Tag Archives: Social media

The Absent ‘Thing’ and the Value of Distance – Social media through an Arendtian lens

In our context, the point is that the sarcastic, perverse-sounding statement, [of Heidegger’s] Das Licht der Öffentlichkeit verdunkelt alles (“The light of the public obscures everything”), went to the very heart of the matter and actually was no more than the most succinct summing-up of existing conditions. (Arendt, 1995, 6)

The dream of a Cyber-Agora

I will start with a confession: In the 1990ies, I belonged to the camp of the techno-optimists. I believed the internet had the potential of becoming a new public sphere where everybody could access information and engage in debate, that it could produce an open, borderless “marketplace of ideas”, which could strengthen both international solidarity and deliberative democracy and give the ordinary citizen a voice. In short, I hoped for a kind of virtual Agora; a meeting place for a plurality of perspectives with the potential for actualizing political power from below. [1]

At first glance there are some striking similarities between an Arendtian public and interaction on social media. Social media platforms are indeed a kind of public realm, in that anyone can enter into a conversation, and they are also spaces of appearance where the individual can “be seen and heard by everybody” as Arendt phrases it (Arendt, 1958, 50), and thus seems to fit her understanding of the public realm as an intersubjective space where people appear to each other in their individuality while communicating and connecting together. Furthermore, Arendt’s public spaces are not limited to traditional institutions, but are mobile and unpredictable since politics “happens” whenever there are people acting together in public: “the political realm rises directly out of acting together, the ‘sharing of words and deeds.’” (Arendt, 1958, 198). In other words, action itself creates a public space that can find its proper location anytime and anywhere, and like the Arendtian political realm, the online spaces of social media are simultaneously agonistic, aesthetic and deliberative. Arendt also emphasizes that political life and political power emerges trough speech and action rather than violence or force; and in online communication we are disembodied – we only interact through words and images – and hence the individual cannot literally be shouted down, subjected to violence or silenced. In short, it seemed reasonable to think that the very non-corporeality of cyberspace would in fact strengthen the role of the Habermasian ”force of the better argument”.

The development of online communication in the last ten years has, however, given us grounds for curbing our enthusiasm. When it comes to what social networks and Internet activism is able to achieve politically, it may be significantly less than hoped for, and many suggest that traditional groundwork organizing is still the most effective way of making lasting political changes.[2] Political change tends to involve painstaking, long-term efforts to engage with political institutions, and successful political movements that involve high-cost activism (like the civil rights movement in the US) demand strong ties between participants, while social media is based on weak ties.[3] Morozov (2011) suggests that we have radically overestimated the liberating potential of digital communication, and that social media might be used even more effectively by authoritarian regimes as a tool for surveillance, propaganda and control.

Social media as nightmare

The first optimism was followed by a rather dramatic shift in the general tenor in the discourse about the new media, not at least due to the apparent link between online radicalization and “lone-wolf” acts of terrorism. Increasingly, also the quotidian use of social media by the general public became regarded as having pernicious effects on the general political discourse as well as society at large. Rather than the promised cyberspace Utopia, the new digital era appeared as a political nightmare; a confusing hellscape of disinformation, “fake news” and conspiracy theories. The press and other traditional media, as well as Universities and scientific communities are all part of what is often called a truth-producing infrastructure. Although imperfect, such an infrastructure is slow to build, but may be quick to break. A central worry is that social media contributes to an “epistemic crisis” by undermining the trust in traditional institutions of knowledge, replacing rationality with emotion and foster cynicism, resentment and hatred.[4] Studies have thrown light on how misinformation spreads online and leads to polarization and distrust, and this concern is undoubtedly well founded.[5] Without common facts to have different opinions about, we cannot make judgments and form opinions, and there can be no rational debate.  As Arendt often comments, the prime danger of widespread lying in politics is not gullibility, but cynicism. Cynical people are easily manipulated, because in refusing to believe in any truth whatsoever, they are unable to make up their mind, yet they often continue to conduct themselves as if they believe and enforce it against each other.[6] Lack of common ground leads to a ”Schmittian” politics, where those who disagree with us are no longer adversaries or opponents, but enemies. With increased aggression, suspicion and a general lack of civility the agonism inherent in a vibrant political life threatens (in the terms of Chantal Mouffe) to turn into antagonism, and even a threat to liberal democracy itself.

Our crooked timber

In 2016, ‘Post-truth’ was selected by Oxford Dictionaries as word of the year, and we now have a new and continuously expanding vocabulary that describes our online behavior; “going viral”, “epistemic bubbles”, “echo-chambers”, “trolling”, “doxxing”, “pile-ons”, “ratioing”, “flaming”, “Twitter-storms”, “cancelling” and “purity spirals”. Regarding digital media, physical distance is often seen as part the problem, since online communication is quite different from face-to-face interaction in some important respects. One example is the lack of nonverbal social cues such as tone, facial expressions and body language, which easily lead to misunderstandings and escalation of hostility. The fact that we do not encounter each other bodily, and the possibility of anonymous interaction also contributes to lowering our threshold for verbal aggression. In short: we tend to behave differently – that is, worse – online than face to face.

Some of the problems with the new digital media are due to our shared human foibles, like our tendency to tribalism (us-versus-them groupthink) or “cognitive ease”; the tendency to steer clear of facts that would force our brains to work harder, and our tendency to accept familiar information as true.[7] We tend to cherry-pick data to support our existing views and this confirmation bias in turn leads to epistemic bubbles and – if combined with distrust– to echo chambers. That anonymity foster bad behavior is not exactly news, it is something we have been aware of since Plato and the ring of Gyges, but these common human weaknesses become, so to speak, supercharged through the workings of social media: The algorithms that control what is seen, are on the one hand tailor-made for the recipient, and on the other designed to first and foremost keep our attention, which is commodified and monetized on social media. In the words of Tristan Harris:

YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, which determine 70% of daily watch time for billions of people, “suggest” what are meant to be similar videos but actually drive viewers to more extreme, more negative, or more conspiratorial content because that’s what keeps them on their screens longer. (Harris, 2021)

The business model of platforms like Facebook and Twitter commodifies our attention, and what gets the most engagement (clicks, views, shares) are statements and issues that trigger strong affect – especially anger. Precisely how these algorithms work is also not transparent to the users themselves.[8] In other words, critics, like the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, claim that functions like the “share” “like” and “retweet” buttons – and the engagement algorithms designed around them – have intensified the formation of in-groups, which invariably also leads to more vilifying of out-groups, as well as rewarding outrageous behavior. In short, social media platforms are geared towards capturing our attention and keeping it, and as a result they create more negativity and division as a side effect of the goal of continuous engagement (Haidt, 2022).

Some of these problems can be ameliorated through top-down control and regulation; as Harris puts it: Ultimately it comes down to setting the right rules” (Harris, 2021). That is, the task is to make mega-corporations like Facebook (now Meta) and Twitter responsible for the proliferation of untruths and uncivility on their platforms. However, as Morozov phrases it, it is hard to “imagine an infrastructure that actually cares about the veracity of the data that passes through it, when the entire incentive of the system is to […] increase the number of clicks on the platform”.[9] Making the platforms more responsible for their content, changing and tweaking algorithms, making “sharing” a little more difficult, getting rid of “bots” and curbing hate speech by rules and moderation are all forms of regulation that undoubtedly can be beneficial, but some of these solutions also present problems of their own: Should it be up to national law or company policy to decide what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale when it comes to speech? Today the rules seem to be unclear and to some extent arbitrary. Do we risk giving these mega-corporations even more power over our lives by so to speak “deputizing” them to act as the arbiters of public discourse?

The last twist in what we may call the “discourse about the (online) discourse” is, in a way, a worry about the opposite tendency. That is, a tendency to conformity and censoriousness and a narrowing of the scope of what is considered acceptable speech on social media, which threatens to spread to other parts of public life and institutions. The so-called Harper’s Letter[10] published in 2020 and signed by 153 well-known writers and academics can be seen as part of this new worry. The letter talks about an illiberal public climate, “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” resulting in a ”stifling atmosphere” and “a general chilling effect” on debates, in other words what colloquially has been dubbed ”cancel culture”. In short, the problem is not just too little top-down control, but also too much horizontal control, as it were.

The ‘social’ in social media

What I will focus on here are problems inherent in social media and online communication that very likely cannot be regulated top-down by simply “setting the right rules”. It is my hypothesis that there is something in the way we interact on social media – that is, how we relate to each other on these platforms – that prevents them from becoming a genuine public sphere in an Arendtian sense. The key term here is the social in social media.

According to Arendt, what first and foremost characterizes ‘the social’ is conformity, and as Ogden Sharpe points out; “Even the basic actions of “liking” and “following” built into social media exhibit a conformist conceptualization of human speech and action, the ends of which are “influence,” imitation, a “following.” (Ogden Sharpe, 2022). In Arendt’s thinking, the social and the political are contrasting concepts, and she uses several distinctions to describe the opposition between the social and the political: Freedom versus necessity, action vs. behavior, plurality vs. sameness, individuality vs. conformism. Arendt describes the “social” as a kind of hybrid between the public and the private realm that threatens to absorb and deform both the private and the public alike.

The social, as Arendt sees it, is first and foremost a realm of sameness, consisting of a mass of people. ‘Masses’ in Arendt’s sense of the word, are large groups of people who are isolated, that is, not held together by concrete common interests, be it political, economical or social (Arendt, 1966, 311-315). Although it is sometimes tempting, I think it would be a misunderstanding to read some kind elitism or culturally conservative critique of leveling (á la Heidegger or Kierkegaard) into Arendt’s concept of the masses: Notably, she does not contrast masses as ”the many” to ”the few” (or to the individual). What creates ‘a mass’ is social atomization and individualization in a competitive society (Arendt 1966, 316-317). It is what people become when the ‘in-between’ of common interest dwindles, and what she calls the bourgeois attitude – to be solely concerned with one’s private existence and private welfare – eclipses one’s self-understanding as a citizen. (Arendt 1994, 130 and 1966, 144-46.)

Arendt’s distinction between the social and the political is often criticized and problematized by commentators. Hannah Pitkin famously dubbed it “a Blob” and claimed that Arendt mystifies ‘the social’ by describing it as something with an inscrutable agency; and that we instead should see it as a state of alienation that itself demands explanation and analysis (Pitkin 1998, 6-8, 197, 240). Following Pitkin, I will suggest that we see Arendt’s distinction between the social and the political as describing different ways of relating to the world and each other, in other words, that a public sphere dominated by ‘the social’ is, so to speak, a defective public (Pitkin, 1998, 179-182). This would also, incidentally, imply that we read Arendt’s conceptual distinctions in a more Heideggerian vein as different modes of Being-together or Miteinandersein. In his early Aristotle-lectures (that so impressed Arendt) Heidegger stresses that the task of phenomenology is to analyze the ‘how’ of relating-to (Verhalten) as such; how the world is always revealed in a certain light and under certain aspects.[11] The social public thus entails a different mode of being together – and appearing to each other – than the political public proper. After all, action and behavior are similar activities – they both take place directly between humans, in the “web of human relationships” and serve to maintain these relationships.

In Being and Time Heidegger claims that a large portion of our lives are lived in the mode of ‘the They’ (das Man), and that this mode dominates public life. Heidegger’s characterizations of the public are generally pejorative, it is a dominated by of distantiality, averageness and leveling down, idle talk, curiosity and ambiguity (cf. Heidegger, Being and Time §27 and §35-38).

We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness. (Heidegger, 1962,167)

Heidegger’s das Man is an existential, i.e. an inherent structure in the human way of being – but one that nevertheless can be exacerbated by societal forms. Heidegger’s alternative to existing in the mode of das Man is to become authentic, but his notion authenticity is based on an inward turn, through confrontation with anxiety and death (at least in Being and Time)[12]. Heidegger’s model does not offer us any positive vision of the public, but this is exactly what we find in Arendt. Rejecting Heidegger’s “romantic” turn inward, identity is fundamentally intersubjective for Arendt, and to the extent that we can talk about something like ‘authenticity’ in her thought, it is as a specific mode of being together.

Plurality is key to Arendt’s notion of politics and serves as the “basic condition for both action and speech” (Arendt, 2005, 93, 95, and 1958, 175). In The Human Condition plurality is introduced as “the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (Arendt, 1958, 7). This is of course trivially true, but there is more to the concept of plurality than a mere multiplicity of human beings or qualitative differentiations (diversity). Plurality is not something that is just “present at hand”, but something more akin to an achievement[13] Every individual is a unique viewpoint of the world, but this unique viewpoint must be articulated, expressed and recognized by others in order to appear as such. The different basic activities of labor, work and action lets the world, ourselves and others appear in different ways, and while the being-together in labor and work erases individual uniqueness, speaking, acting and judging is the form of togetherness in which we appear– as Arendt frequently phrases it –”qua men” (Arendt, 1958, 176, and 212). Uniqueness can therefore only fully appear as a worldly reality in an activity – what Sophie Loidolt (2018) has called actualized plurality – a mode of being-with-one-another where we speak, act and judge with others as equals, that is, as a certain form of “we”: “The revelatory [i.e. revealing the ‘who’ of somebody] quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others, and neither for nor against them – that is in sheer human togetherness”. (Arendt, 1958, 180). In short: In contrast to the plurality fostered by the political public sphere, ‘the social’ represents a normalizing, disciplinary power, producing ‘behavior’ rather than ‘action’.

It is decisive that society, on all its levels, excludes the possibility of action, which formerly was excluded from the household. Instead, society expects from each of its members a certain kind of behavior, imposing innumerable and various rules, all of which tend to “normalize” its members, to make them behave, to exclude spontaneous action or outstanding achievement. (Arendt 1958, 40).

