What political points were Twitter users around the world trying to make when they used the hashtags #PrayforParis and #PrayforSyria in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks? A new research project will be presented by NPCU researchers at a conference at SOAS in London on Saturday 7 May 2016 that shows the political dynamics that unfolded. The conference, Communication and Conflict: Iraq and Syria features a great line up of speakers, including keynotes from Philip Seib and Lilie Chouliaraki. Please find details and a link to the programme here. Below are details of the NPCU research.
Media, Migration, and Violence: #PrayforParis, #PrayforSyria and the Dynamics of Antagonism
Authors: Billur Aslan, James Dennis, Ben O’Loughlin and Cristian Vaccari
This study examines public responses on social media to the 13 November 2015 attacks by Islamic State on Paris. Analysis of over 2 million tweets containing the hashtags #prayforparis and #prayforsyria in the days after the attack indicate these hashtags hint at the conflation of three issues: (i) migration: were the attackers homegrown or carrying overseas passports? (ii) violence: why was Paris attacked and why is France bombing Islamic State? (iii) media: what role should mainstream media and social media play during such events that are both local and global, immediate and historic, unique and yet part of a series? In the event’s aftermath, debates raged about whether news media and sites like Facebook offer disproportionate attention to casualties in Paris when catastrophes were unfolding simultaneously in Lebanon, Japan and elsewhere. Social media users shared reports of a massacre in Nigeria as live news despite the event occurring the previous April. Such debates condition immediate public and policy responses – the backlash – but also shape how our public sphere functions in the long term. With #prayforsyria, Syria’s conflict, migrants and refugees became woven by general publics into a broader translocal media-security nexus. How does this work?
This paper builds on previous research exploring how social media affordances encourage certain communication behaviours. We test the hypothesis that the reply function on Twitter is more conducive to antagonistic comments than the retweet function. This is based on two bodies of theory. First, in political communication research we know that the reply function has a higher cognitive demand than the retweet function and thus demands greater commitment. Second, from social theory we know that the reply function has a higher affective demand that the retweet function. It involves greater ‘identity work’: one risks one’s ‘face’ in directly posting a comment to the original commenter. Retweeting can be done with one click whereas replying demands a degree of creativity. In short, the threshold for action is higher with replies compared to retweets which are easier, practically, cognitively, and affectively. Hence, we expect to find greater polarisation and antagonism in replies than retweets. By contrast, we expect retweets to be more likely to express solidarity, comprehension, and appeals to universal values, as these are generally considered the most appropriate responses in the aftermath of a crisis and are thus more likely to be subject to dynamics of reinforcement based on social desirability. Did retweets bring Syria “into the fold” of Europe or the international community?
This research contributes to two non-academic concerns. First, should mainstream and social media organisations like Twitter design the affordances of their social media spaces to encourage certain forms of transnational public deliberation? Second, journalists, celebrities and other high profile figures take on a particular burden during global media events. They can cultivate cosmopolitan, open and cross-cultural dialogue or trigger partisan, closed and antagonistic dialogue. This has a bearing on how public spheres function, particularly a public sphere like Europe’s that is already divided by language.