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.

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Addendum

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

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

The EU Crisis: A Complex Network of Interconnected Conflicts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Upcoming book: The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere

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

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

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

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

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

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The PhD Viva

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

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

What is a PhD Viva?

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

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

Write a good thesis

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

Find a good external (and internal) examiner

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

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

Read your thesis “sceptically”

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

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

Summarise your thesis

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

Show “passion” for your work

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

React to criticism professionally and productively

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

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

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

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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.

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The Eurozone Crisis and the Internet: The Abstract of my PhD Thesis

This is the final abstract of my PhD thesis submitted last month:

The Internet has become an increasingly relevant space for political communication not only in national but also transnational contexts. This particularly applies for political discourses related to Europe, the EU, and the impact of the global economic crisis, which translated into a regional EU crisis. Political “publicness” is not limited to the mass media and there is considerable potential for the emergence of transnational web spheres as various communicators step into the digital public and disperse their viewpoints on the entailed social, economic, and political challenges.

There is still a lack of applicable theoretical concepts as well as empirical insights. The present project addresses this lacuna: firstly, by proposing an integrative theoretical framework for the identification and classification of transnational web spheres; secondly, by conducting a complementary frame- and network analysis of a representative sample of political online media content that focuses on issues related to EU politics during the Eurozone crisis.

The study sets out to evaluate whether public communicators in Europe formed a transnational web sphere or rather reinforced discourses that were fragmented along national and political fault lines. It further focuses on the question of how they framed Europe, the EU, and the EU-crisis. It is proposed that the analysis of both the content and underlying networks of web communication enables the critical observation of the complex and often conflict-loaded interrelations between the transnational and national dimension; this also opens the way for analysing how key actors communicate political concepts, ideas, affiliations, and identities.

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Robert S. McNamara’s Life Lessons and the EU Crisis

Last week I watched again one of my favourite documentaries: The Fog of War (2003), Errol Morris’ brilliant interview with former US Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara. In his autobiographical account McNamara outlines several lessons of war that he learnt through his active participation in top level decisions during the most decisive conflicts of the 20th century, i.e. World War 2, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and finally the Vietnam War. Though one might not concur with McNamara’s political attitudes and/or take a rather critical stance on his legacy, it is hard not to agree with the deeper wisdom these life lessons reflect. Personally, I think his insights have a somewhat universal validity beyond the context of war but one that applies to all forms of political, cultural, and social conflict. Especially in light of the EU/Eurozone crisis discourse that was rekindled with the unsurprising yet still very controversial outcome of the Greek elections last month, these lessons appear as adequate guidelines for those who either partake or observe the transnational debate:

Lesson #1: Empathise with your “enemy” (or opponent/alter)

This is by far the most important insight any political leader should consider in her/his daily work. If the chief interest is to genuinely solve a conflict, it is indispensable to see the issue that causes tensions from alter’s point of view, i.e. to put your self in your opponents shoes and interpret his actions from an angle that is not your own. The austerity/anti-austerity conflict is one instance in which this kind of thinking might have prevented a lot of misunderstandings that partly cumulated in profound cultural tensions (see the various quasi-racist stereotypes that described power-hungry German domination and lazy as well as corrupt Southern-Europeans). This, of course, demands a certain level of social intelligence and presupposes that not short-term goals, like domestic elections, but long-term solutions are the ultimate aim.

Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us

Rationality is a highly controversial issue by itself and always looks different depending on your socio-economic as well as political-cultural background; there hardly ever is one single rational approach for any political conflict. In fact, the clash of different perspectives that in themselves appear rational cause tensions and conflicts; thus, rationality never is a guarantor for lasting solutions. Instead, one should take a critical view on what seems rational and assess potential courses of actions and their probable outcomes based on a particular rationale before actually acting on it. Various actions taken to overcome the Eurozone crisis but which ultimately failed to deliver (e.g. reform programmes) imply that rationality was often taken at face-value – with partly disastrous consequences for those who were directly affected.

Lesson #3: There’s Something beyond One’s Self

McNamara relates this lesson to the nation or society; his basic argument is that one needs to work for a common good and overcome individual interests, at least in certain situations that demand this. In the case of the Eurozone crisis a real solution can only be approached if the involved parties agree that there is something worth working for above particular interests; something that represents a shared, common goal. Unfortunately, the crisis discourse in the past years rather hurt the idea of solidarity and union in Europe; it has become very difficult to convince electorates of the benefits of transnational cooperation, as leading political forces often placed emphasis on “national” interests.

Lesson #4: Maximize efficiency

This should be a no-brainer but longterm observers of the Eurozone crisis’ unfolding will agree that EU leaders’ actions tended to achieve quite the opposite of “maximising efficiency” when they tried to solve the crisis. Instead, delayed and insufficient measures contributed to a prolonged state of political and economic turmoil. Again, national politics and an unwillingness to communicate the real stakes of the crisis to sceptical national electorates impeded efficient decision-making on a transnational level. This in turn diminished prospects for European cooperation.

