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Digital mundane: Political expression and polarisation on Twitter in the post-‘refugee crisis’
At times of social, political and/or economic crisis, social media generally exacerbates political tension. One can underline social media debates amidst Bolsonaro’s divisive election campaign and the creation of further divisions in Brazilian society; Trump’s presidency and his anti-migrant stance instigating deep polarisation within the American society; the divisive discourse of Brexit in the UK, and in general ascendant “illiberalism” in established and new democracies.
One of the most evident societal impacts of illiberalism and its various social, economic and/or political crises is the polarised tone of online communication. Social media users tend to form less heterogeneous ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ on these platforms. Although social media users tend to follow like-minded individuals, groups or pages on social media platforms, and are typically not exposed to content that may contradict their existing views, identity issues still attract a diverse set of Twitter users and enable their engagement with each other in explicit and vocalised ways.
Beyond political issues, however, these identity issues increasingly find mundane, everyday events as platforms for self-expression, camp-making and the inevitable delineation of enemies. The splits cut across political lines illustrating sharp divisions on norms and key values including everyday attitudes, lifestyles and identities. Even based on mundane events and issues, polarised social media discourses, triggered by everyday events and situations, can inform macro-politics. Therefore, what we call as digital polarisation over mundane events ranges across the life of celebrities, everyday expression of sexual and ethnic identities, work practices or consumption of goods. While our case study captures the Turkish Twitter content on everyday events and the polarisation it triggers, we argue that digital polarisation on everyday events speaks out to other political contexts as well.
The early 2010s marked the rise of global social movements including Arab upheavals and the Occupy movements. In the existing academic literature, some of these movements have been defined as the ‘Twitter revolutions’. In the aftermath of these widely popular dissident movements against authoritarian regimes, austerity, poverty and the neoliberal order, protest movements have dissipated except for a few notable examples such as the recent French political mobilisation Gilets Jaunes. In the climate of rising illiberalism and lesser movement mobilisation today, sharp divisions on Twitter and Facebook shape online political communication rather than building solidarity toward collective action. Especially in the global political atmosphere, following the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, we can see that Twitter revolutions have been increasingly replaced by digital polarisation and ‘Twitter Fascism’. Looking at cases of mundane polarisation in Turkey for over a year on Twitter, we have observed the proliferation of political reactions to mundane events rather than critical political goals.
In Turkey, particularly, we are recently coming across mundane events becoming trending topics such as the coming out of a pop-singer, everyday lives of Syrian refugees in Turkey including their celebrations or work relations, or even the marketing around an over-priced new book on Kemal Ataturk’s life. These reactions to mundane events are informed by the macro-political fault lines in Turkey. Yet, it is interesting to follow how macro-politics affect digital politics and the reactions to everyday events follow ones’ political position. It is certainly interesting to see reactions to coming out of a pop singer could either be positive to vouchsafe modernity in Turkey and negative to safeguard the AKP regime from foreign elements.
The Tweets we have collected so far shows that members belonging to one pole believes that the other group should not be allowed in the country, should not be eligible to work or at the very least should immediately stop expressing themselves publicly. References, otherwise characteristic of political polarisation, such as one’s position on the Kurdish conflict and the civil war, Turkey’s hosting Syrian refugees, the Gezi Park protests, the Istanbul Pride, and the July 15 coup, are also evident but furthered by online reactions springing out from mundane everyday events.
A considerable amount of everyday hashtags such as #Intizar (a pop star), #NevsinMengu (a dissident journalist), #YilmazOzdil (a controversial journalist) or #Suriyeliler (Syrians) includes discussions on everyday life situations informed by norms about Turkishness, Islam, the Turkish regime, Kemalism and the governing party AKP. Reactions to everyday events – such as a leaked video, New Year’s Eve celebrations or the publishing of a book – turn into manifestations of polarisation in the form of attachment to Turkish national identity, Islam, AKP party politics and the ideology of Turkish state.
In using these hashtags and mentions, Twitter users engage with each other based on a notion of idealised femininity and nationhood, which outcasts dissident views, women, +LGBTI communities and/or the Syrian identity and existence in Turkey. While these texts might be seen as products of local dynamics in Turkey, our findings on the digital mundane and online political voice today resonate with the global political atmosphere that constitutes the campaigns of Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, which are simply based on outcasting not only immigrants and refugees but also dissident views, women and +LGBTI communities. This is what we are seeking to develop conceptually as digital polarisation over mundane everyday events.
Professor Umut Korkut has expertise in how political discourse makes audiences and recently studies visual imagery and audience-making. Prof Korkut is the lead for AMIF-funded project VOLPOWER assessing youth volunteering in sports, arts, and culture in view of social integration and Primary Investigator for Horizon 2020 funded RESPOND and DEMOS projects on migration governance and populism.
Dr Ozge Ozduzen is a British Academy's Newton International postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London. Her research focuses on new social movements, aesthetics of protests, urban conflicts, digital methods and geographies and audience and reception studies. Currently, she also works on digital polarisation in Turkey with regards to mundane situations, particularly on Twitter.
Image: Con Karampelas