Although Arendt gives us a story (both in The Human Condition and Origins of Totalitarianism) of the origins of ‘the social’ (linked to modern capitalism and the Nation state) she does not provide much detail as to how conformism works, and I will here attempt to use Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s theory of profilicity to suggests how conformism operates within today’s social media.

Profilicity and second order observation

Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s launched the concept ‘profilicity’ in the 2021 book You and your profile– Identity after authenticity. As the title implies, they see profilicity as a new figuration of selfhood that is taking over from the pre- and early modern ‘sincerity’ (based on societal functions or roles) and the modern ‘authenticity’ (based on a notion of an inner self and originality). They point out that a large part of social media is about producing images of ourselves; of our faces, bodies, activities, preferences and possessions. These images are almost always styled in particular ways and represent how we would like to be seen by others. The popularity of photo-editing apps[14] exemplifies one important aspect of profilicity; that our self-presentation on social media is not first and foremost directed at our friends and family (who know perfectly well what we look like) but to a general public and invites response in the form feedback (likes, clicks, shares, comments etc.). If our self-presentation is liked, this functions as a validation of the persona presented and encourages us to continue to post this type of content – what Moeller and D’Ambrosio call “social validation feedback loops” (Moeller and D’Ambrosio 2021, 30). While Heidegger’s Eigenlichkeit clearly belongs to the older conception of identity in terms of authenticity, profilicity mirrors some structural similarities with Arendt’s notion of identity, but in a somewhat twisted – and in my view – chilling manner.

According to Moeller and D’Ambrosio profilicity is how identity is constructed under the condition of pervasive ‘second-order observation’. Second-order observation means observing something as it is observed by someone else. In other words, it is not ”the thing itself” that is observed, but rather how it is observed by others and anonymous rating mechanisms and review processes. YouTube, Instagram or TikTok videos and Twitter accounts, are all examples of second order observation mechanisms, in that we do not only observe the video or tweet, but also how many ”likes” and comments it attracts. First- and second- order observation are intrinsically intertwined on social media; even when we observe things directly, we still tend to see them in the light of how they are being seen (Moeller and D’Ambrosio 2021,40). In learning to see in this manner, we also learn to show ourselves in a certain way. Social media platforms are thus, according to the authors, essentially second-order observation platforms, where we can observe how our presentation is observed, and from this obtain clues for further self-presentation in the form profiles.

Mueller and D’Ambrosio underscores that in second order observation, validation from strangers is the most valuable and objective: In a similar manner as reviews of an Airbnb host by their family members have little legitimacy, validation from strangers is more valuable to our personal profile, than that of those close to us. (Mueller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 28) According to the authors, second-order observation is ubiquitous in the contemporary world; we are surrounded by a myriad of anonymous ranking and assessment systems; whether we check into a hotel or look at the ranking of an academic journal, or evaluate a clothes brand, we operate in the form of second-order observation. Businesses also manufacture and market their brands through social validation feedback loops: “The profile symbiosis between employers and employees is increasingly obvious in almost every sector of the capitalist economy, including university education” (Mueller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 30).

The weird beauty contest

Mueller and D’Ambrosio illustrate the structure of second-order observation by John Maynard Keynes’ thought experiment of ”the weird beauty contest”, originally intended as a model to describe the functioning of financial markets.[15] In the weird beauty contest, the participants compete to guess which face will win, but the prize goes to the person whose choice corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors (Mueller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 122). In other words, in order to win, you must not choose the face that you personally find prettiest, or even those that most participants genuinely think are the prettiest, rather, you must correctly anticipate “what average opinion expects the average opinion to be” (Mueller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 123). That is, you must abstract from all first-order observation preferences, and instead estimate what faces others will judge to be considered generally fashionable. The actual object of observation and evaluation are thus not the faces themselves, but other people’s observations and evaluations:

Now everybody is aware that everybody else is also observing and evaluating in the mode of second-order observation, and what people “genuinely think”— that is, what they observe in the mode of first- order observation—becomes irrelevant. The exclusive object of observation and evaluation are other people’s observations and evaluations. (Mueller and D’Ambrosio, 2021,123)

The Luhmann-inspired theory of ‘profilicity’ suggests that in late modernity, financial value, beauty value, moral value or personal value are all determined by second-order observation through various ranking and rating mechanisms that together constitutes what Moeller and D’Ambrosio calls the ‘general peer’, an abstract virtual public opinion which – and this is important– is not the sum of the real opinions of various individuals (or what they come to agree on) but what everyone thinks is the opinion that is generally regarded as right – what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. Profiles succeed through public attention and approval – through being followed, noticed, rated, ranked and liked, and since it all happens in relation to second order observation, the point is not so much (as in the Habermasian notion of public reason) to find out what is normatively binding or true, but rather to predict what will be seen as interesting, cool, popular or acceptable in the eyes of the virtual general peer. “What is rewarded is cleverness in assessing what is seen to be seen as good— and the ability to express oneself in accordance with it” (Mueller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 28).

Our profiles are our identity, and are as all identities in need social validation. Under earlier conditions of sincerity or authenticity, this validation could come from present peers, family members or personal friends, while in the age of ‘profilicity’ identity validation is given by the abstract general peer. This, Moeller and D’Ambrosio claim, is one of the reasons why social media are so addictive; they satisfy a deep existential need in affirming our identity and also part of the reason why the platforms have been able to accumulate such enormous amounts of financial value. Activity on social media – the feedback loops of posting, liking and commenting –is a kind of “identity work”. Identity as profilicity is fickle, however, and extremely vulnerable to fads and fashions, and therefore in need of careful maintenance and constant polishing. Even a mere slowing down of validation (for example in the form of a declining number of “likes”) indicates devaluation, and an active and presentable social profile must therefore be continuously updated and curated. (Moeller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 59)

Virtue-speak; curating the brand

Social media thus bears more resemblance to a marketplace than a Habermasian or Arendtian public space. As said above, Arendt links the rise of ‘the social’ to the entrance of economic thinking into the public, and under conditions of profilicity one’s private life becomes curated and exhibited for social currency. We are encouraged and expected to exhibit our private life on social media. As part of our profiles, our opinions also come with a market value, and the current tendency to moralize public discourse can therefore (at least partially) be explained by the concept of profilicity. Since we present ourselves to the abstract general peer– who cannot observe what we actually do in real life – what we say becomes the most visible and significant aspect:

A profile is public. Accordingly, under conditions of profilicity, morality is […] first concerned with performance rather than with what may be hidden behind its surface. What counts is what is seen, and importantly, what is seen as being seen. The power of profiles is improved by sharing opinions and judgments. The morality of profilicity can be expressed as “political correctness,” “virtue speech,” or “virtue signaling,” but also by violations of these, if this is what one’s audience is known to prefer. Profilic morality consists in proclamations complying with a targeted public opinion. (Moeller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 27-28).

The point is not just to be seen as virtuous, but to be seen as being seen as virtuous. Value lies in the display of something that is regarded as right or good, but in order to count, it must be visible in rankings, reviews, or comments. This, the authors claim, is the reason why moral communication in the form of ‘virtue-speak’ has become so crucial today (Moeller and D’Ambrosio 2021, 93). It is a powerful and effective tool for achieving profilicity and is increasingly used by public figures, traditional media, businesses and institutions (like Universities) because they all have a profile to sell. Identity as profilicity is, in other words, comparable to a brand. In a similar manner as a brand can be destroyed by being associated with immoral practices, a profilic identity can be destroyed by being publicly shunned or shamed. Avoiding moral ostracization thus becomes paramount. To be shunned is a situation where others make sure to distance themselves from any association with – or endorsement of– the shunned; avoid citing them,”unfriend” them or have their social media accounts discontinued for example. Moeller and D’Ambrosio stress that profiles stand in a competitive relation to each other – only a few can be high profile. The traditional forms of validation belonging to sincerity and authenticity (being validated by one’s immediate peers, family or friends) don’t really work in profilicity: “Your family members’ likes don’t really count, and the unseen profile is all but worthless. Just as in the capitalist economy, the profilicity lottery only increases the gap between those who are really successful and those who are not.” (Moeller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 111). On the other hand, everyone, including the low profiles, can be part of social validation feedback loops, since social media offers us a constant opportunity to validate others. The feeling of being one with the general peer can thus provide a sense of power in low-profile peers, a sense that they can make a difference in how something is seen (ibid. 110) but it is hard not to see this as a kind of Ersatz empowerment.

Competing in the profile market: “Mimetic desire” and “purity spirals”

While Moeller and D’Ambrosio present profilicity as a somewhat neutral phenomenon – simply what our identities are under the late modern condition of second order observation, the picture becomes somewhat darker if we look at social media through the lens of Réne Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. According to Girard we desire things because others desired them first, not because of their intrinsic qualities. What we long for is therefore to possess what others seem to want; and on social media – likes, followers and a higher profile – and conflict is the inevitable result. Since there can be only a few winners, our relationship online becomes, according to Shullenberger  (2020) ”a steady grind of resentment”. Schullenberger finds empirical confirmation of Girard’s hypotheses in the constant tendency towards escalating conflict and rivalry in online spaces, which is only temporarily overcome by redirecting collective aggression to a surrogate victim –a scapegoat –who is then subjected to “pile-ons” or “canceled”.[16] Typically, the victim is not out-group, but an in-group member who has transgressed a group norm. According to Schullenberger, it follows from the functioning of the online attention economy that participants are actually incentivized to throw the first stone:

Since users easily come together around shared objects of moral indignation, a negative post about a person who can serve as some group’s scapegoat can be a predictable way to reap a good harvest of likes and followers. (Schullenberger, 2020). Mob dynamics can therefore be seen as a feature of social media platforms, not a bug.

Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s analysis of what is now often called “virtue signaling” is that it is a way of inscribing our profiles into moral validation feedback loops. However, these feedback loops can veer off into what journalist Gavin Heynes (2020) calls “purity spirals”. In a purity spiral, being seen as the ”purest” is rewarded, and holding a divergent or nuanced – i.e. “less pure”– opinions is punished, in a dynamic that inevitably leads to escalation. Heynes uses as his example an online knitting-forum, which in 2019 descended into a bitter conflict over racism. The spiral started when Nathan Taylor, a gay man living with HIV, launched a hash tag aimed at promoting diversity in knitting (#Diversknitty) apparently with the best of intentions. At first, the hash tag was a hit, spawning over 17,000 posts, but the discourse soon descended into a frenetic moral outbidding when the (predominantly white) members started competing in being the most anti-racist. Those who criticized bullying – or even just tried to lower the temperature were met with ”a veritable tsunami of condemnation” according to Hayes. Taylor, who came up with the hash tag in the first place, tried to calm the waters with a humorous poem (“With genuine SOLEM-KNITTY/I beg you, stop the enmity”) but found himself in the role of the scapegoat and accused of being a ”white supremacist”. Eventually, he suffered a nervous breakdown and ended up in hospital after an attempted suicide. What this example shows, is that the social dynamics of a purity spiral can turn even an online knitting forum into a dangerous place.

Haynes suggests that a purity spiral “occurs when a community becomes fixated on implementing a single value that has no upper limit, and no single agreed interpretation. The result is “a moral feeding frenzy” (Haynes, 2020). I will suggest, however, that the problem may not first and foremost be the lack of an agreed interpretation or ”upper limit”, but rather the lack of a common worldly object combined with the competitive social dynamics of profilicity.

The vanishing table

When moral positioning has some kind of market value, we are in a competitive situation where the main thing is how we are seen to be seen. In contrast, Arendt stresses that a genuine political discourse must always be about the world we have in common, and she reminds us that “public” has 2 different senses: a) “everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everyone and has the widest possible publicity”, and b) ”the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it” (Arendt, 1958, 50, 52). The tendency to conformism in social media and dynamics like purity spirals can from an Arendtian viewpoint be seen as the result of a social space that is public only in the first sense. Political interaction involves a certain distance according to Arendt, because it consists of speech in which someone talks to somebody about something that is of interest to both, because it is between them. The content of any political debate is for her always objective and aimed at the “world of things in which men move, which physically lie between them and out of which arise their specific, objective, worldly interests” (Arendt, 1958,182) and it is something over which we eventually must come to some sort of agreement if any collective action is to be undertaken. She here uses the image of a table: To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world like every in-between, relates and separates at the same time.” (Arendt, 1958, 52). In order to appear to each other as a plurality of unique perspectives on the world, we need to be anchored in the world, we need the mediation of the common thing. Mass society, in contrast, is according to Arendt rather like a spiritual séance:

What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible. (Arendt 1958, 52-53).

My hypothesis is that the tendency of social media discourse to go off the rails is (at least partly) due to the absence of a common thing – the res publica if you like – the common object that can bee seen and appreciated and judged from a multiplicity of perspectives: “[…] reality is not guaranteed primarily by the ‘common nature’ of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object” (1958: 57).

A public thing must be something “reified” to a certain extent; institutions, material structures, laws, urban planning, architecture, artworks and infrastructure are all examples things that make up an objective in-between, that can be seen and approached from different viewpoints and allow different perspectives to emerge. To take an example: Health is an interest grounded in our sameness (we are all vulnerable as biological beings and we all desire good health) but health-talk going public tends to lead to governmental micromanaging (or “nudging”) and social (and competitive) moralizing. A health institution on the other hand, is a public thing that we have in common and can observe and discuss from various points of view. In other words, to have a common ‘thing’ facilitates what the Norwegian philosopher Skjervheim calls a ‘triangular relation’ that characterizes any genuine intersubjective dialogue. In a triangular relation, I respond to an utterance by directing my attention to the same subject matter in such a way that we share a common object as participants in the conversation (Skjervheim, 1996). The alternative relation is to register the other’s utterances, infer their motives and then make the other into my object. When the in-between that anchors political debate disappears, the structure changes. Without the intermedium of a common thing to talk about, and anchor our perspectives in, we become each other’s objects, so to speak, and the competitive bid for status (profilicity) sets off.