Lesson #5: Proportionality should be a guideline (in war/conflict)

Fortunately, the Eurozone crisis has not lead to a conventional war between nation-states; however it quickly evolved into a war of words and images. Caricatures of German politicians as Nazis or portrayals of Greeks as unthankful cheaters are some of the more extreme transgressions in contemporary political communication in Europe. Public speakers across the political landscape have repeatedly lost their sense for proportionality and more than once the debate became downright toxic. The conflict of polarising framings seems to dominate political discourse on EU- and Eurozone politics; this inevitably has a inhibiting effect on deliberation on a transnational level.

Lesson #6: Get the data

Political decisions should be based on as much information about the issues in focus as possible. Ideally, valid data that represents aspects of social reality accurately informs policy making. However, things are rarely that simple; often insufficient or even skewed data can lead to fateful political decisions. So far nobody can really say whether austerity will actually solve problems in Eurozone member-states that suffer under an enormous public debt load. At the same time there appears to be lack of convincing alternatives. It seems highly recommendable that any viable longterm solution to the crisis should be based on a critical analysis of relevant data. Then again, the same data can always be interpreted in more than two ways…

Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are often both wrong

This one is closely connected to the previous lesson: before any political decision is made, one better makes sure that there is no doubt about the situation and that each entailed action is worth the stakes weighed in. Hearsay, false assumptions, prejudices, gross misinterpretations, wishful thinking, utopian visions – all of these can lead to bad policy decisions with disastrous consequences. Recently there was a lot of talk about growth in the Eurozone. However, a closer examination reveals the limits of this alleged betterment. Actors and commentators in the crisis discourse frequently premeditate all sorts of potential future scenarios and act on the assumption that action A will lead to result B. In how far these premedations are rooted in empirical reality is, however, often an open question – a crucial limitation that should be considered in decision-making processes.

Lesson #8: Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning

Being able to have empathy with an opponent and realising that one’s biases as well as observations might be wrong should lead to a re-examination of one’s reasoning. In other words, when you conclude that you might have based your previous reasoning on wrong assumptions, remain flexible enough to take a fresh approach; do not close your mindset to a single dogmatic grand strategy but stay open for new impulses. McNamara points out that people are just people and they make mistakes all the time; the trick is to accept this fact of life and be able to change your behaviour. The way in which political leaders stick to their interpretations of and proposed solutions to the Eurozone’s crisis implies that they have little inclination to take a critical stance on their reasonings and to admit that they might have come to the wrong conclusions; again, the austerity/anti-austerity discourse is somewhat exemplary for this. The same could be said for the debate on the general political infrastructure of the EU, where proponents of more integration oppose those who are less willing to increase transnational cooperation.

Lesson #9: In order to do good you may have to engage in evil

McNamara explains that any political leader who engages in a conflict must be aware that his/her actions may cause unnecessary harm to other, potentially innocent individuals; collateral damage cannot be avoided but should remain in proportion to the “good” it ultimately helps to preserve (or the “evil” it allows to minimise); the negative effects must remain as limited as possible. Yet this cannot mean that political decisions which might bear a considerable risk to cause harm to others are avoided at all cost if they serve a greater, common good. To the contrary, one has to accept that certain goals cannot be achieved without losses. Indeed, EU leaders implicitly accepted a high level of damage to social cohesion and solidarity across its member-states when they attempted to overcome the crisis and preserve the single currency – for the alleged good of all Europeans. However, they often failed to communicate explicitly how these losses were justified and that certain decisions really served the interest of the majority of EU citizens and not only financial institutions.

Lesson #10: Never say never

In political crises and conflicts nothing’s really for certain and politicians must actually remain flexible and open-minded if they want to overcome current challenges and find lasting solutions; it will do them no good if they exclude a particular course of action from the outset for some kind of short-term gain, since they might have to change their position at a later point. Furthermore, if a particular outcome to a current development appears highly unlikely from a certain angle it does not necessarily mean that it will not materialise at all. The complexity of modern conflicts actually forbids a strict commitment to a single approach and the non-negotiable exclusion of another. In the Eurozone context German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeatedly vowed to her domestic political basis that she would never agree to Eurobonds, i.e. the de-facto mutualisation of debt in the Eurozone; other maintained that the Eurozone will never break-up while some predict quite the opposite, e.g. that a Greek exit was inevitable. Such positions and forecasts must not be taken as set in stone, since there always is an erratic, unpredictable moment inherent to political developments; one simply cannot take a particular expectation for granted.

Lesson #11: You can’t change human nature

From a historical perspective, the crisis will probably remain temporary and be “solved” at one point, even if it takes enormous social and financial costs. However, probably there will be more crises in the future, as with increasing complexity and convergence the lines of friction and thus areas of conflict appear to multiply in the EU as well as Eurozone. It would be foolish to expect that longterm solutions to current problems will prevent future crises, as society is a constantly changing system of communication that is vulnerable for yet unforeseeable irritations and collapses; the increasing transnationalisation of human interaction is somewhat inevitable against the background of a globalised world but also adds further uncertainty to an already highly dynamic and unstable situation. One must indeed learn from the current crisis to avoid similar mistakes further down the road but should always remember that there is no ultimate solution to the endless chain of challenges.

