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

Michel Foucault – Some Useful Web Resources

Though Foucault is of little to no relevance for German Communication Sciences, many of his basic ideas had considerable influence on cultural and media studies. There are countless books and lots of online content available. Below find a list of the most useful websites I came across during my research for several term papers and presentations:

1. Michel-Foucault.com: A very good starting point, as it provides not only translations of selected texts, further links etc. but also digests some of the key concepts of Foucault’s theoretical framework. Especially ‘beginners’ should have a look on this site.

2. What is an author?: The original essay from 1969 translated into English. Basically a ‘must-read’ as it contains delineations  of important Foucauldian concepts like authorship, author function, text, knowledge, audience and discourse.

3. Marxist.org: The first three chapters of The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969).

4. Foucault.info: A collection of freely available Foucault articles, book excerpts, interviews and further links.

5. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Comprehensive overview of Foucault’s life and work.

6. University of Minnesota: A number of helpful outlines of Foucault’s major works (including references).

7. Jon Protevi: This page offers a range of course or lecture material, respectively. No primary sources but it provides some useful summarizations and introductions into Foucault’s main works.

8. Lawrence University Wisconsin: Offers a readers-guide to What is an author – basically structures the text into five sections and tries to summarizes the key issues of the article.

There is much more web content in French, however, as my target audience mainly consists of speakers of English I left them out in this post. Moreover, here a few youtube-clips in which Foucault explains his Discipline and Punish (1975):

Again, theres is even more on youtube, such as interviews, lectures, documentaries. Just browse for ‘Michel Foucault’.