Retrospective: The UK General Election 2010 in the Political Blogosphere

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No Response” – Limited Levels of Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fragmenting Tendencies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exclusion and Verbal/Textual Transgression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Digital Transformation of Public Discourse

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Unsplash.com

Addendum

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

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

The EU Crisis: A Complex Network of Interconnected Conflicts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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/

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.