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Brilliant Documentary on the History of Capitalism

Last autumn German-French public TV station Arte broadcasted a six-part documentary on the history of capitalism by reviewing and critically discussing the “grand theories” of modern economics. I watched it over Christmas and can only recommend it, especially for those who want a concise yet detailed overview of what seems to determine most of global economics, politics, and culture (though you need to be able to understand either German and French). Regarding the current state of Eurozone politics and the ongoing conflict between neo-liberal and leftwing perspectives (see Greece), I think it remains of elevated topicality and may help viewers to read current events against their broader historical context.

The series starts with Adam Smith (who else?) and the basic idea of the ‘free market’. Th authors outline how a limited understanding of his enormously complex work and misinterpretation of key bits led to a fateful dogmatism that focused on the alleged rationality of free individuals and markets regulated by an “invisible hand”. The second part stays with Smith and discusses his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations. It continues to show how his ideas, thoughts, and observations wer soften taken out of context and re-interpreted for specific goals and aims.

The following episodes then take a critical view on the works of David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, Marx, the heated debate between Hayek and Keynes, and finally Karl Polanyi – who developed the compelling thought that economics should be seen as part of cultural activity.

Read more about the show here. You can also watch the complete series on Youtube:

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A Network Graph of the EU Web Sphere based on Hyperlinks (UPDATED)

The graph below visualises the hyperlink network of twenty-one political platforms in the EU context for the period between March 2011 and March 2013, which can be seen as one of the most tumultuous phases of the so-called EU crisis.

The  sample includes four major news media websites, three government websites (UK, Germany, Greece), four official EU websites, two think tank websites, four bloggers, and four NGO websites. I extracted all links from a sample of ca. 1320 postings that were published on these websites within the 24 months of intense crisis discourse covered in the analysis. Each node represents a website, while each line or “edge” stands for a unilateral hyperlink connection coming from a source (one of the 21 websites of the sample) to target; the size of a node implies how much content was produced by the respective platform within the focused time span, while  the thickness or “weight” of each line indicates how often a website was linked to from a source.

This graph is only a preliminary, incomplete draft and does not include all news media postings of the total sample yet; still, it gives a few insights in the structure of political online discourses in the EU context (click to enlarge):

EU Media Web
EU online media web sphere based on hyperlinks. The graph created with Gephi.

For starters, one can easily see that each of the sampled platforms had its very own sub-network of connections and references; they appear as centres of separate yet not completely isolated clusters. Could this be tendencies towards “silo formation” and fragmentation in the EU web discourse? At least the hyperlink pattern in the sample implies such a development, though the same must not necessarily apply to the actual content level and the network of non-hyperlink in-text references that might have emerged there. Still, looking at the structure of hyperlink networks provides access to the fabric of the transnational debate on the EU crisis and forms an adequate starting point for a more detailed discussion.

Apart from the smaller clusters around each node there seem to be ties between politically-ideologically similar websites; for example, in the upper half official EU web presence form a interconnected sub-network; on the right Eurosceptic websites appear to “amass”; the pro-European/federalist NGO Europa Union Deutschland mainly linked to a selection of like-minded sources, too. However, there are a few outliers that need closer examination, such as the “detached” sub-cluster around the extremely anti-European website Team Europe.

It is also interesting to observe that most websites link to themselves, as indicated by the coloured circles attached to the central nodes. Again, the bigger or “thicker” it is, the more often a particulate website tended to place a hyperlink to its own content within its postings.

These are just a few preliminary reflections and the initial observations need a more detailed discussion against the background of web-/public sphere theory and transnational communication. Nevertheless, this network graph highlights some interesting implications and provides further proof that at least a rudimentary transnational web sphere emerged in the EU crisis context.

2015 – The Year the Crisis Returns?

2014 was a relatively “calm” year in the Eurozone and the crisis seemed to have lost most of its urgency. Not for citizens directly affected by structural reforms, austerity policies, stalling economic life, and high unemployment rates but for public political communicators across Europe . Eventually, this translated into reduced topicality and newsworthiness for public media communication.

However, the prospects for a success of left-wing party Syriza in the Greek elections as well as mounting economic problems in Italy have already started to rekindle the transnational crisis discourse. Hence, 2015 could turn out to be a decisive year for a still lingering and largely unresolved crisis in Europe. One that has long left the economic dimension and equally affects politics as well as cultural formations. Though Greece will probably remain in the “eye of the storm” for some time, the Italian crisis theatre could also gain relevance. Here are just a few early signs for this “relapse”:

Eurozone must act before deflation grips

Banks Ready Contingency Plans in Case of Greek Eurozone Exit

Merkel insists she wants Greece to remain in eurozone

Greece’d Lightning and the Italian Stallion

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