Arendt insists that political deliberation and action must always be about the world, not about ourselves. The widespread tendency to moralize public debates – which risks leading to purity spirals and public shaming and ostracizing – can be seen as a symptom of the abolishment of the necessary distance and connection provided by the common thing. As Arendt often notes, while politics is always about the world we share; moral considerations tend to turn towards the self, and under conditions of profilicity, this self is no longer our individual conscience or private motives – but a public profile that seeks approval by the general peer.

Profilicity as Arendt’s dark mirror

I mentioned above that there are some almost uncanny structural similarities between Arendt’s notion of the self and the theory of profilicity. Although she echoes Heidegger in her disdain for conformity, Arendt’s notion of the self is in some respects almost the inverse of Heideggerian authenticity, in that her emphasis is on the “surface” – in the sense of ‘that which appears’– rather than depth. [17] The self is relational through and through, and what is unique about us is something that manifests itself in an intersubjective space of visibility – not unlike a “profile”. Our experience of reality itself is essentially mediated through others. Arendt claims that what we experience as real is what can be seen and heard from a multiplicity of vantage points and for a plurality of people “it is the presence of others “who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves” (Arendt, 1958, 50). The same holds for the theory of second order observation. Furthermore, the Arendthian public space is both competitive and cooperative – and the same is true of social media where we present our profiles for competitive validation and partake in creating ‘the general peer’. Another similarity is that communication on social platforms is – like Arendtian action––something that occurs within a network of relations between speaking persons, and like action, it is both limitless and boundless. An action can only be a beginning of something if others take it on and respond to it, and since action always takes place within a ‘web of relationships’ the outcome of action is unpredictable in principle. Similarly, under conditions of second order observation there is no final word since new players continuously enter the scene. The fleeting character of what is fashionable somehow mirrors the unpredictability of Arendtian action: What the public opinion of the general peer finds cool today, could be obsolete tomorrow. However, the whole point of Arendtian action, the very meaning of politics[18] – freedom – is lacking since the motivation for the interaction is to “win the game” by predicting what is acceptable to the ‘general peer’.

When talking about the ‘who’ that is revealed in action, Arendt draws on the image of the Greek daimon who accompanies each through life, “always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus only visible to those he encounters.” (Arendt, 1958, 179-80). This identity that we cannot help but reveal in speech and action, is not under our control: ”One discloses oneself without ever either knowing himself or being able to calculate beforehand whom he reveals.” (Arendt, 1958,192). I personally always found this to be a somewhat comforting thought; if it is indeed true that we cannot master our self-revelation, we can also stop worrying about it. However, the notion of profilicity as the late modern form of identity reverses the situation: To curate a profile for validation by the general peer is precisely the unending task of controlling others’ perception. Moeller and D’Ambrosio stresses that this is hard work– a profile does not remain valid if it is not continuously confirmed, and social media accounts thus requires constant curation and updates since they are worthless without constant validation feedback loops (Moeller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 32-33).

To appear to each other in a public space – what Loidolt (2018) has called ‘actualized plurality’– means being present together and seeing each other as equal and distinct – but under conditions of profilicity, the point is no longer to be seen, but rather to be seen as being seen, and the actual presence of others is no longer relevant. While the public realm as envisioned by Arendt is thought of as empowering and fostering individuality, the quest for profilicity reverses this logic, since the general peer to which we appeal is created by abstracting from any particular perspective so that an average opinion about average opinion can emerge.

What happens to our capacity for judgment – the political kind of insight par excellence according to Arendt – under conditions of “second order observation? An essential part of judgment is ”training one’s imagination to go visiting” that is, to attempt to see the world “from the other fellow’s point of view”.[19] When we attempt to share our outlook –what she calls “wooing” the consent of others – we need to be able to take into account a plurality of standpoints and perspectives. What Arendt calls “common sense” is not the same as general consensus or public opinion, but the result of a comparison of perspectives and thus not something we automatically possess in virtue of being socialized, like habits or traditional values. It is not something that resides in each individual’s cognitive capabilities but relates itself to the ‘in-between’ in the form of what Marieke Borren has called “feeling for the world” or contact with reality.[20] Common sense is a connectedness to the common world in its muliti-facetedness, as it shows itself through a plurality of perspectives. It is the basis for sound judgment as the very ground upon which we form opinions by checking our own viewpoint against others. To make up one’s mind and to judge as an individual presupposes a plurality of opinions, since “no formation of opinion is ever possible where all opinions have become the same” (Arendt 2006b, 217). As Sandra Hinchman (1984) phrases it; common sense cannot emerge fully unless we also have some dissensus. In fact, Arendt claims that ”[t]he reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives in which the common world presents itself and for which no common measurement or denominator can ever be devised.” (Arendt, 1958, 57). Under conditions of second order observation, however, the general peer functions precisely as such a common measurement, and thus also as a kind of world-alienation. Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s general peer manifests itself only in large quantities by the aggregated number of clicks or citation metrics; it is a kind of das Man made up of statistical data. Arendt’s common sense or ‘”feeling for the world” is part and parcel of relating to a plurality of perspectives, about which the aggregation that makes up the general peer tells us nothing at all. The effect is thus to obscure the common world: “The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective” (Arendt, 1958, 58). If we return to Keynes’ weird beauty contest, the goal of the competition was not to understand the other contestants’’ perspectives, but to predict accurately what they would estimate the general opinion to be, and as such a kind of perversion of Arendtian judgment: We “win” (increase our profilicity) by distancing ourselves from our own perspective in order to accurately predict the general opinion about the general opinion – rather than appreciating various perspectives as the basis of our own individual judgment. In short, social media promotes behavior rather than action, poignantly summed up by Pitkin:

Behavior is rule-governed, obedient, conventional, uniform and status-oriented; action by contrast, is spontaneous and creative; it involves judging and possibly revising goals, norms and standards rather than accepting them as given. Behavior is routine, action unpredictable, even heroic. (Pitkin 1998, 181).

To the extent that our communicative activity on social media is geared towards increasing our profilicity it would be a perfect example of what Arendt calls the “bourgeois attitude”, except that the private goal in this case is social validation rather than material interests. A public good can never, she claims, be equaled with self-interest, however “enlightened” it might be, in that it has a different temporal character; the public good belongs to the world, it and as such it outlasts the lifespan of the individual. In fact, Arendt claims, the ”public good” – the concerns we share as citizens– are often antagonistic to whatever we may deem good for ourselves in our private existence. (Arendt 1977,105 and Arendt, 2003, 153). From an Arendtian perspective, the transformation of values into commodities that is implied by the theory of profilicity is therefore exceedingly dangerous, in that the conformism inherent in this search for validation would threaten our very capacity for independent thinking and judging.

The too harsh light

Arendt often uses the metaphor of darkness and light when describing the private and the public. The light of the public is, however, rather harsh, and we need the “darkness” of privacy as a hiding place to retreat to in order to act with courage in the public space. The blurring of the public and private sphere that characterizes the self-presentation on social media banalizes both our public and private lives:

A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense. (Arendt, 1958, 70-71).

When made public and cultivated for social currency, one’s private life becomes a caricature of itself. Certain emotions and moral qualities are simply not fit for public display, and can not “go public” without changing character. Compassion, love and goodness for example, can only thrive in the relative darkness of the private sphere: “the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation, since it is actually impossible, transforms all actors into hypocrites”. (Arendt, 2006b, 88).

Online communication is not isolated from “RL”, and various forms of public online shaming have severe consequences for the individual subjected to it. (For some striking examples of this, see Jon Ronson (2015). According to John LeJeune the prevalence of social ostracism is a symptom of the blurring of the private and the public that is so prevalent on social media. The contemporary forms of shunning ”suggests that no separation can be made between one’s public persona — the identity one assumes in public when one voices political opinions that seek to persuade, and when one acts on principles he hopes others will follow — and one’s private self, which has other, more basic, needs for security, comfort, and sustenance.” LeJeune (2018).

According to Arendt, the only remedies we have against action’s unpredictability are promises and forgiveness (cf. Arendt 1958, 237, 2005, 58-59). The act of forgiveness releases the individual from what she calls the “predicament of irreversibility” and allows us to, in some sense, undo the past and reconnect again. The theory of profilicity can therefore also shed some light on the rather unforgiving character of today’s online culture[21]. If there seems to be little room for forgiveness, trial and error, or even changing one’s mind in online communication, this is quite predicable given that – if we are to believe Moeller and D’Ambrosio – what we in fact are doing on social media, is not establishing relationships with concrete individuals, but rather a performance for an abstract general peer.

To speak and act in public where we disclose and expose ourselves to the gaze of strangers demands trust as well as courage (Arendt, 1994, 23). When we act politically, we send our words and deeds into the web of human relationships, and in order to be able to do so we must have a basic trust in our fellows’ goodwill and honesty. Under the condition of second order observation, however, what is rewarded is a highly vigilant self-presentation. Rather like Arendt’s parvenu who is engaged in continuous impression management, we must be on guard against spontaneous impulses, judgments or expressions that do not conform to the general peer, since the goal is social acceptance and validation (see also Pitkin 1998, 25). It seems to me, that under these conditions, we should not be surprised if participation in the social public sphere of social media is more likely to lead to anxiety and depression than any form of ”public happiness”. [22]



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[1] In some cases, especially where the traditional public space is heavily restricted or censored, social media can indeed function as a kind of proxy public sphere. See for example Abdulla (2011).

[2] For a thorough discussion of the (in) effectiveness of social media as a tool for political change see Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: How not to liberate the world (2011).

[3] See for example McAdam (1986) and Gladwell (2010). Interestingly, McAdam’s notion of ‘strong ties’ can support some of Arendt’s reflections on power as a social bond emerging from the binding force of mutual promising (See Bernstein 2010, 116). Social media, on the other hand, tends to create what Bratich (2012) calls ‘flashpublics’– a quick mobilization of attention towards a predefined political objective, served as a pre-organized package. However, others claim that there is insufficient empirical evidence to claim that “slacktivism” replaces traditional activism, and that online and offline political engagement is not mutually exclusive (Christensen, 2011).

[4] See Lorenz-Spreen et. al. (2022), Haidt (2022), Thi Nguyen (2020).

[5] See for example the MIT study by Vosoughi et al. (2018), based on ten years of data on Twitter. The researchers found that false news stories were 70 % more likely to be retweeted than true stories, and that false news spread six times faster, and reached more people than true ones. Furthermore, this effect was not due to “bots” – they spread false and true news at approximately the same rate – but was rather a result of human decisions.

[6]See for example Arendt (2006a, 252-253 and Arendt 1966, 351, 474 and Arendt 1995, 67, Arendt 2003, 43).

[7] See Tversky and Kahneman (1974).

[8] Facebook’s psychological experimentation in 2013 on ‘emotional contagion’ on nearly 700.000 users opens some rather chilling vistas regarding the power of such platforms to influence its users. (see Kramer, Guillory and Hancock, 2014).

[9] Evgeny Morozov, “Post-Truth as the Ultimate Product of Platform Capitalism”. Keynote speech at the Media Meets Literacy Conference in Sarajevo, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OH6DmI4x_qU

[10] “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s Magazine July 7, 2020. https://hac.bard.edu/amor-mundi/justice-and-vigorous-debate-2020-07-09

[11] These texts are Phänomenologische Interpretationen zu Aristoteles from 1921/22 (GA 61), “Phänomenologische Interpretationen zu Aristoteles. Anzeige der hermeneutischen Situation” from 1922, published in the Dilthey-Jahrbuch, Band 6/1989, Ontologie: Hermeneutik der Faktizität from 1923 (GA 63), Grundbegriffe der aristotelischen Philosophie from 1924 (GA18) and Interpretation Platonischer Dialog (Sophistes) from 1924-25 (GA 19).

[12]. When Heidegger in the 1930’ies turns away from the project of fundamental ontology and towards the “history of Being” he seemed to regard National Socialism as a kind of collective authenticity, where the resolute people takes the place of the resolute self in Being and Time. For a discussion of the links between the early and “middle” Heidegger, see Granberg, 2019.

[13] See Loidolt, 2018, 221-233.

[14] The Chinese image-editing apps by Meitu, for example, produce around six billion photos a month. (Moeller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 17).

[15] The beautiful faces correspond to stocks and bonds; their market value is not derived from inherent value or by what investors “genuinely thinks” about them, but by looking at how something is “seen as being seen”. (Mueller and D’Ambrosio, 2021, 124).

[16] Schullenberger suggests that while an ideological opponent or out-group member can be dismissed, the ”In-Group Contrarian” must be destroyed. Traditional societies, Girard argues, controlled mimetic rivalry in the form of sacrifice and ritualized violence, in order to maintain social unity. Schullenberger suggests that online behavior will follow the same cyclical pattern of resentment, outrage and expulsion of the scapegoat. All this, however, is good business for the platforms, which ”Like a bloodthirsty god […] feeds off of sacrifice” in a perpetual loop between deviance and conformity  (Schullenberger, 2020).

[17] For a more thorough discussion of the connections and differences between Arendt and Heidegger, see Granberg (2022).

[18] See Arendt (2005,108).

[19] See Arendt ( 2005, 18 and 2006a, 219, 237, 1992, 42-43.

[20]For a very thorough discussion of common sense, see Borren (2013).

[21] See Van Eecke (2021)

[22] See the quite damning exposure in the so-called “Facebook files in Wall Street Journal which showed that Facebook’s have been aware since 2018 that their platform causes psychological and social harm.

A Short Introduction to the Proceedings of the Conference “The Reason of Passions: Emotion and Rationality in the Landscape of (Contemporary) Politics”

We are well aware that political life has always dealt with passions. But today it seems, in fact, that the liberal, rationalistic approach to politics has been almost completely replaced by its emotional dimension. Therefore, it seems necessary to explore the changing ways in which thought and feeling, rationality and passion, reason and sentiments, have been understood both in practice and in theoretical discussions, focusing on their public standing.

