Media, Migration, and Violence: Public Responses to the Paris Attacks

This project examines public responses on social media to the 13 November 2015 attacks by Islamic State on Paris. The project team, Ben O’Loughlin and Cristian Vaccari, have gathered over 2 million tweets containing the hashtags #prayforparis and #prayforsyria in the days after the attack. These hashtags hint at the conflation of three issues around the attacks: (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. Indeed, 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.

This project 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. Third, 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. One must feel strongly to reply. 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.

We also test the degree to which antagonism is correlated with retweet volumes. Among replies to less-retweeted posts we expect to find less antagonism. From media theory we know that a ‘spiral of silence’ develops in low profile communications. We thus expect to find more antagonistic replies in more-retweeted posts. O’Loughlin’s research for the BBC around the 2012 Olympics found that journalists, athletes, celebrities and other high profile figures enjoy greater retweet rates during media events. This has subsequently been replicated in other studies in political communication and we expect to find the same for the Paris attacks. If controversy develops in the space ‘below’ a celebrity’s tweets, this puts a responsibility on such figures to cultivate and respond to user comments in specific ways. In London 2012 we found, for example, that certain BBC journalists created global controversies while others deftly wove different national audiences and perspectives together.

This research contributes to two non-academic or ‘impact’ concerns:

1. Both mainstream and social media organisations design the affordances of their social media spaces to encourage certain forms of public deliberation. The BBC is committed to creating a ‘global conversation’ on its platforms and thus wrestles with issues of cultural and linguistic translation. Facebook’s function enabling respondents to blur their profile picture with the colours of the French flag and Safety Check function enabling users to see whether their contacts in Paris had declared themselves safe caused controversy after the Paris attacks because users sensed an alteration in the platform’s purpose from being a space to comment on events to being part of the event, thus privileging one event over others (i.e., the Beirut bombings that occurred shortly before the Paris attacks) in its very architecture.

2. 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 our public sphere functions, particularly a public sphere like Europe’s that is already divided by language.

This project extends ongoing research by O’Loughlin, Cristian Vaccari and Andrew Chadwick in PIR’s New Political Communication Unit examining social media and political events. They have recently published their study of social media responses to the 2014 European Parliamentary election leaders debates in Journal of Communication (ISI 1/76 in communication) and are currently completing their study of dual screening during the 2015 UK General Election leaders debates.