The 2012 Olympics were a chance for the BBC to ‘bring the world to London and London to the world’. Part of the BBC’s remit is to promote a ‘global conversation’ by widening user participation, creating dialogue that overcomes national, religious and ethnic divisions, and even cultivates a sense of global citizenship. To assess whether it achieved these goals, the NPCU worked with the BBC and the ESRC’s Centre for Research on Socio Cultural Change (CRESC) to analyse how Arabic, Russian, Persian and English-speaking audiences responded to the Olympics and the BBC’s coverage of it. The multilingual research team started from Big Datasets of Tweets to narrow down to key events around which issues of nationalism and religion came into play. There was no shortage of such events that got people talking, for instance female athletes in Islamic dress, accusations of doping against Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, and the embrace of US wrestler Jordan Burroughs and his Iranian counterpart Sadegh Goudarzi. The Opening and Closing Ceremonies meanwhile offered numerous opportunities for global audiences to think about London and Britain; whether this was with affection, contempt or sheer post-colonial ambivalence remains to be seen.
The project also marked an important point in thinking about measuring the performance of global media. The BBC must prove the ‘value’ of its services to many masters, from the licence-paying individual with their particular tastes and the non-license-paying overseas user comparing the BBC to their national media to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office official who may see the BBC as part of UK public diplomacy to sway audiences around the world. At the same time, the advent of Big Data means there appear to be new ways to measure the BBC’s ‘effects’ and ‘influence’ but how robust these are is debatable. And finally, is a valuable ‘global conversation’ one where political learning takes place, where prejudices are worn away over time, or is connection itself an intrinsic good? The project allowed us to address classic political questions about the nature of public spheres, communication and deliberation, as well as the commercial imperatives of reach, relationships and branding.
The project's findings and analysis were published in a special issue of Participations: International Journal of Audience Research which included comparison between London 2012 and Sochi 2014. To read these articles for free click here and scroll down to the Tweeting the Olympics section.
The project was led by Marie Gillespie of The Open University and Ben O’Loughlin at Royal Holloway. The NPCU PhD students Billur Aslan and James Dennis were part of the multilingual research team. We are grateful to Jemma Ahmed and Emily Mould at BBC Worldwide for their cooperation and insights.