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!

 

 

 

 

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.

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/

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.

Image courtesy of https://unsplash.com

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.

The PhD Proposal

UPDATE: This PhD proposal secured me a full scholarship – stipend and fees – at the University of Hull, where I completed my doctoral degree in March 2015. Though much of the methodology and empirical part changed over the course of the past three years, the basic research motivation(s) remained largely the same (but it was of course further refined to more precise research goals). Read the original below.


I’m pretty busy applying for PhD programmes these days and I have already sent some applications to universities throughout Europe. Though it still takes a few weeks before I get official responses, I have already received unofficial feedback – which has been quite positive. At the moment, my personal favorite is the City of London University (it offers great funding opportunities).  Read my proposal, i.e. the research project I would like to work on in the next three years:

Proposal for a Ph.D. Research Project

Area of Studies: Media and Communications

Europe Online: Towards a Digital Transnational Sphere or Isolated Web Spaces?

 A Comparative Study on the Structure, Function, and Scope of Contemporary Online Discourses in regards to Participation and Segmentation in the European Union

1. Introduction and Research Motivation

In 2011, the European Union faces substantial social, economic, cultural, and political challenges: The continuing economic crisis, increasing migration problems, environmental issues, and a shift towards the political right in various member states are only the most prominent ones. The EU is forced to communicate each political decision carefully to the continent’s population, particularly in such times of crisis; it actually needs to address a European public. Assessing the chances and limits of transnational public spheres within the geographical, political, and cultural spaces of the European Union is a recurring topic in academic discourses – most notably in communication and media studies (Bee/Bezoni et al. 2010; de Vreese 2010; Triandafyllidou et al. 2009). Various articles, case studies, and research projects on the issue exist. However, the majority of these approaches mainly focus the role of conventional mass media in ‘European’ public discourses (e.g. Balcytiene/Vinciuniene 2010; Berkel 2006; de Vreese 2002). Only a few academic contributions pay attention to online media and their relevance to processes of cultural, political, and social convergence in the EU (e.g. Jankowski/van Os 2004; Koopmanns/Zimmermann 2003). In fact, no larger empirical study has focused the Internet and its actual impact on European self-perception and public discourses beyond national frames yet (Risse 2003: 2).

As the distribution of the WWW continues to spread on the continent, examining online phenomena could yield important insights on tendencies towards ‘trans-nationality’ and a common ‘European’ identity. After all, citizens, the media, and political institutions have access to unprecedented technologies for communicative interaction that theoretically facilitate public debate and cultural exchange.

My research project will bridge this gap by analysing participatory online media and their potential for open transnational discourses, i.e. public spheres, in four stages:

I. The development of an elaborated theoretical framework for analysing and understanding transnational public spheres in the age of digital globalisation; this includes an in-depth revision and discussion of already existing notions of the public sphere (e.g. Habermas 1962, Noelle-Neumann 1998, Luhmann 1992, Sunstein 2007, Dahlberg 2007). By comparing and combining theoretical approaches from different academic cultures1, I will try to examine the subject-matter-of-consideration from a pluralistic perspective. Integrating theories on political communication, information societies (Webster 1995), digital democracy (Dean 2005; Lovink 2008), media convergences (Jenkins 2006; 2003), media audiences, and the formation of (transnational-)identities through discourse (Hall 2004) is crucial for achieving this. It is indispensable to include an analysis of the dominant discursive formations that determine the structure and outcome of online debates on and in the EU, i.e. the politics of in- and exclusion as regards participation in web-based discourses.

II. An extensive, comparative content analysis of EU-related online media and -debates in both quantitative and qualitative respect; this requires the development of a complementary methodological approach and the compilation of an appropriate text corpus.

III. Interviews with a selection of professional content providers in EU-related contexts (e.g. online journalists, EU-PR writers, popular bloggers), which I will conduct either off- or online (e.g. Skype); this allows me to evaluate the utilization of web technologies to ‘communicate’ Europe .

IV. Based on the findings of the previous steps, the establishment of a detailed taxonomy of EU-related online media, a characterisation of European ‘netizens’, and a map of transnational online networks of public spaces within the Union. Finally, I will be able to give substantiated answers to the question whether the Internet stimulates the emergence of transnational spheres or it rather promotes the demarcation of (nationally) isolated web-spaces – an important aspect in regards to the future course and success of the “European project” (Tisdall 2010). Ideally, the outcome of my research will also provide a methodological model that might be used to analyse similar phenomena in other web-based contexts.