This issue contains the refined version of the papers presented at the conference on this topic, held in a period of two days at the University of Bergen in November 2019. The conference was organised as a joint effort by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, and the Department of Antiquity, Philosophy and History (DAFIST) of the University of Genoa, Italy.

The purpose of this conference was to approach the topic of the relations between rationality and emotions, wondering which part do they actually play in politics. In many ways, politics is the art of persuasion and often people are indeed persuaded to position  themselves on a given subject by emotional appeals rather than reasonable arguments. Within the political sphere, both past and present, one can actually find a complex mixture of rational arguments and emotional discourses.

In the dominant Western philosophical tradition, the relationship between reason and emotions has been marked by a conflict between various contrasting models of rationality and emotions. The sphere of rationality and that of passions have been often categorized according to a fundamental dichotomy: either the triumph of reason against the weakness of sentiments or, in the popular interpretation of Hume, the triumph of passions over reason. This dichotomy has also served as a starting base for conceptualizing politics, where already early-modern political theorists defined political autonomy as reason dominating the emotions and passions.

In The Passions and the Interests (1977), Albert Hirschman described how, in the process of modernization, the “passions”, motivating social and political behavior were transformed into modern “interests” and they were thereby assigned the role of containing the social and political destructive passions.

Until recent times, theorists have described both political movements and political affiliation as based on beliefs, ethics, and sentiments. In the last years, though, an “Affective Turn” has taken place both in analytic and continental philosophy, and in contemporary political studies. Emotions and affects are now becoming the object of extensive, multidisciplinary studies that challenge political liberalism’s idea that the emotions must be relegated to the private sphere. This “turn” highlights that the political cannot be understood without reference to human feelings.

However, the fundamental dichotomy between emotions and reason has not at all been overcome in the forms of current politics. While it is true that, today, emotions and passions are returning to the centre of the political scene, they often do so in a passive form. Contemporary politics consists more and more in an abuse and manipulation of the passions. Social media, for instance, has redefined the public sphere in ways that allow charismatic, intimidating and even hateful rhetoric to stand unchecked by editorial control. The space of public discussion has also increased to the point where quick “instinctive reactions” replace careful reasoning. One could ask if the “affective” political change consists in an increasingly oppressive use of the passions as forms of domination. The active function of passions and the way they can contribute to the processes of political democratisation and the conscious involvement of citizens need to be duly analysed; albeit always keeping in mind that  passions are ambiguous, for any feeling within a given political context, even the noblest – compassion and love, inter alia –, holds its limits and presupposes dangers.

This motivates the following questions: Do emotions, of any kind, pose a dangerous threat to rationality and political life? What, for instance, becomes of democracy when a rigorous and rational language in political debates is replaced by one that focuses on emotions, like hope or fear? Is it possible to build  up a democratic society with no recourse to passions, mutual trust and a belief in the right of every individual to participate in the social and political debates? If so, what kind of emotions are positive and what kind of emotions do hinder this development?

A key aim of the conference was seeking to define the possible paths of reflection on this topic and study the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings” as a marker of the political arena.

The European research team that has long been engaged in social and ethical reflection about cultural changes in the modern and contemporary epoch chose to address these questions by a variety of approaches.

At the opening of the conference Anat Biletzki questions populism in the light of the relationship between reasons and passions, and wonders if it is an ideology or a tool. Retracing different definitions given by political scholars, Biletzki notes how some such as Kazin and Urbinati define populism as an instrument while others, such as Mudde, Kaltwasser and Pappas, consider it as an ideology. Through an in-depth analysis of the different forms of populism, the article highlights how, understood as a rhetorical tool, it can be used for the most different and contrasting ideologies of the right or left. If populism is an ideology, that is to say, a vision of the world that has people as the highest value, it implies a form of politics that combines reason and passion. And although on the right it can deteriorate into fascism, it can work on the left to extend democracy, as it requires to overcome a purely rationalist idea of ​​politics.

Some of articles have a common starting point in our time politics, that sees the advance of populism even in democratic countries; a populism characterized and also empowered by an emotional rhetoric, focused on what we could call negative passions such as hatred and anger.

Many papers try to understand this phenomenon and propose politically positive emotions, not without critical remarks. As Anne Granberg does: faced with Marta Nussbaum’s proposal to encourage socially positive emotions including compassion, she detects the limits of this suggestion and takes up Hanna Arendt’s observation that compassion is essentially an apolitical emotion.

After recalling several scholars, from Walter Lippmann to Edward Bernays and, closer to us, William Davies, according to whom politics was increasingly connected and based on both individual and collective emotions, Alberto Giordano highlights how post-truth and polarization threaten liberal democracy, since they persuade people to rely more on feelings rather than facts, in such a way as to manipulate collective decision-making. Recent suggestions to limit the influence of political emotions, such as epistocracy and e-democracy, seem not sufficiently sound both theoretically and practically. Giordano thus proposes an intergenerational republican compact as a possible and provisional solution to post-truth dilemmas.

More oriented towards overcoming the rigid dualism of reason and passions, Juliette Grange tries to define the “reasoned feeling”. After highlighting the convergence of the “affective sciences”, and the philosophical attention to emotions delivered by populism, Grange argues that the “reasoned feeling” is embodied by the republican passion for certain political ideals. Enthusiasm for an idea or an ideal, altruism and a culture based on knowledge and science, are basic traits of this feeling. The reasoned feeling is the founder of a civilization and a social morality proper to scientific and technical modernity. In order to be realized, this feeling must be combined with political rationality understood as a form of rationalism that allows “a plurality of axiological and social choices and the public space of their confrontation”.

The solution to the emotional dangers inherent in political options, regimes, opinions given by classical utopias is analysed by Jean Christophe Merle and compared with the imaginary dystopias of the 20th century. The utopias of the early modern times were proposed as a solution to the absolute political evil, namely discord, rivalry, desire to possess, domination and glory; and as an alternative to the classical theories of social contract. Dystopias, in so far as they constitute the opposite of the democratic and liberal rule of law, are based on the eradication of its members’ ability to think and act rationally. The failure of both shows the human inability to live without confronting the evil and the extreme difficulty in which attempts to resist the dystopian order often occur.

New signs of kindness and politeness to follow in social relations can help counteract the increase in passions and violent reaction in our democratic societies: here is Mirella Pasini’s proposal. After going over the old Galateo of Monsignor Della Casa and the new one by Melchiorre Gioia, she wonders if Gioia’s prescriptive goal of spreading civil education as part of the process of training citizens of a democratic nation could be a suggestion for our time. Almost the same proposal is virtually opposed by the agonistic and competitive rhetoric of the Norwegian public intellectual and author Georg Johannesen (1931-2005), illustrated by Hans Marius Hansteen, and proposed as a way to promote peace.

The speeches by Giorgio Baruchello and Pascal Nouvel, respectively, open to the epistemological dimension and the positive and negative role of emotions in the construction of knowledge, with its obvious ethical and political consequences.

Baruchello addresses the prejudice issue, whose area ranges from the cognitive sphere to the social dimension, according to a plurality and multiplicity of meanings that cannot be reduced to a single negative level. Faced with the inevitability of prejudice or the not-so-argued need to overcome it as a “poorly formed opinion, an unreasonable belief, an unjustified false assumption, a negative feeling”, Baruchello affirms the need to investigate its polysemy, also in the history of philosophical thought. By following this path, we could overcome prejudice as a source of error and bad behaviour.

Pascal Nouvel, on his side, questions the nature of political errors; because, if emotions and affects play a key role in politics, they can also play a role in political errors. A better knowledge of what is specific in political errors could therefore help to understand the relationships between reason and emotions, between rationality and “structures of feelings”. His starting point is the modern distinction – laid down by Machiavelli – between political errors and other fashions, with which they have long been mixed. In a brief “history of error”, Nouvel distinguishes four types, that is: perceptual error, conceptual error, moral error and, finally, political error, still not well defined. A key point is the distinction between moral error and political error, which appears to be speculative rather than factual. Understanding the nature of the political error can be useful in order to modify the affects: this is the basic thesis. As for the method, the narrative approach is in Nouvel’s intention a powerful way to manage political issues and, in some cases, avoid political errors.

The importance of political affections in contemporary European society is underlined by Paola de Cuzzani, who remembers at the beginning of her paper the rapid spread of growing xenophobic and racist sentiments, anti-Semitism, discrimination and violence against migrants, blacks and Muslims. For de Cuzzani the implications of these sentiments for the stability of our liberal democratic societies are evident. Spinoza’s theory of imitation of affects can help us in our attempt to understand the ease with which negative feelings come to be diffused even in the most civilized and democratic societies. It also clarifies the dangers that these negative feelings pose for the stability of the body politic.

It remains to be asked whether Spinoza’s lesson can also be useful in a positive way, in order to provide us with tools to fight negative affects, while not running the risk to erase affectivity but rather promoting a positive one.

Such is the legacy that this rich selection of papers offers for future studies and meetings of the research group.

Post-Truth, Polarization and Other Emotional Threats to Democracy

On a cold pre-winter evening in London, November 23, 2019, the celebrated comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was awarded a prize by the Anti-Diffamation League. During the ceremony, he delivered a passionate speech focused on the threats posed by fake news, new media and their intensive stimulation of the emotive sphere of individual citizens, linking it all to the crisis presently hitting Western democracies:

Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat; and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Today, around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. Hate crimes are surging as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history (Baron Cohen 2019).

As long as it goes, the speech raises many questions which deserve to be dealt with in academic debates as well. Why do emotions shape the arena of contemporary politics? Are post-truth and polarization the most powerful tools of the populist approach to politics? Do they pose a challenge to liberal democracy? How can we bring back rationality in public deliberation and political discourse?

In this short paper I will try to show how intellectuals are treating these issues, at first sketching briefly the role of emotions both in classical propaganda and contemporary analyses; secondly, I will focus on the dispute regarding post-truth and polarization by connecting these issues to the spread of populism. Additionally I will offer a critical survey of some up-to-date theoretical solutions to those dilemmas and finally try to assess a partial and provisional proposal, hopefully useful to build a working paradigm to take hold of passions and bind politics to a more rational and prospective approach.


Propaganda and Emotions

There is nothing new in the attempt to get rid of rationality and strike the emotional side of our perceptions. Walter Lippmann, in his classical study on public opinion, insisted on the gnoseological weakness of mankind and the persistence of stereotypes which, for a great number of individuals, were nothing but «an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 95). This is why war propaganda, in the years of WWI, had revealed so effective, since it was targeted to stimulate an emotional answer through a more or less overt appeal to stereotypes and prejudices.

But it was Edward Bernays to make clear, in some astonishingly explicit statements, that commercial and political communication was increasingly connected and grounded on both individual and collective emotions, shaped by a bunch of professionals:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. […] Trotter and Le Bon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions. […] By playing upon an old cliché, or manipulating a new one, the propagandist can sometimes swing a whole mass of group emotions. […] Men are rarely aware of the main reasons which motivate their actions. A man may believe that he buys a motor car because, after careful study of the technical features of all makes on the market, he has concluded that this is the best. He is almost certainly fooling himself (Bernays 1928: 9, 50, 51).

Bernays had learned much from his participation to the celebrated Committee on Public Information, created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to persuade American public opinion of the necessity to enter the war. The head himself of the Committee, the journalist George Creel, described its proceedings in terms of an attempt to convey public emotions in an effort to sell a product: the American commitment in WWI (Creel 1920). In fact it was precisely the industry of advertising, both commercial and political, to benefit more and more from the growing challenge to bypass the threshold of rationality.

It was precisely this phenomenon to be denounced by Vance Packard in his well-known book The Hidden Persuaders, where he spoke with the loudest voice against «the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions and our thought processes» (Packard 1957: 1). The pattern is still valid; something more needs to be added, though.

In the last decades, according to William Davies, the building blocks of modernity have fallen apart. And what we see is a widespread decline of reason in favour of a concrete state of public and private phrenzy:

The modern world was founded upon two fundamental distinctions, both inaugurated in the mid-seventeenth century: between mind and body and between war and peace. These two distinctions appear to have lost credibility altogether, with the result that we now experience conflict intruding into everyday life [] As society has been flooded by digital technology, it has grown harder to specify what belongs to the mind and what to the body, what is peaceful dialogue and what is conflict. In the murky space between body and mind, between war and peace, lie nervous states: individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feelings rather than facts (Davies 2019: xi-xii).

But if emotions rule the world, the political impact of this very fact cannot but be huge. Davies explicitly states that «feelings of nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear» were involved in «populist uprisings, as manifest in the victories of Donald Trump, the Brexit campaign and a wave of nationalist surges across Europe» (Davies 2019: xiv). And even though he is prudent and honest in admitting that these are mere symptoms, not the cause of nervous states, he nonetheless depicts a scenario which deserves to be fully appreciated:

Since the late nineteenth century, nationalists have sought to manufacture popular mobilizations by conjuring up memories of past wars and enthusiasm for future ones. But something else has happened more recently, which has quietly fed the spirit of warfare into civilian life, making us increasingly combative. The emphasis on “real time” knowledge that was originally privileged in war has become a feature of the business world, of Silicon Valley in particular. The speed of knowledge and decision making becomes crucial, and consensus is sidelined in the process. Rather than trusting experts, on the basis that they are neutral and outside the fray, we have come to rely on services that are fast, but whose public status is unclear (Davies 2019: xvi).

Therefore, we should address the following question: are post-truth and polarization somehow connected with contemporary populism and fostered by new media?


