgent matter today – not only as regards criticism on totalitarian regimes but especially when it comes to assess the extents of freedom in liberal democracies. However, one has not necessarily to discuss extraordinary political events to address and discuss the issue. In fact, censorship is an inherent part of our everyday live and determines our communicative behaviour both off- and online in multiple ways. Each culture displays it own laws and rules to control what an individual can say and which utterances have to be sanctioned. The historical background and actual context of a statement (as an umbrella term for any sort of text) is in this respect often the determining factor for the implementation/non-implementation of censorship. Regarding contemporary practices of postmodern content production, censorship -as an instrument of monopolising ideas- can also thwart and impede the creation of the “new” by artists, users etc. To create something new, the practice of quoting and reassembling the already available is indispensable (Mathy/Dietrich 1998). Yet many professional content producers try to protect their ‘intellectual property’, sometimes with relatively harsh measures. Hence,  censorship is also a powerful tool for established hegemonies to diminish the creative (subversive) potential of the “networked information economy” (Benkler 2006).

We will provide a taxonomy of modes of censorship and discuss to what extent the Web actually provides the means for genuine social, cultural, and political resistance. Some of the main questions we have to address are: Who does exert control on the Web? What technological and what cultural sanctions exist? What legitimations and justifications do governments (or corporations) refer to when they attempt to apply forms of censorship (i.e. under what circumstances does it emerge)? What factors determine the current notion of ‘political correctness’ in societal discourses? The project is still in a very early stage and the theoretical framework, methodology, as well as actual subject-matter-of-consideration still need to be defined.

Literature:

Benkler, Yochai (2006): The Wealth of Networks. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Mathy, Dietrich (1998): “Vorab ergänzend”, in: Hilmes, Carola/Mathy, Dientrich (eds.): Dasselbe noch einmal: Die Ästehtik der Wiederholung. Westdeutscher Verlag.

Publication Project I: The Transnational Blogosphere in Africa and Europe

Within the three years of a PhD programme, a student should publish at least one to two articles and present an equal amount of papers at conferences. Hence, I started to plan a number of smaller research projects that will hopefully be published in one of the many renowned academic journals next year. The first of these articles deals with transnational communication on blogs – a topic I have recently discussed in my German MA thesis. However, this time I will cooperate with my former classmate Tomi Oladepo who is a PhD student at Warwick University. She also works on digital public spheres, political communication, and participation (she wrote a brilliant MA thesis on similar issues at Coventry university). We can therefore easily and productively exploit the synergies of the work on our PhD dissertations to produce some high quality side projects.

In the planned publication we will provide a theoretical approach on the digital public sphere and political communication online – developing our thoughts by critically summarizing the respective academic discourses in communication science, media studies, sociology, and political science. We will then expand the discussion by taking a closer look on forms of transnationalism online – and empirically prove to what extent blogs offer a platform for political discourse beyond national borders. One of our main interests deals thereby with the question on who defines him/herself as an ‘African’ or ‘European’, respectively, and how they communicate such an transnational identity: When, where and why do individuals (users) of different national backgrounds come together online and discuss what kind of political issues? Can we detect hints to a common ground or a transnational identity (as “Africans” rather than Nigerians  or Congolese for instance, or “Europeans” instead of Germans or British). Who participates? What do they say? What networks can we identify? By contrasting Africa and Europe, we will hopefully be able to point to some substantial differences but also similarities between both geographical spaces and their digital extensions (mainly due to historical and, most importantly, economic aspects):

  • in the manner of utilizing digital media for political purposes,
  • in the composition of public online discourses and the role of the ‘national’,
  • in the structure on networks of political blogs focusing transnational issues,
  • in the patterns of communicative interaction, referencing, linking etc.,
  • in the reflection on the state as well as progress of cultural and political integration.

You can take a look at  some examples for our prospective subject-matters-of-consideration here and here. We still have to define our methodological approach but we`ll probably apply a form of content analysis in order to collect sufficient data for proving our theses, considering both qualitative and quantitative aspects. Nevertheless, we are still in the very early stages of planning and we might come up with a totally different epistemological perspective and instrument. At the moment, we’re aiming for publication in the second half of 2012. Until then we’ll provide updates on the project on this and Tomi’s blog, find the link above.

Please feel free to share your thoughts.

SPSS PASW Tutorials

I finally managed to finish my MA dissertation on political blogs in the UK. As many of my observations and hypotheses are based on quantitative data, I used SPSS/PASW to calculate comparable statistics. It is one of the most powerful and versatile pieces of software for such purposes. However, it is not very easy to use and might repel some users at first.

Various books on the issue exist, which can significantly differ in their quality: Some are endeavoring to explain the very complex statistical mathematics step by step, to make them easily replicable. Others presume that the reader already has an elaborated knowledge of statistics and the formulas as well as terms in use. During my research I read through both kinds of books and I will list here two very useful introductions:

Field, Andy P. (2009) Discovering Statistics Using SPSS. Los Angeles & London: Sage.

This very comprehensive monograph explains everything about statistics in SPSS from the very basics. Field uses a comprehensive language, lots of illustrative examples, and succeeds in explaining the prosaic issue in an entertaining, humorous way. He elucidates quite eloquently the most important mathematical operations behind each step before he shows how to implement a certain type of statistical processing via SPSS/PASW. The ideal handbook for every person who wants/needs to deal with this program.

Bryman, Allan/Cramer, Duncan (2005) Quantitative Data Analysis With SPSS: A Guide for Social Scientists. London: Routledge.

As the title suggests, this book introduces SPSS for sociologists. Hence, it is applicable to certain branches of communication- and media studies, too. Though not fully ‘up-to-date’, the explanations for using SPSS in specific social science research projects are clear and convertible. Cramer and Duncan’s tone is more sober and less casual than Field’s style of writing. Nevertheless, this book is far easier to comprehend for beginners and non-staticians than many of its counterparts.

Moreover, there are various online sources. One notable example are the video tutorials provided by Central Michigan University (CMU) – these clips show beginners step-by-step how to use the software and solve statistical problems. Check them out here.