2. Research Questions

In order to assess the structure, scope, and function of online content regarding the EU, I will approach and answer the following  research questions, which are divided into three categories:

I. On the Potential of Transnational Public Spheres in European Information Societies: What online content on the European Union is available and does it add up to networked, digitalised public spheres across national borders, i.e. does the Internet actually facilitate the emergence of transnational, ‘European’ public debates? Where do they occur, what does their structure look like and what function do they have? What are the differences between the various online platforms (e.g. blogs, websites, Twitter, social media) as regards their potential for public debate in EU-contexts?

II. On the ‘Providers’ of Public Forums Online: What issues do professional content providers perceive to be ‘European’? What differences in identifying and evaluating ‘European’ issues do exist (e.g. national vs. transnational interests)? Where do the providers of content allocate themselves within Europe and its web- based environment? How does the EU communicate to the populations of its member states online?

III. On the Recipients/Users (and therefore possible ‘Europeans’): Who is participating in online discourses? Do the discussants reflect a certain ‘European’ self-conception? Who regards him-/herself to be European and where does this transnational self-perception collide with national identities? Do multilateral, deliberative-democratic discussions on controversial issues – such as climate change, migration, economy etc. – occur? Where do crucial short-comings in terms of openness and inclusion become apparent?

3. Data and Methodology

The core of this research project is an elaborate content analysis of online media platforms that focus the European Union and relevant trans- or international issues:

  • Websites and forums provided by the institutions of the EU (e.g. European Commission 2010)
  • Decidedly transnational, European news media online (e.g. European Voice 2010)
  • A selection of ‘Europe sections’ from popular news media online, located in three important member states: the UK (e.g. Guardian.co.uk), Germany (e.g. faz.de), and France (e.g. lemonde.fr)
  • A selection of blogs, Twitter-accounts, homepages etc. provided by decidedly ‘pan- European’ groups and organisations The text corpus will mainly consist of articles and posts, i.e. discourses, on websites, blogs, forums, and social networking sites.

To delimit the sample, I will set a temporal frame covering the years of ‘European crisis’ 2008 to 2010. The analysis aims for two levels: The “content-level”, i.e. the articles, blog-posts, Facebook-messages, Tweets etc. and the “comment level”, i.e. the direct responses from users/readers. The instruments for the data survey are a detailed codebook and data entry forms. Since it is not possible to gain satisfactory insights from a quantitative examination only, I will also analyse a sample of texts qualitatively by applying an adjusted form of critical discourse analysis (Richardson 2006). The second part of the data collection consists of interviews which will provide additional information for a deeper understanding of the intentions for utilising online media to address a public audience.

4. Conclusive Remarks

Ideally, my research project will develop an applicable theory to understand and analyse the structure, scope, and function of (transnational-)public spheres in contemporary, digitalised information societies and provide a complementary methodological approach to assess such phenomena both qualitatively and empirically. It could become a model to analyse similar phenomena in other web-based context.

By establishing a detailed taxonomy of EU- related online media and analysing the Web’s potential for transnational discourse, I will be able to highlight aspects in ‘communication on Europe’ that need further improvement on the side of professional content providers (e.g. EU-PR writers and online journalists focusing the EU). Moreover, it can bridge the gap between different academic cultures, i.e. connect and combine theoretical and methodological concepts from German Communication Sciences and Anglophone Communication- and Media Studies. Since I had the chance to study in both systems (and to receive both degrees), I am well aware of the different perspectives and approaches on one and the same field of study. Especially in regards to research on the public sphere, public opinion, and political communication, there is good potential for a productive exchange of findings and experiences.

 

5. List of References

Balcytiene, Aukse/Vinciuniene, Ausra (2010) ‘Assessing Conditions for the Homogenisation of the European Public Sphere: How Journalists Report, and Could Report, on Europe’, in: Bee, Christiano/ Bozzini, Emanuela (eds.): Mapping the European Public Sphere. Institutions, Media, and Civil Society. Farnham/Surrey: Ashgate: pp141-159.

Bee, Christiano/ Bozzini, Emanuela, eds. (2010): Mapping the European Public Sphere. Institutions, Media, and Civil Society. Farnham/Surrey: Ashgate: pp83-99.

Berkel, Barbara (2006) Conflict as a Catalyser for a European Public Sphere. A Content Analysis of Newspapers in Germany, France, Great Britain, and Austria. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.

Dahlberg, Lincoln (2007) ‘The Internet, Deliberative Democracy and Power: Radicalizing the Public Sphere’, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics. Vol. 3 (1): pp.47- 64.

Dean, Jodi (2005) ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics’, Cultural Politics 1 (1).

De Vreese, Claes (2010) The EU as a Public Sphere. http://europeangovernance.livingreviews.org/Articles/lreg-2007-3/ (21/01/2011)

De Vreese, Claes (2002) Framing Europe: Television news and European integration. Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers.