Post-truth, Populism and Polarization  

The phenomenon called ‘post-truth’ has been defined as «relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief» (Oxford Dictionaries 2016). Quite a controversial definition, indeed, since contemporary philosophy has been teaching us that “facts” and “truth” are very contested concepts (Schantz [ed.] 2002). Aside from the epistemological quarrels, however, Lee McIntyre has correctly suggested that «what is striking about the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is been challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance». But it’s not just that: «what seems new in the post-truth era is a challenge just not to the idea of knowing reality but to the existence of reality itself» (McIntyre 2018: xiv, 10).

Both points are essential in order to understand why the most relevant political events of the last 5 years are somehow connected to the post-truth paradigm. Quoting again from McIntyre’s brilliant research:

With the largely fact-free campaign over Brexit in Great Britain – where hundreds of buses advertised the bogus statistic that the UK was sending 350 millions euros a week to the EU – and the growing use of disinformation campaigns by politicians against their own people in Hungary, Russia, and Turkey, many see post-truth as part of a growing international trend where some feel emboldened to try to bend reality to fit their opinions, rather than the other way around. This is not a campaign to say that facts do not matter, but instead a conviction that facts can always be shaded, selected and presented within a political context that favors one interpretation of truth over another (McIntyre 2018: 5-6).

No surprise that Donald Trump revealed himself a champion of this trend. The day after his inaugural address the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told journalists that «this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe» (Spicer 2017). What’s the reason behind such a harsh statement? The fact that many international newspapers published a photograph which portrayed the not-so-exciting popular attendance to Trump’s inaugural compared to Obama’s 2009 (the most attended inaugural so far). The press reacted with both irony and dismay, criticizing the White House’s improbable strategy; so that the senior aide to the President, Kellyanne Conway, felt compelled to address the astonished NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd with a sentence that soon became considerably popular: «don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood…Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that» (Conway 2017).

It is common knowledge that populism plays with a wide range of emotions, in order to flatter ‘the people’: anger, pride, loyalty, hate, mistrust, insecurity and so many more. Populists, though, deal especially with fear: Ruth Wodak correctly wrote, in her most relevant book, that «currently we observe a normalization of nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and antisemitic rhetoric, which primarily works with fear» (Wodak 2015: x). And yet something new happened in the last few years: populism dances systematically with the denial of facts and dismiss the search for truth as a shared social goal. Why? The Australian scholar Silvio Waisbord recently offered a persuading response:

Populism rejects the possibility of truth as a common normative horizon and collective endeavour in democratic life. […] The root of populism’s opposition to truth is its binary vision of politics. For populism, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ hold their own version of truth. All truths are necessarily partial and anchored social interests. Truth does not exist as collective, common goal. A common truth is impossible given the essential nature of agonistic, conflict-centred politics. Instead, truth-seeking politics entails the reaffirmation of ‘popular’ truths against ‘elite’ lies. […] Facts never change the unfalsifiable premise of populism – the eternal division of ‘pure people’ and ‘evil elites’. This conception of politics turns into a political fantasy that cannot ever be proven wrong. Populism dismisses facts that challenge overriding narratives. No matter what happens, populism obstinately clings to the notion that elites are always in power and continue to distort the truth through their institutions. Populism can never be corrected by its critics. […] Preserving a populist, fact-proof narrative is necessary to safeguard the vision that truth is always on one the side and that lies are inevitably on the other side. Facts belong to one or other camp. Facts are not neutral, but they are political owned and produced. Post-truth communication is exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication (Waisbord 2018: 25-26, 30).

This being true, we’d find it easier to understand why populists foster polarization, mostly by means of social media. According to Cass Sunstein, polarization occurs «when members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ pre-deliberation tendency» (Sunstein 1999: 3-4). Because of polarization a free and fair public debate becomes virtually impossible since citizens are trapped inside the so-called ‘echo-chambers’. This is particularly valid when applied to many political communities online, most notably belonging to the alt-right (Neiwert 2017: 213-261). Polarization, of course, shouldn’t be confused with partisanship, which Jonathan White and Lea Ypi defined as «a practice that involves citizens acting to promote certain shared normative commitments according to a distinctive interpretation of the public good» and whose goal «is to make their concerns heard in the public sphere so that they may be brought to bear on the course of collective decision making» (White and Ypi 2011: 382). What is more, social media play a significant role in a wide series of collateral phenomena connected with polarization and the poisoning of public debate itself:

How might social media, the explosion of communication options, machine learning, and artificial intelligence alter the capacity of citizens to govern themselves? To the extent that social media allow us to create our very own feeds, and essentially live in them, they create serious problems. Self-insulation and personalization are solutions to some genuine problems, but they also spread falsehood, and promote polarization and fragmentation (Sunstein 2017: 5).

A recent report produced by the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS 2019) set forth a distinction between two types of polarization:

1) polarization by design;

2) polarization by manipulation.

The first is focused on the inner structure of social media and suggest that they «could be driving citizens apart by encouraging the dissemination of increasingly partisan and emotionally-charged content». But the second is even worse, since social media not only «have proven susceptible to amplifying the reach of polarising and conspiratorial content and spreading it into the public mainstream» but they host «influence campaigns designed to sow division and manipulate the public thrive» by means of «bots, junk news and propaganda». The result is that «these tactics have become entrenched in political discourse where foreign and domestic actors rely on them to influence political life» (EPRS 2019: 17, 24).

Post-truth and polarization, in sum, threaten democracy in so far as they emphasize disruptive emotions in order to manipulate procedures of collective (as well as individual) opinion and decision-making. The question thus now being: how can we anchor politics to a more rational pattern and minimize both the explosion of manipulated emotiveness and the dangers of authoritarian populism?


Two Alleged Remedies: A Critical Survey

Aside from ‘technical’ interventions (social media self-regulation, anti-fake news/hate speech laws, digital literacy etc.) we can find on the marketplace of ideas a bunch of normative approaches which aim to bring back rationality by means of two principles: knowledge and participation. In this paragraph I will offer a quick but (hopefully) consistent critical survey of the most relevant two: epistocracy and e-democracy.

In his ground-breaking book Against Democracy, the American philosopher Jason Brennan argues that we should give epistocracy a try given the (low) epistemic skills of the citizenry. In fact, he distinguishes between three categories of citizens, conceived as ideal types in Max Weber’s terms:

1) Hobbits: individuals who do not care about politics nor know anything about it. They may sometimes vote but their behaviour is irrational, and their ignorance certified.

2) Hooligans: deeply polarized and biased voters. They seek information only in so far as it confirms their political beliefs and «tend to despise people who disagree with them, holding that people with alternative worldviews are stupid, evil, selfish, or at best, deeply misguided».

3) Vulcans: a restricted minority of citizens who «think scientifically and rationally about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They are interested in politics, but at the same time, dispassionate, in part because they actively try to avoid being biased and irrational» (Brennan 2016a: 4-5).

Though admitting that the majority of democratic citizens belong to the first two groups, Brennan points out that the final destination of a political regime shouldn’t consist in investing Vulcans with power, given the fact that «no one manages to be a true vulcan; everyone is at least a little biased». But he is pretty sure that democratic participation doesn’t make us better: quite the reverse, the «most common forms of political engagements are more likely to corrupt and stultify than to ennoble and educate people» (Brennan 2016a: 6, 55), turning most citizens into hooligans. Therefore, we could and should put a strict limit to the damages caused by polarization, the rule of emotions and incompetence:

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence. The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent (Brennan 2016b).

Epistocracy, then, would put a brake to the disruptiveness of emotions by giving priority, in the participation to decision-making processes, to those individuals deemed rational and competent. Practical solutions may vary – restricted suffrage, plural voting, enfranchisement lottery, epistocratic veto or weighted voting (Brennan 2016a: 15) – but the inner logic is always the same.

On the opposite side of the political and theoretical spectrum, e-democracy theorists clam that digital technologies, and most notably the internet, may help us in re-shaping democracy as a shared practice grounded on the participation of any citizen to debate and decision-making. These beliefs have been cherished since the first days of the digital revolution; so that, for instance, Nicholas Negroponte claimed that «the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable» and that «computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living» (Negroponte 1995: 4, 6). Besides, being digital would have changed the face of politics like never before:

As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighbourhoods in which digital space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role. […] While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices. These kids are released from the limitation of geographic proximity as the sole basis of friendship, collaboration, play and neighbourhood. Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony (Negroponte 1995: 7, 230).

The last fifteen years have witnessed a strong and unprecedented «deployment of online decision-making platforms» that «has a clear utopian element» since it is «presented as the means of making politics more democratic and direct» (Gerbaudo 2018: 5). Of course we may find more technical and neutral approaches that focus on a new type of citizen, «surrounded by public administration digital services» and «the transition from his traditional role and behaviour to the new ones» (Ronchi 2019: 2). But the most relevant contributions to the e-democracy paradigm come from the recognition of the highly positive role of «the flexible organizational affordances and mass outreach potential of social media» (Gerbaudo 2018: 6) and digital technology in fostering popular participation both at a party level (such is the case of the platforms provided by Podemos, the Five Star Movement or the German Pirates) and, more broadly, in the realm of direct democracy, all over the world and particularly in Europe (Hennen et al. [ed.], 2020). Online participatory procedures, it is thought, not only will reduce the distance between the people and the establishment, but contribute to the attempt of neutering the emotion-led propaganda practices and bring the voice of public opinion inside the most sacred palaces of power – a reason very close to the one shared by those who support sortition as a means of selecting representatives (Van Reybrouck 2016).

Unfortunately enough, both epistocracy and e-democracy seem marked by a number of contradictions which would render them unable to stand as useful solutions to the dilemmas above mentioned. As to epistocracy, there is no serious guarantee – like many critics of Brennan’s account have duly noted (Christiano 2018: 68-72) – that superior knowledge necessarily imply more rational and less biased decisions, particularly if we forget to consider socio-economic cleavages and their effect on public opinion. What is more, granting every citizen equal political rights might help institutions to ‘sterilize’ emotions: that’s why Hans Kelsen classically praised proceduralism and mutual recognition between majority and minorities as the basis for constitutional democracy (Kelsen 2013 [1920]).

When it comes to e-democracy, we cannot but put forward the obvious reflection that, in absence of any instrument to lead individuals avoiding post-truth communication and polarization fuelled by social media, political participation by means of online platforms will not likely reduce personal and collective biases. This is why some authors have warned that «despite the promise to allow for a more bottom-up involvement in the political process, with authentic engagement from the base of participants in important decisions», it is «more top-down forms of democracy of the representative and plebiscitary kind that have ultimately prevailed in terms of the participation they have attracted and of the political impact they have produced» (Gerbaudo 2018: 127).

What do we need, then, to minimize the influence of post-truth, polarization and any other threat posed to liberal democracy by the predominance of unchecked emotions? In my view, we should try to implement a threefold strategy:

  • a long-term perspective embodied in an intergenerational constitutional compact;
  • the spread of informed and reasoned participation to decision-making;
  • the right to rational and discursive dissent within a democratic institutional arrangement.


A Modest Proposal: The Road Towards Intergenerational Republican Democracy

It is not my aim, in this brief, final section of the paper, to outline a plan able to translate into a comprehensive normative theory, but also to put into practice, the three aforementioned pillars. Rather, I will try to submit some modest suggestions for future attempts to sketch such a model, that I would provisionally label Intergenerational Republican Democracy.

As to the first point, it seems to me that the first step towards a more rational approach to politics must include the implementation of an intergenerational perspective in any field of the decision-making process. Intergenerational justice, we should recall, has made a significant comeback in the last decade (Gosseries and Meyer [eds.] 2012; Thompson 2013), substantially driven by the urgency to address environmental issues; but its scope goes even beyond this fundamental concern.

Even though we cannot accept the easy justification submitted by James Madison, according to whom «there seems then to be a foundation in the nature of things, in the relation which one generation bears to another, for the descent of obligations from one to another» since «equity requires it» and «mutual good is promoted by it» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 191), it wouldn’t be so hard to agree that an intergenerational, long-term view would suit the scope of rendering collective decisions less subject to manipulation, irrationality and haste. How? For instance, introducing into democratic constitutions the requirement for an intergenerational political compact, granting an equitable share to each generation’s future expectations in drafting the guidelines of public policy and law-making (even at a constitutional level) while binding every actor to the respect of fundamental human rights already enacted.

But how can each generation contribute to this complex procedure? By means, I would suggest, of a mechanism inspired by the so-called ‘deliberative opinion poll’ envisaged by James Fishkin (Fishkin 1991 and 1995), which consists in «exposing random samples to balanced information, encouraging them to weigh opposite arguments in discussions with heterogeneous interlocutors, and then harvesting their more considered opinions» (Fishkin and Luskin 2005: 287). The system would bear the advantages of rational deliberation – that is, being informed, balanced, conscientious, substantive and comprehensive – and political equality, since «every citizen has an equal chance of being chosen to participate» (Fishkin and Luskin 2005: 285, 286). This tool was conceived precisely in order to overcome polarization, misinformation and any other propaganda device, and seems particularly useful to supply policymakers with reasonable (in the Rawlsian sense) contributions, even from an intergenerational standpoint.

This all should be accompanied, in my view, by a series of special provisions which would grant a right to dissent very close to the model of ‘democratic contestability’ sketched by Philip Pettit, who maintained that «if a constitutionalist system of law is necessary for the promotion of freedom, then it should be clear that something else is needed too». This component may be represented by «the ideal of a democracy based, not on the alleged consent of the people, but rather on the contestability by the people of everything that government does», which practically means providing «systematic possibilities for ordinary people to contest the doings of government», in order «to ensure…that governmental doings are fit to survive popular contestation» (Pettit 1997: 183, 277). Institutionalizing dissent could possibly lead to freeze opposition conceived as a spread of polarized and biased hostility and foster constructive criticism within constitutional boundaries.

Are these approaches theoretically compatible? And will they suffice in establishing a working paradigm? I must confess I have no clear answers – not yet, at least. Likewise, it seems rather hard to make any serious forecast on the possible practical outcomes of the project, nor is this my main purpose right now. I just wanted to shed light on some troublesome challenges for each scholar in the realm of political sciences and start to add another little piece to the intricated puzzle of the long-debated connections between constitutional democracy, public opinion, populism and emotions in contemporary politics.



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Polarization and the Role of Digital Media

Group polarization is a serious and worrying phenomenon developing in democratic societies. It occurs «when members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ predeliberation tendency» (Sunstein, 1999: 3-4). As a result, after a discussion where different points of view emerge, people tend to align to the opinion they were already tending to, before the discussion itself. For example, if confronted with someone that supports a different position, people who believe that vaccines are linked to autism will adhere to their pre-existing perspectives with much more conviction; the same will occur between left-leaning voters or pro-feminist activists and so on.

This mechanism ‒ that creates extreme views in a group after deliberation ‒ clearly leads to a strong fragmentation on political and social issues and, in some cases, to the rise of extremism and fanaticism.

When society develops into factions that are not able to communicate and understand each other, democratic institutions weaken, because democracy needs a healthy public debate (i.e. open, constructive, balanced) to remain strong and vital.

Polarization is not a new problem, nor is a specific issue of the digital age. Groups tended to be polarized far before the rise of the Internet and social media.

How is polarization shaped by the peculiar characteristics of Web and digital environments, though? Is the Internet causing a more polarized public opinion, exacerbating differences and confrontations between different groups?

Through the review of the current state of the art, I will try to point out the main characteristics and issues of online polarization. I will refer particularly to the theories developed by Cass Sunstein, one of the first academic that has recognized the importance of group polarization in democratic societies. Then, I will analyse lots of empirical studies that have tried to examine the behaviour of online group users with the aim to give a precise representation of the phenomenon. Moreover, online polarization will be addressed as a result of three different causes interacting with each other:

  1. the individual one, represented by bias and heuristics (i.e. mental shortcuts based on empirical thinking);
  2. the social one, through the formation of echo-chambers;
  3. the technological one, with the rise of algorithms and the so-called filter bubbles.


Three Explanations for Polarization

Being polarized doesn’t simply mean having strong disagreements with others who share a different worldview: in a free society finding contrasting opinions is a sign of good health, not a manifestation of decadence. Diversity is a desirable virtue for a democratic society. But polarization goes far beyond this natural co-existence of divergent thoughts: it means having personal and «emotionally charged negative feelings» (Blankenhorn, 2015) towards those who think in other ways, that are recognized as members of an opposite, rival group. It’s “us” against “them”, in which “them” is the enemy, viewed as a group of people who are certainly wrong in their values and beliefs (while “we” are certainly right).

Why does this happen?

There are mainly three reasons why groups tend to polarize:

  1. persuasive arguments and information: people should change their minds according to the most convincing argument. But «if the group’s members are already inclined in a certain direction, they will offer a disproportionately large number of arguments tending in that same direction, and a disproportionately small number of arguments tending the other way» (Sunstein, 2017: 72). The limited argument pool will only reinforce pre-existing convictions, leading to group polarization;
  2. reputational reasons: people care about their reputation and want to be accepted by other group’s members. That’s why they tend to be aligned to the dominant position, while minority opinions dissolve in a «spiral of silence» (Noell-Neumann, 1984);
  3. confidence, extremism and corroboration: polarization increases when people feel more confident. If someone is not certain about an issue, then there’s less possibility that he might develop extreme beliefs about that issue, while extremism fosters polarization. Corroboration and agreement from other group’s members can increase someone’s confidence: like-minded people talking to each other become more convinced of their opinions and thus more extreme.

It’s also important to underline the role of traditional and social media in the development of polarization, as they are vectors of information and places that gather together homogeneous groups of people. News in newspapers, television and digital media can be reliable, truthful, or correct but never completely objective: there will always be a point of view, a shade of interpretation, a trace of subjectivity. Consumers and users choose the source of information that better fits in with their worldviews. Thus, Christians will address to newspapers that are near to the thought of the Church; right-wing voters to the ones that support the traditional values of the Right and so on.

Media, if devoted to one cause and openly partisan, can enhance polarization. This happened also in the past; but how has the Interned changed the situation?


Internet and the “Daily Me”

With the rise of the Internet, and in particular of the so-called Web 2.0 era (O’ Reilly, 2004), there has been a real shift of paradigm in the creation and consumptions of information, passing from a mediated (think about the traditional role of journalists) to a more disintermediate selection process. Users are more independent in choosing their source of information, because of the wide availability of contents on the Internet. Furthermore, on social media the exchange of info, from the producer to the consumer is much more direct and interactive: users can debate, react and contribute with their role to the success of a specific content. They can even create new contents, not being just a passive audience but turning into “prosumer” (Toffler, 1980).

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte theorized the “Daily Me” (Negroponte, 1995), a personalized and tailored made news package, containing only information previously chosen. We are not far from that. On the Internet, users have the power to filter what they see: they can subscribe to specific newsletters or channels (for example on YouTube) and deliberately avoid source of information whose values they don’t agree with. These developments increase individual power and entertainment. Filtering, by itself, is a normal and democratic process: in a free society no one is forced against his or her will to watch or read something. The present situation combines in worrying ways «a dramatic increase in available options, a simultaneous increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries» (Sunstein, 2007: 8). By “general interest intermediaries” Sunstein means newspapers, magazines, broadcasters which may bring to people not only the information they already look for, but also unwanted and unexpected information.

How does such condition affect polarization?

First, people on the Web can easily get connected to people with similar views: in like-minded groups opinions tend to polarize. In such environments, it’s also easier for individuals to self-segregate ideologically, building gated communities.

As a second issue, users of the social media are predisposed to look for information that confirms their system of beliefs. This could lead to extremism and a distorted vision of reality.


Of Biases, Echo-chambers and Filter Bubbles

I will now try to analyse the three different levels that combined together lead to group polarization on social media.

In spite of the theory of communicative rationality theorized by Apel and Habermas, human beings are not completely driven by rationality when they deliberate and take decisions. Human minds are regulated by two different thinking systems: System 1, dedicated to fast thinking and guided by emotional response and heuristics and System 2, connected to slow thinking, responsible of critical and logical speculation and needing more attention and cognitive effort (Kahneman, 2011). Each of them should be activated by specific situations. Heuristics, which are not linked to logical thinking but use empirical methods to decode reality, are useful only in certain circumstances: otherwise they can bring to distortions and misjudgements. Together with heuristics, individuals are affected in their excogitations by inclinations and prejudices, called bias, determined by personal experience and history, intimate beliefs, personality traits, and the socio-cultural context in which someone lives in.

There are many types of bias: confirmation bias is the most important aspect to be able to understand the role of personal inclinations of polarized communities online. It occurs when «one selectively gathers, or gives undue weight to, evidence that supports one’s position while neglecting to gather, or discounting, evidence that would tell against it» (Nickerson, 1998). Other two biases are important for the dynamics of polarized community: the bias blind spot (the inability to detect one’s own biases; Pronin, Lin, and Ross, 2002) and the bandwagon effect (individuals adopting the majority opinion; Nadeau, Cloutier, and Guay, 1993).

Personal inclinations can easily lead to the polarizations of one own’s beliefs: together with social influence (i.e. the process under which someone’s values, behaviours or opinions are affected by others), biases can result in polarization (Del Vicario, et al., 2016a; Bessi, Zollo et al., 2015a). This is what I describe as “individual level”: opinions tend to polarize because individuals are deceived by cognitive biases. During a discussion, participants will take as reliable only the arguments that confirm their pre-existing views, according to their system of beliefs, and reject those who contradict prior preconceptions. When in Internet, people are exposed to plenty of different opinions, but they will be naturally inclined to listen to the ones with which they already agree. This also proofs that «individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views. Instead, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly … a “backfire effect”» (Nyhan, Reifler 2010).

This kind of automatisms (bias and heuristics), which have existed since the dawn of times, have intertwined with digital technology in an alarming way, amplifying the diffusion of misinformation and disinformation and poisoning public debates in social networks.

The individual level of polarization on social media merges together with the social one.

Online spaces take shape as groups of social networks and subnetworks (Castells, 1996). These networks are mostly composed by people which share similar values and interests: this peculiarity is called homophily. That’s why on Facebook our “friends” are likely to be ideologically and politically homogeneous to us; that’s why on Twitter we follow mostly people which we identify with. «Similarity breeds connection» (McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook, 2001: 415). The tendency towards homophily is one of the causes of the formation of echo-chambers online (Bright, 2017; Barberá, 2017).

Echo-chambers are homophile clusters, digital environments that gather together homogeneous groups of people. Cass Sunstein has been one of the first academic to study them. On 2001, before the birth of social media, he wrote about the risk of fragmentation brought by these digital spaces, considering it a danger for democracy:

…it is important to realize that a well-functioning democracy—a republic—depends not just on freedom from censorship, but also on a set of common experiences and on unsought, unanticipated, and even unwanted exposures to diverse topics, people, and ideas. A system of “gated communities” is as unhealthy for cyberspace as it is for the real world. (Sunstein, 2001: 2).

Many studies have proved and investigated the existence of echo-chambers on different social networks (about Facebook: Bessi, et al., 2015a; Bakshy, Messing, and Adamic, 2015; Del Vicario, et al., 2016b; Quattrociocchi, Scala, and Sunstein, 2016; Bessi, et al. 2016; about Twitter: Himelboim, McCreery, and Smith, 2013; Colleoni, Rozza, and Arvidsson, 2014; Garimella, et al., 2018).

It’s not easy in echo-chambers to run into people that have different values and beliefs, because of their homophily. Inside of them, groups tend to polarize because some information and opinions are constantly echoed and repeated while others seem to disappear.

Group’s members see only what confirms their previous conceptions and live closed in «information cocoons» (Sunstein, 2017). Moreover, some studies have proved that members of groups that support opposite narrative (such as science vs conspiracy groups) are inclined to interact only with their own community while when they relate to others from different echo-chamber they do not communicate, but express only negative feelings or comments (Bessi, et al., 2015c; Zollo, et al., 2017).

Thus, all these elements put together ‒ confirmation bias, homophily and the isolated and deformed reality of echo-chambers ‒ lead to group polarization. It is also true that some researchers have found that not everyone is using the Internet to segregate in echo-chambers but only those who are already extremist and partisan in their views (Gentzkow, and Shapiro, 2011; Guess, 2016), although these subjects «exercise disproportionate influence» over the political system (Nyhan, 2016).

In summary, the technological element adds heavily to the mixture of biases and echo-chambers. Social media and search engines operate through algorithms, automatic procedures that using a predetermined number of steps aim to solve a problem. These technologies are mainly used for researching, content promotion, selection and filtering. Without algorithms, the average user would be lost in the depths of the Internet.

There are also collateral effects, that must be taken into consideration since they can lead to further distortions and deformations of the real, stimulating polarization and strengthening the effects of bias and echo-chambers (Flaxman, Goel, and Rao, 2016; Bessi, et al., 2016; Johnson, et al., 2017). Eli Pariser, one of the first academics to talk about this phenomenon, created the term filter bubble to address this condition (Pariser, 2011). Algorithms, by giving priority to certain contents, would isolate people in their own bubble, where alternative points of view struggle to enter. This happens because they «foster personalized contents according to user tastes—i.e. they show users viewpoints that they already agree with» (Bessi, et al., 2016). That’s exactly what is stated by a post from Facebook Newsroom about changes in the NewsFeed, published on April 21, 2016:

we make updates to help make sure you see the most relevant stories at the top… With this change, we can better understand which articles might be interesting to you based on how long you and others read them, so you’ll be more likely to see stories you’re interested in reading (Blanc, Xu, 2016).

Online platforms, through customization and the use of algorithms, give priority to the most relevant contents, but the logic behind this concept is questionable. What does the word relevant mean in such a contest? Is something relevant just because people would be interested in reading it? These tailored made services can bring to polarization because they corroborate people’s biases, by giving them what they already like or have searched for. Moreover, they reinforce the segregation of echo-chambers.



The most serious aspect of the “algorithm dilemma” is that the mediation operated by platforms to the most is unknown: many people do not even imagine according to which criteria Google or Facebook propose contents. In the same way, it’s difficult to recognize your own bias or the dynamics of echo chambers. Thus, people believe they are objective and well-informed, while their visions of the world are affected and influenced by mechanisms invisible to them. This makes emancipation even more difficult.

A homogeneous and cohesive group, isolation, and a little presence of contrasting points of view: these are the conditions that lead to group polarization. Polarization is well represented both offline and online. On the Internet, three different dynamics promote the development and spread of group polarization: personal leanings (individual level), the forming of gated communities called echo-chambers (social level) and the selective action of automatic algorithms (technological level). These elements could be considered three different kind of biases ‒ «bias in the brain, bias in society, bias in the machine» (Ciampaglia, and Menczer, 2018) ‒ that combined together isolate communities and strengthen fragmentation.



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Social Media – A Vehicle for Personalisation in Politics? Political communication before the 2017 parliamentary elections in Iceland

Politics are becoming increasingly personalized, the focus shifting from party policies to individual candidates. Throughout the world, social media plays a significant role in this transformation (Enjolras & Karlsen,2016; Garzia, 2011; Kruikemeier, et.al., 2016; Larsson, 2014; Small 2010; McAllister,2007; Meeks, 2017). The most common definition of the term personalisation phrases it simply as a dichotomous relationship between the importance placed on the candidate on the one hand and the party on the other (Chan, 2018).   Compared to other countries, Icelanders are very active on social media with 92% of the population owning a Facebook account, while 62% use Snapchat. Other social media are used less, Instagram 44% and Twitter 20% (Gallup, 2017). Electoral volatility has furthermore been on the rise in the last two decades with diminishing party loyalty and partisan dealignment (Harðarson, 2008, 2016).  Dealignment in turn creates a dynamic context for personalization and leadership focus vis-á-vis party attachments (Garzia, 2011; Garzia, et. al. 2018). This rising trend of dealignment, as Lobo (2018) has pointed out, correlates with the phenomenon of personalization (Lobo, 2018).