Erbe, Jessica, (2005) “’What Do the Papers Say? How Press Reviews Link National Media Arenas in Europe”, in Javnost – The Public, 12(2): pp75–92. European Commission (2010), http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/ (21/01/2011)

European Voice (2010), http://www.europeanvoice.com/ (21/01/2011)

FAZ (2010), http://www.faz.net/s/Rub99C3EECA60D84C08AD6B3E 60C4EA807F/Tpl~Ecommon~SThemenseite.html (21/01/2011)

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Wikileaks and the (alleged) “Diplomacy-Crisis”

Though I should actually be working on an oral presentation on Maoism, I cannot restrain myself from commenting on the latest “Wikileaks-Coup”. Once more, the (allegedly) “subversive” website attracted an incredibly intense media coverage. I will spare you an elaborate recap of what has happened – you can read, watch or listen to the story on each and every media channel.  All major newspapers, news websites, and broadcasters have put the story on the publication of 250.000 “sensitive” diplomatic documents on the top of their agendas; you can find background information on the issue almost everywhere. Sensational headlines  speak of a “real” diplomacy crisis. Another catchy term is “cablegate”, an allegory to the infamous Watergate-scandal of the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Well, I have my doubts here.

Especially the last comparison seems to be far from being appropriate. In the original scandal, the then government was directly involved in illegal surveillance and monitoring activities; of course, similar things happen today all the time (in partly much more sophisticated manner), too. However, today’s “cablegate” documents have not shown yet, that the US administration did anything particularly “deceptive” or “evil”. Even if some notes on certain politicians are rather embarrassing. But are they really that surprising? Would secret, diplomatic notes from other countries look any different? Let’s see: Arabia has a problem with a possible Iranian hegemony – tell me something new. Putin is Batman, Medwedew resembles his sidekick Robin and Ahmadinedschad reminds people of Hitler – well, I kinda knew that before Wikileaks told us. And to realise that Berlusconi loves parties you do not have to be a diplomat. Moreover, when I read what the US diplomats think of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, I literally had to laugh out loud – because the characterizations are simply true (well, at least from my political perspective); nothing “sensitive” here. As regards spying on the UN, history has shown that diplomats had always been involved in rather shady forms of information gathering. That’s scandalous to very naive people only.

The whole issue appears to be a bit overblown and serious consequences for the diplomatic relationships between the involved nations remain to be seen. This has already been proven all day, when the different involved statesmen and -women downplayed the impact of this “revealment”. There is no real diplomacy crisis, just a few blushing faces (and some flattery damage containment). However, I am only mocking about today’s “over-emotional” coverage of the issue – I am not thinking that there is nothing truly surprising or maybe even shocking in this 250.000 documents. All I am saying is: It’s a bit too early to draw any hasty conclusions. We have to wait – and contemplate advantages over disadvantages of a force like Wikileaks in our current information environment. This applies to various dimensions of the issue:

1. The most basic question is of course: When does the monopoly on information of a (democratic) state end – and when do activities of organizations like Wikileaks violate  a government’s right on secrecy? I am far from being an enemy of a “free” information flow and I do not believe that contemporary democracies are the most perfect political system to live in (though, and here I agree with Churchill, all others are still much worse). But I am also convinced that too much transparency can be harmful for a collective, i.e. a nation-state in certain truly sensitive respects.

2. Wikileaks fulfills an important function by keeping debates on information, censorship, the media and the role of the Internet alive. In the case of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, it confirmed what critical observers already assumed: That there is a another, far more complex and difficult reality to both wars. It has also shown that online media can truly circumvent and stimulate traditional media. Hence, there is a moral and political justification for a platform like Wikileaks  – to break established hegemonies. However, in the very moment an “independent” organisation accumulates the strength to challenge the establishment, it is not far from becoming a hegemonic factor within a certain power discourse itself. It is today the no. 1 source for classified information; there are no other notable Wikis for political leaks. In order to hold its position, it actually needs to “produce” constantly new breaking stories. It needs the media and vice versa. This encompasses certain demerits. Therefore, I sometimes doubt that Wikileaks always remembers its enormous responsibility every time it publishes masses of governmental documents – I simply cannot believe that its staff reads and evaluates every single piece appropriately before pushing it over to the media and the public, respectively. So how does who in Wikileaks actually decide which information goes out? I am not the first who questions the organization’s inner and outer transparency. One should never trust 100% in what a government is announcing – the same applies to its antagonists.

3. There is also the question of the actual political impact – I have already touched the problem above. For instance, though there had been a loud and vital discussion on the war logs, the number of anti-war protests did not really increase. As so often, the “scandal” arose broad attention for a relatively brief moment. The new media, the mass media, governments and the public – all factors influence each other, but the actual outcome of each debate needs to be evaluated and scrutinized anew. However, some rather unwelcomed effects of this one are already tangible: Restrictive governments can misuse the whole issue to justify their strict information policies, less restrictive ones will revise their information security policies.

To make one thing clear: Being critical towards Wikileaks here does not mean that I am fully supporting the different official governments’ stands in this debate; I would define my position as a neutral, extremely sceptical one. What I wanted to point out is: It is important that such events are accompanied  by sober, balanced discussions which consider all positive and negative factors; and that it is not enough to throw out a stack of controversial documents and then see what happens.

Afghanistan War Logs Leaked – at least 92.000 classified documents now online

The subversive homepage Wikileaks scored last night its biggest coup this far: The website’s organizers obtained at least 92.ooo classified, secret military documents on the war in Afghanistan and put them online. This flood of information draws a quite different picture of the conflict – and reveals the true nature of the war. The documents, covering the whole operation from its beginnings in 2004 until December 2009, include for instance facts and figures regarding civilian casualties caused by NATO troops and corroborate the assertion that the Pakistani as well as Iranian secret services are supporting insurgents, i.e. the Taliban. Wikileaks forwarded the material to the Guardian, The New York Times, and the German Spiegel. Thus, the growing influence of the Internet on traditional mass media seems to prove true once more; this very important example consolidates the WWW as a source of unique information for professionals in journalism – and challenges governmental hegemony on information control. However, the whole issue needs a critical examination as benefits and disadvantages have to be measured.

Update: Julian Assange of Wikileaks on the Afghanistan War Logs (Guardian/youtube)

To get all information, click the link above or here.

Furthermore, here’s an impression of the broad media response to the information leak – almost all major newspapers and broadcasters worldwide reacted instantly to the incident:

Guardian: “Massive leak of secret files exposes the real war in Afghanistan”

New York Time: “The War Logs – A six-year archive of classified military documents
offers an unvarnished and grim picture of the Afghan war”

Washington Post: “Leaked files lay bare war in Afghanistan”

The Times: “Afghanistan files leak lifts lid on realities of war”

BBC: “US condemns Wikileaks revelations”

Al-Jazeera:”US condemns leaked Afghan ‘secrets'”

Tagesschau: “75.000 Afghanistan-Geheimakten im Netz”

Spiegel: “Die Afghanistan-Protokolle”

Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Geheime Afghanistan-Protokolle offengelegt”

Le Monde: “Afghanistan: des rapports secrets explosifs publiés”

El Mundo: “La verdad sobre la Guerra de Afganistán, desvelada en una filtración histórica”

However, various important newspapers have not covered the story, yet – at least on their official homepages. Among those publications are for instance the German FAZ and TAZ, China Daily, Japan Times, Jerusalem Post.

11 Rules for a more livable WWW

The (in-)famous German Chaos Computer Club (‘CCC’) postulates in one of its recent website updates eleven theses to improve a ‘livable’ world wide web. They deal with structural inequalities, the digital divide, freedom of information, and anonymity.

As the original text is in German, I provide here a digested translation of their advice to achieve a more liberal and fair Internet:

1. Internet access is a fundamental right and a requirement for participation in cultural and political life.

2. The benefits of the Internet can only fully develope if ‘net-neutrality’ is guranteed.

3. Major IT-projects in the public sector should be assigned after reasonable criteria.

4. Keep public data transparent.

5. Clear rejection of patented software.

6. Modernisation of copyright.

7. Internet providers have no responsibility for the data of their customers

8. Improved protection of private data.

9. Establish the right on anonymity.

10. Prohibition of profiling users.

11. Improve Whistleblower-Protection.

The CCC, founded 1981 in Berlin by hackers, explains its motivation to enter once more the discourse on freedom and the Internet as follows:

since its beginnings [the CCC] realized and propagated the chances and possibilities of a networked life. Many of the original – in the past quite futuristic seeming – visions turned not only into reality but became natural for our society. Indeed, the advent of the Internet into everyday life of almost everyone lead to problems concerning data privacy but also catalyzed democratization, and brought an enrichment from a scientific, social, and artistic perspective. The self-regulating forces of the Internet thereby prohibited various feared dystopia, without further governmental interventions. From our point of view, the current discussion bases on a misjudgment where a need for regulation is detectable and where not.

These points focus numerous important issues concerning contemporary life in cyberspace. Most of the suggestions are very reasonable though it is quite disputable if they can be realized against the interests of major economic players.

Find further information on the Chaos Computer Club here.