Precisely this tendency was felt in Iceland before the 2017 parliamentary elections, e.g. in the case of the now prime minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who had become more popular in the polls than her party (Jóhannsson, 2016. Magnússon, 2017).

Traditional media and their news values are partly responsible for keeping up the visibility of political leaders on the news agenda, as normally they are considered more newsworthy than ordinary MPs or candidates.  Thus, personalization is enhanced by the media, not only traditional media but social media as well. There are two cornerstones to all recent research into social media and politics: the Obama campaign of 2008 and the Trump campaign of 2016. These elections were not exclusively held nor won on social media but innovated its use to attract more attention and votes (Chadwick, 2017).

However, Scandinavian research has shown that in the fragmented hybrid media environment in European parliamentary democracies, social media have as well become a vehicle for non- leaders and newcomers who use these platforms proportionally more than their leaders (Blach-Örsten, et.al, 2016; Larson and Moe, 2014).

 The aim of this paper is to find out if politician´s usage of social media, not only of leaders, contributes to the personalization of the Icelandic political system, which has historically been party centred (Harðarson, 2008). This will be done through a content analysis of the posts on social media of top two candidates of every party in every constituency before the 2017 parliamentary elections and with post- election semi-standardized interviews with 5 party officials. We will explore whether social media is more party, or candidate centred, gaining insight into why that is and what we can expect to see in the future through the interviews. As no research exists on the effect of social media on personalization in Iceland, this will be the first attempt at such analysis.


Literature review

It should be noted at the outset that personalization of politics is not a new thing. It has been growing ever since the first televised debates, decades before the first social media emerged. However, electronic media have led to an accelerating pace of personalization (McAllister, 2007).

Social media does not determine who wins or loses an election, as the hybrid media system has led to all media being interconnected (Chadwick, 2013, 2017).  Indeed, people post stories from traditional media on social media and the traditional media covers posts from politicians on social media, the tweets of Donald Trump being an extreme case in point. Social media is, however, a very important tool in a system of hybrid media, where two different types of media logic, traditional media logic (one to many) and network media logic (many to many), interact and coexist in new and dynamic communication fora (Klinger & Svenson, 2014).  This is particularly important with respect to personalization as more votes are potentially available than   before because of the decline in partisan alignment which leads to more undecided voters (Garzia, 2011).

Drawing on the experience from many elections where social media has played a part, party officials and spin doctors have become more confident in the use of social media and less afraid to lose control of the conversation about their candidates on social media (Chadwick, 2017). The influence of individual candidates is based on their competence in social media and how well they can create a synergy between social media and the older, more traditional media. This is mostly up to the candidates themselves because in party centred democracies, professional help is mostly provided for party leaders (Enjolras and Karlsen, 2016).  However, as the Danish example suggests, one can expect politicians that are successful in this sense, “hybrid-media politicians”, to be younger than average, belong to different parities and come from a metropolitan area (Blanch-Östern et. al. 2017)

Research from Scandinavia has shown that use of social media by politicians is not high on a normal day, with spikes in usage mostly being connected to events in mainstream media and big political events. Usage will also pick up in the last few weeks before an election, especially when there is a political event in the mainstream media, reaching its peak on election day (Larsson, 2014). Politicians don’t seem to be using social media to keep in touch with their voters nor to get input. Their aim seems to be to preach to the masses when there is something they feel needs to be told, particularly when it pertains to gaining their vote (Larson, 2014).

When obtaining political information, social media is more important for younger voters whereas older voters use traditional media (Strandberg, 2013). The most influential users of Twitter do not consist of politicians holding top positions in their parties, but rather someone who is trying to make a name for themselves within the party. The average Twitter influential is male, young and rather centrally placed in his party (Enjolras and Karlsen, 2016). Social media has also been shown to be important in reaching citizens that are not exposed to campaign communication through other media as well as encouraging more voter participation in campaigns (Bor, 2014). Candidates do not only use social media to connect to voters but also to communicate to their own party in an attempt to gain more influence within it (Enjolras & Karlsen, 2016). Other research has shown that exposure to a Twitter account of a candidate results in higher political involvement, including greater voter participation, than only being exposed to an account of a party (Kruikemeier, et.al, 2016).

Most studies of the impact of social media on political communication and personalization are case studies and the trends found vary somewhat between countries and political systems.  Research in Germany suggests that social media has had little impact on already low levels of personalization (Schweitzer, 2008). In Canada, high levels of personalization were recorded in the use of Twitter by party leaders, mostly focusing on what they were doing or were going to do (Small, 2010). In Norway, social media was shown to be a mode for personalized political communication (Enjolras and Karlsen, 2016). Another research compared personalization between presidential and parliamentary systems, with personalization being higher in the presidential system but also found it to be increasing in the parliamentary systems (Garzia, 2011). This is because of the growing impact of public perception of party leaders on voting decisions and because the media now focuses more on individual candidates rather than issues, and when they do talk about issues they are normally tied to a candidate and depend on his popularity (Garzia, 2011; McAllister,2007).

It is however important to note that the degree and nature of personalisation does not only vary between countries and political systems but also within countries and between territories and constituencies. As Chan (2018) has convincingly demonstrated, territory matters and e.g. in large constituencies local or regional issues are likely to become prominent and result in personalised politics by candidates, that are not necessarily in line with the more central party line (Chan, 2018).

The social media revolution is not something which only new parties are using to get listened to by voters, old parties have taken in social media as one of their communication tools. Research on the Icelandic hybrid media condition has shown that the emergence of new media has not had a great empowering effect on new or disadvantaged parties in Iceland (Guðmundsson, 2016). This in turn supports the normalization hypothesis, which says that the more established parties will have an advantage on social media due to having more of the resources needed to be successful (Schweitzer, 2008 and 2011; Lilleker et.al., 2011; Larson and Svenson, 2014; Larson, 2014). The new parties also look at the old media as being just as important as new media, although there is a degree of variation between parties (Guðmundsson, 2016). Other research has shown that parties in Iceland mostly think of social media as an advertising medium. A way to tell people what is going on in the cheapest, most efficient way or to tell voters what they can do to help the campaign, not to interact with voters or allow them to influence policy (Bergsson, 2014; Guðmundsson, 2014). Also important is the finding that communication officials in Icelandic parties tended to think that too much politics on Facebook would discourage voters’ attention, the point of Facebook being to post pictures and tell people where meetings would happen (Guðmundsson, 2014).


The Icelandic context

Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic with just under 350.000 inhabitants. Over two thirds of the population lives in the Southwest of the country in the capital Reykjavík and surrounding area. The Icelandic parliament, “Alþingi”, is unicameral and has 63 representatives from 6 multi member constituencies, elected using two tier proportional representation (d’Hondt). Of those members, 54 are elected through proportional results in each constituency while the other nine are divided proportionally to parties, who reach the 5% threshold, to make up the national results (Harðarson, 2008). The party system has been characterized by a four-party domination with no party outside the traditional four ever being elected for more than four terms. The Pirate party, which has served three terms, is the longest serving current party outside of the established four. The established four parties have combined received more than 85% of the votes in most elections since the beginning of the current party system in 1931. That proportion has however been significantly less in the last few elections. The traditional four parties are the conservatives (Independence party), which has been the largest party in every election except in 2009, the agrarian/centre party (Progressive Party), which has historically most often been the second biggest, the social democratic party (currently Social Democratic Alliance) and the socialist party (currently Left Greens). The parties on the left have periodically been restructured but it has always led to the same four types of parties. The norm in Iceland is majority government with no formal blocks, neither on the left nor right and the big four parties have all participated in a majority at some point with each other (Harðarson, 2008). Turnout in Icelandic elections is high compared to other countries, only once going below 80%, and voter volatility has also been relatively high, most often over 10% since 1971. The Icelandic system is a party-oriented system with high party discipline (Harðarson, 2017).

The Icelandic media system did not break party ties until around 1990 with all papers before that time having a direct or indirect link to a specific political party. The current media have all been accused of having some party orientation or working for the interests of their owners. Iceland has, compared to other countries, liberal rules for the ownership of media (Guðmundsson, 2016). This is most likely because of how hard it is to have many media companies in such a small market (Harðarson, 2008). The biggest player in the market is the state run public broadcaster RÚV which operates two TV channels (RÚV, RÚV2), two radio stations (Rás1, Rás2) and a webpage (ruv.is). Other big players are telecommunication- and other private companies and include Vodafone, Síminn and Árvakur. All in all, there are more than 20 TV channels in Iceland, over 30 radio stations and 2 daily national newspaper and several others.


The 2017 elections

The election on the 28th of October 2017 was an early election that came one day short of a year after the last one. It was the third early election in Iceland since 2008 and the second in a row. The election was caused by the Bright Future Party leaving a government coalition with the Independence Party and centre-right Reform Party. This was due to an alleged breach of confidence that had to do with an application to restore an honour program for ex-convicts wanting to get their criminal records cleaned. Issues relating to the program had been a hot topic on the news in the months leading up to the fall of the government, with a former child-molester getting his “honour” restored and then going on to repeat his offences. The alleged breach came with news that the prime ministers father had in a different case in the past signed a recommendation letter for a convicted child molester, something the prime minister knew about for two months without telling his coalition partners (Harðarson & Önnudóttir, 2017). After the 2016 elections it took more than 2 months to form a government, so instead of trying to form a new majority, Prime Minister Benediktsson dissolved the parliament on the 18th of September and announced new elections in six weeks’ time (Harðarson, 2017). Despite the moral reasons behind the early election, the campaign was conventional, focusing on issues such as health care, economic stability, welfare and taxes (Harðarson & Önnudóttir, 2017). Turnout in the election was 81,2%, just higher than the record low of 79,2% from 2016. Eleven parties ran in the elections, 9 ran in all constituencies, and 8 of them got candidates elected into parliament. The outgoing majority parties all lost seats in the parliament, with the Bright Future dropping out of parliament with only 1,2% (-6% from the last election). This was the fourth consecutive majority to suffer a loss of more than 10%, with only 7 out of 22 coalitions since the 1931 elections gaining votes. The old big four parties only obtained 64,9% of the votes a slight improvement from the 62,1% they obtained in 2016 but still a historic low (Harðarson, 2017). The fact that the elections were held on such short notice may have impacted the focus on social media.


Research questions

The aim of this paper is to see if social media platforms are mainly a vehicle for personalized politics in Iceland, a historically party centred system. While news values of traditional media and their programming and editorial structure tends to put focus on party leaders and party spokesmen, the more fragmented and horizontal structure of network media logics of social media platforms gives space to individual candidates. Thus, the aim is to find out to what extent political communication in social media is party-political and to what extent is focuses on the candidates themselves. Clearly, in a hybrid media system, there is no definite criteria on the proportion of certain type of content to determine whether or not a platform is predominantly a tool for personalization, but it can be suggested that if one half or more of the content is of a personal nature, the platform can be considered a vehicle for personalized politics.  This research subject will be approached through posing four interrelated research questions that deal with the type of content in social media platforms before the 2017 parliamentary elections in Iceland. Also, the difference between candidates and parties as well as individual social media platforms will be explored.

RQ1. Are social media a platform for personalized politics in Iceland? This basic question aims to establish through measurements what kind of content is posted on social media platforms.

RQ2.  Is there a variance in the social media use of candidates?  It is unlikely that all parliamentary candidates use social media in the same way and it is of major importance to draw out the differences with respect to variables such as the party of candidates, geographical area, gender and whether a candidate was elected or not.

RQ3. Is there a difference between the ways in which major social media platforms are used?  This is an important question as while many studies have been done on the role and use of different social media all over the world, e.g. Twitter (Jungherr, 2016), very few if any have sought to establish the difference in use of individual social media platforms.

RQ4. Is social media use mainly orchestrated from central party organizations to boost party centred communication or a united party line?  Through this question an insight should be gained into the role of party organizations in the social media use of candidates.



The four research questions will be dealt with in two ways. Three of the four questions will mainly be answered by way of content analysis of the posts of parties and candidates on social media in the run-up to the elections. One question, the one on the relations between the central party organization and the autonomy of individual candidates will be explored through half – standardized interviews with party officials from five of the nine parties that ran in all six constituencies.


Content analysis

The content analysis was done in the last two weeks before the election on the 28th of October 2017 starting on the 14th and ending on the 27th of October. Only the 9 parties that ran in all 6 constituencies were followed, with 8 of them eventually being elected to parliament. The top two candidates on the party lists for each party in each constituency were followed, as well as the official social media accounts of the parties on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Each post was coded into one of three categories.

Category 1, non-political personal: the posts were non-political and mostly consisted of the candidates telling people where they had been or where they were going, as well as pictures and posts saying how lovely some place or people were.

Category 2, political personal:  consisted of posts where the candidate was defining his own policies, defined by phrases such as “I believe”, “my view is” and “if elected I will” etc.

Category 3, political non-personal: This category consisted of party policies, with statements such as “my party believes”, “our party wants to…”, and so forth.

To answer RQ2 the data was analysed in the light of 8 variables. These were: gender, constituency, leadership position, party, if a candidate was elected or not, if the candidate was from an old or a new party, how active candidates were on social media, and if the posts came from a party account or a candidate account.

Facebook was the dominant medium with 97% of candidates and all 9 parties posting on there at least once during the two weeks analysed. Snapchat was barely used, with only two parties and two candidates using the medium during the campaign. Twitter usage varied greatly between parties, ranging from candidates of the Bright Future Party posting on average 28 times per day to not a single tweet from a candidate from the Peoples- or Centre parties.



The half-standardized interviews focused on party officials mainly responsible for the social media communication strategies of the respective parties. The purpose of the interviews was to deepen information acquired through the content analysis and in particular to establish the role of the central party organizations in the social media use of candidates and in dictating a party line. However, the interviews were only half- standardized and thus not confined to this topic, allowing the interviewees to initiate and offer points that they thought to be important.  The interviews were both conducted face to face and through telephone. They were taped, typed up, coded and analysed into themes.  All in all, there were five interviews with officials from five different parties that stood in all six constituencies.



There now follows a discussion of the results, starting with results of the content analysis in light of the three relevant research questions, on the content and variation in use of different social media platforms. Then the interviews will be analysed to add understanding about the research question on the relations of central party organizations and candidates and the role of social media in the overall communication strategy of the parties.


Content analysis

The results from the content analysis are primarily based on Facebook data because of the lack of posts by politicians on Twitter and Snapchat. It should however be noted that 84,3% of the coded communication on Snapchat falls into the non-political personal category (category 1), but the significance of this is limited because of the lack of posts and posters (only 108 total posts). Twitter is also too small in the research to be convincingly important but a general comparison between Twitter and Facebook will however be introduced below.

Personalized vs. party accounts: Figure 1 provides a positive answer to the first research question, suggesting that social media (Facebook) are dominantly personalized tools in Icelandic political communication.  When the average of all posts posted on Facebook during the campaign is considered, we find that personal posts, both political personal and non-political personal posts constitute some two- thirds of the whole (63%).   The difference between the types of posts from parties on the one hand and candidates on the other is striking. Parties post to a much larger extent political posts (52%) than the candidates do (35%).  While communication by the candidates themselves can be said to be dominantly personalized this is not so for the official party communication although it is only just under the 50% mark.















Figure 1  The average communication on Facebook by parties, candidates and the general average.


Variance in social media use: Next, we turn to an examination of the variance in the use of social media platforms which was the subject of the second research question. Specifically, we shall look at the following variables: party leaders vs. other candidates; differences between parties; differences between constituencies; differences between metropolitan areas and the regions; differences between men and women; and finally difference in the posts of candidates that got elected and those that did not.

 Party leaders:  Figure 2 shows a comparison between the 9 party leaders and the 10 most active candidates on social media.  Personal posts from both groups are above the 50% mark, with both party leaders and the 10 most active candidates at 64%. Despite the amount of personal posts being similar for both these categories there are a lot of internal differences, the 10 most active candidates have similar amounts of communication from all categories, therefore they differ from the average by having more personal political and less personal non-political (category 2 and category 1). Active posters therefore seem to post more of their own political thoughts than the average candidate and less non-political material. Some 46% of the posts made by party leaders fell into category 1 (non-political personal communication) but at the same time they only have 18% from category 2, political personal communication. This can probably be explained by the leader representing the party and therefore the party´s policies are also personal policies. Furthermore, leaders receive more attention in traditional media and do not need to profile themselves politically on social media to the same extent as non-leaders.















Figure 2 The average of the type of posts on Facebook from the party leaders and the most active candidates.


Party differences: The results regarding the difference between parties show quite a clear distinction between the new parties and the old traditional parties. Although the social media communication can be said to be dominantly personal (category 1+2) for all the parties, the established four had by far the highest number of personal posts, or an average of 76%, while the average of personal posts was 59% with new parties. Candidates from three of the four traditional parties, excluding the Social democrats, had more than 50% of their social media communication coded as non-political personal, while that average was only 32% for the new parties (Figures 3 and 4).

It can therefore be suggested that the newer parties look at social media as a platform to introduce their policies to voters and that their candidates look at these media more as a political tool than do the candidates from the big four. Both the parties that were running for the first time (Centre party and People’s party) had a very high proportion of party-political communication on social media. Only one other party, the Bright Future had more than 40% of its communication from the political non-personal category. The big parties use social media more to connect with voters in a personal way and show the human side of their candidates.















Figure 3 The average of the type of posts from candidates by party.















Figure 4 A comparison of the type of posts by candidates of the big four parties and the new parties on Facebook.



Difference between constituencies

There is a big difference between the social media use of candidates from different constituencies. Candidates in all constituencies were found to have personalized posts, although there was some difference, especially between the capital area and the countryside constituencies. Comparing the 3 constituencies that make up the capital area (Reykjavík-North, Reykjavík-South and South-West) against the three that make up the regions (North-West, North-East and South) it can be seen that both are dominantly personalized. However, an interesting difference lies in how much more emphasis candidates from the regions seem to put on non-political personal communication versus their own politics and the politics of the party. The fact that they emphasise category 1 (non- political personal) communication more than candidates in the metropolitan constituencies is potentially due to the sheer size of their constituencies, the three constituencies outside of the metropolitan area cover vast territories. Here Chan´s (2018) point on the importance of territory probably kicks in. Purley practical reasons are also at play, as many posts are informing people where the candidates are or will be. The North-East clearly stands out with the value for category 1 by far the highest and party-political communication the lowest.















Figure 5 A comparison of candidate communication on Facebook depending on which constituency they are from.















Figure 6 The difference in social media communication between the capital area and the countryside constituencies, on Facebook.


Gender differences: Gender does not seem to be a significant variable in determining what candidates post on social media. Both males and females post dominantly personal posts. In all categories the difference seems only marginal. Neither men nor women being more dominant in one category than another.















Figure 7 Differences between the communication of female and male candidates’ communication on Facebook.


Elected candidates vs those who didn’t get elected: Finally, it is hard to draw conclusions from the posts of those who did get elected and the ones that did not. The nature of the Icelandic political system, with party lists and proportional representation as well as the different size and following of the parties call for a careful interpretation. But the results indicate that it is not necessarily good for politicians to be very political – at least not on social media!  Those who got elected are much more personalized and non-political than the candidates who did not get elected. The candidates who failed to get elected also had slightly more communication coded as political non-personal.















Figure 8 The difference between the Facebook communication of those candidates who did get elected and those who did not.


Facebook vs.Twitter: As mentioned above the results are based on the Facebook part of the research project because of the lack of activity on Twitter and Snapchat. RQ3 however asks about the difference between the ways in which the major social media platforms are used.  As pointed out earlier, Snapchat was not much used in the 2017 campaign and to the extent it was used its use fell into the category of non-political personal communication.  Twitter on the other hand, is a more popular platform with politicians and it is interesting to compare the results of Facebook to those of Twitter. Both gateways can be said to be personalized, although Twitter is only just over the one-half line, with 52% of posts on average coded as personal. Twitter is much more political than Facebook, and with 68% of the Twitter posts coded in two political categories, Twitter can be said to be dominantly political. But with only 42% of its posts coded as personal it is much less personalized than Facebook. Candidates use Twitter as a political medium much more so than Facebook, that is to say, those candidates who have a Twitter account in the first place and are actively using it.















Figure 9 There is a clear difference between the two social media platforms as Facebook is more personal than Twitter which has almost one-half of its posts “political non-personal”.




When analysing the interviews, five main themes came up that were considered to have impact on how the parties and candidates acted on social media. The analyses are mostly based on Facebook which all interviewees perceived as the most important social medium for political communication in Iceland, because as one interviewee said, “that’s where the people are”. The themes are the following:

  1. Candidate freedom and external professional help: The extent to which the candidates control what they post on social media and how much help is available to them.
  2. The effects of the short run-up to the elections: How the fact that parties only had 6 weeks to plan for the election changed their focus on social media and the content that they posted there.
  3. Negative ads on YouTube: How did reacting to negative ads change the focus on social media?
  4. Targeting and voter data: The extent to which the parties tried targeting groups on social media and what voter data they used to inform those decisions.
  5. The perceived personalization of social media: What was, according to the party officials, the main theme of the party communication during the election.

Candidate freedom and external professional help: All interviewees said that there had been some professional help for candidates in how to use social media but that it had mostly been in teaching candidates how to use social media and explaining what kind of material worked best, without being directly instructed what to put on social media or how to present it. Although they all added that it was very important that everyone in the party was talking about the same thing, sometimes there was a need to intervene when someone was drifting too far off the party line.

The effects of the short run-up to the elections: The 2017 elections were held with only six weeks’ notice, although normally party officials have years to prepare for an election. The general agreement was that such a short notice made it harder to put out quality material and be ready for the social media conversation and they all would have wanted more time to work on the content. One interviewee said:

It had an impact as we didn’t have any material (to post on social media) and sometimes we didn’t have the time to create it which made things more difficult.”

There was also a general agreement that the role of social media had increased due to the lack of time for making material for other media, or to plan as many meetings as would have been in a normal election year. In the words of one official:

“The difference between the elections of 2016 and 2017 is enormous. All the power went into social media, much more than it would have been if we would have had a longer notice.”

Negative ads on YouTube: The 2017 elections were the first in Icelandic history to have a significant number of negative advertisements. These mainly came from anonymous sources or independent actors not directly or openly connected with a political party. There were ads against every party, but the Left-Greens and Social Democratic Alliance took most of the heat. The officials from both of those parties mentioned this as the biggest challenge they faced in the 2017 elections. They said a lot of work went into trying to answer those on social media, and both thought they had mostly failed in responding.

Targeting and voter data: The focus on how parties use voter data and how much they try to target voters through social media has been very prevalent in all social media research since the Obama election of 2008 (Chadwick, 2017). There was a wide range in how much parties tried to target the audience for their messages ranging from the Left-Greens only targeting by location in preparation for regional meetings to the Social Democrats, Reform party and Centre party saying they tried to target most things that was sent out in the name of the party. They all used some form of voter research in deciding what to put out and who to target, for example targeting labour workers for labour issues and women with equality measures.

The perceived personalization of social media: One theme that came up in the interviews was if the party had focused more on presenting political issues or candidates. The Social Democrats, Reform party and Centre       party all said they focused more on policy issues while the Independence party had focused more on interacting with voters. But the Left-Greens focused more on the candidates or as their official said:  “Our emphasis, although we always had policy in the bits, was on Katrín [Jakobsdóttir]. It (the focus) was on the candidates and mostly on Katrín.”

Themes summary: Viewing these five themes considering RQ4 it becomes evident that the candidates have considerable autonomy in their advocacy and in pursuing personalized political communication.  The interference of the central party in the electioneering of the ordinary candidates is mainly of a technical nature, providing training and skill in the operation of social media platforms and providing some targeting information, to help candidates to be more effective in their posts. Furthermore, the complaints that preparation time was short to produce material for the campaign, points to an important role of the central party organisations in providing stuff for candidates to post and share, with their own personal additions and comments. Other concerns that emerge in the interviews support the view that in European parliamentary systems the ordinary candidates are pretty much on their own while the central party organizations focus more on party leaders (Enjolras & Karlsen,2016; Blach-Örsten, et.al. 2017).



The findings presented in this paper suggest that social media is indeed a vehicle for personalisation in politics in Iceland. This is an addition to other forces that have contributed to an increase in personalisation, such as the decline in partisan attachments and general political dealignment in Iceland in recent decades and the news value focus of traditional media on personalities.   In this sense it can be argued that Iceland is threading the same path as other parliamentary democracies. However, this might be of special consequence in Iceland because dealignment and distrust in the political system escalated after the financial meltdown in 2008 and the massive shock and sense of political corruption that followed and exploded in the “pots and pan” revolution (Bernburg, 2016). At the same time there is considerable distrust in traditional media and its professional integrity (Guðmundsson, 2016). This makes the influence of social media even greater than in neighbouring countries where traditional media is stronger and has a richer professional heritage. As the trustworthiness of institutions, parties and media has declined, the importance of the trustworthiness of personalities increases and these personalities express themselves largely through networked logic of social media platforms.  This expression can e.g. take the form of new parties or candidates offering their services, claiming to be more trustworthy than existing politicians. This expression can also appear within parties as a candidate in quest of more trust seeks to distance himself from a party which has lost trust, or at least to demonstrate some independence from it. This line of reasoning would indeed rhyme with party-splits and the increased number of parties standing in elections in Iceland since 2013.  Individual candidates seem to have considerable autonomy vis-á-vis the central party organisations in the way in which they use social media – with limits though – for their own personalised political campaigns.

 Another important element is highlighted in the findings connected to the relations between the central party structures on the one hand and the candidates on the other. It seems that elements of “presidentialism” which has been highlighted in the literature (e.g. Lobo, 2018) can be seen in the close cooperation between the central party organisations and the party leaders.  The similar nature of the posts by the party organisations and the party leaders suggests that the leaders might be controlling the agenda of the party rather than presenting it, which indeed is a form of personalisation. And the variance in the forms of personalisation and the rather slack central control is still furthered by the territorial difference which can be seen to be in line with findings elsewhere (Chan, 2018).

Earlier research on media use by candidates in Iceland suggested that new and small parties could not claim an advantage over older parties on the grounds of new media gateways such as social media, even though these media were readily available and inexpensive, simply because older and established parties also use these media (Guðmundsson, 2016). This study adds an important point to that discussion, namely that new and small parties seem to use social media in a different manner than the more established parties. While the established four tend to be more personalised on social media the new and small parties seek to use these platforms to spread political messages, possibly because of lack of other means of communication.

Thus, the findings in many ways compliment findings from elsewhere and the general literature, but the Icelandic case study also adds to and sharpens the understanding of personalisation in general. One last point should be mentioned as it is of major importance, not only for further study of social media and politics in Iceland but for such research in general. There is clearly an important difference between the ways in which politicians use social media platforms.  Personalised politics are clearly more practised on Facebook than Twitter. Indeed, Twitter is quite political, which needs not come as a surprise as it is in many ways an elite medium for politicians and journalists and has been widely studied as such (Jungherr, 2016). In light of the finding presented above is becomes precarious to talk of social media as a single entity with the same general characteristics. That would clearly be an oversimplification of the situation in Iceland and the role of Facebook on the one hand and Twitter on the other.



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