5.4. The public arena examined

As we have seen, the public arena is a crucial element of democratic societies, linking communication to political competition and democratic representation. It comes as no surprise then to find that the concept has inspired massive research activity. The digital transformation of the public arena has featured very prominently in recent research. The diversity of interests, approaches, and methods in studies on the contemporary digitally extended public arena mirrors the richness of the concept and its related areas. Prominent topics include:

  • the detailed examination of structures hosting the public arena, their constitution, contextual embeddedness, and shaping power for discourse and political competition;

  • shifting and competing norms and practices among actors within the public arena;

  • changing patterns of political competition within the digitally extended public arena and the emergence of challengers to the status quo;

  • patterns of exchange and interaction within the digitally extended public arena.

This short list is not complete by far but it sketches some of the rich research opportunities within the public arena. To get a better sense of it, we now turn to three studies that address related questions empirically.

5.4.1. Limits to attention

The big challenge in the contemporary digitally extended public arena is the question of attention. By now we have repeatedly discussed that the contemporary public arena is no longer limited by access or the volume of information. Instead, its limits are set by the limits of individual and collective attention. Winning in the intense competition for attention is of crucial importance for actors within the public arena. While academics, need to understand the underlying dynamics and associated limits. A recent study by Rauchfleisch, Siegen, and Vogler [2021] illustrates how one can do so.

In their article "How COVID-19 Displaced Climate Change" Adrian Rauchfleisch, Dario Siegen, and Daniel Vogler examine whether attention to one issue of grave societal importance - climate change - was replaced by attention to another issue of great urgency - COVID-19 - or whether attention to both issues and the associated challenges persisted. They examine this by analyzing the presence of both topics in media coverage and on Twitter in Switzerland between April 2019 and October 2020. They collected news coverage on news websites, newspapers, and transcripts from TV and radio newscasts which left them with 1,060,820 articles during the relevant time span. Of those 56,128 stories referred to climate change and 174,407 to COVID-19. 6,431 stories referenced both debates. For the analysis of Twitter, they relied on a tracker covering the whole Swiss Twitter-sphere during the time frame (this includes 296,553 users who posted 92.7 million tweets during the relevant time span). Through a set of topical keywords, the authors identified tweets referring to either topic, leaving them with 407,626 tweets referring to climate change and 3,214,483 mentioning COVID-19.

The authors built two time series of news and Twitter attention to both topics. To identify the causal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the attention on climate change in the public arena, they use the data from April 2019 to January 2020 and predict based on the underlying trends how attention to climate change would have developed from February 2020 to October 2020 if COVID-19 had not happened and the underlying dynamics of the previous year would have continued. By identifying the difference between both, their prediction and the actual coverage dynamics, they can identify the impact COVID-19 had on attention toward climate change in the news and on Twitter.

As expected, the authors found that after February 2020 attention in both news and on Twitter toward COVID-19 increased while attention toward climate change clearly decreased. Still, some events related to climate change created attention peaks in both the media and Twitter and overall Twitter attention toward climate change was strongly correlated with news attention. These findings echo earlier research, indicating a strong and persistent link between news coverage and Twitter attention to current events or politics [Jungherr, 2014].

Comparing actual attention toward climate change with predicted attention, the authors show that COVID-19 clearly had negative effects on attention toward climate change. For both news coverage and Twitter reactions, the authors find substantial negative effects, lowering news attention to climate change 46% and attention on Twitter by 55%. This is clear evidence for the limits of attention in the public arena overall, where the prominence of a new topic - COVID-19 - comes at losses for another - climate change - irrespective of its continued relevance to society. This is clearly troubling news from the perspective of climate activists or politicians intend on keeping continuous attention on the topic in order for society to keep focus on maintaining efforts in fighting climate change.

In a further analytical step, the authors show through the analysis of co-occuring hashtags that climate change activists reacted to the decrease in collective attention by trying to link the issue of climate change with the issue COVID-19. Here, they find that only 0.5% of tweets contributing the COVID-19 debate referenced climate change, while 11% of tweets within the climate debate referred to COVID-19. This and looking closely at the connecting hashtags, leads the authors to conclude that climate activists tried to tactically adjust to the new circumstances and connect their issue of relevance - climate change - with the issue of the day - COVID-19.

In its use of both, time series analysis and the analysis of hashtag co-occurances, the study by Rauchfleisch, Siegen, and Vogler [2021] provides a helpful template for further research. Their study shows how one can approach issue attention and attention drifts in empirical research as well as examine tactics by actors within the public arena to mitigate or profit from shifts in collective attention.

5.4.2. Digital shaping of behavior

Another strand of research looks at the behavior of people contributing to online discussions about politics and current events. Often these studies focus on the hostility of contributions in online environments and explicitly or implicitly connect a perceived tendency toward hostility with specific conditions of online discourse. For example, digital environments would allow people anonymity, low accountability for their actions, and physical distance to others. In combination, these factors would activate people's negative impulses and turn them into trolls, ready to engage others in a hostile fashion or even to harass them. In short, the internet might turn people into trolls. This set of expectations has been called the "mismatch hypothesis". If true, this of course would provide bad conditions for the digitally extended public arena. Luckily for us Bor and Petersen [2022] put this thesis to the test.

In their article "The Psychology of Online Political Hostility" Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen present a series of comparative studies, in which they test the effects of conditions found in digital communication environments on people's behavior in discourse. To do so, they ran a series of surveys with respondents from the US and Denmark, to test whether expectations from the mismatch hypothesis would correctly predict correlations in their surveys.

In the words of the authors, the mismatch thesis states that:

"(...) this class of effects imply that the "perfect storm" of novel online features (e.g., anonymity and rapid text-based communication) induces fleeting psychological changes that increase the likelihood of certain psychological states that undermine civil discussions (...). Simply put, when people log online their level of empathy is reduced or they become more aggressive than usual."

[Bor and Petersen, 2022], p. 2.

The authors contrast this expectations with the connection hypothesis:

"Online environments are unique in creating large public forums, where hostile messages may reach thousands including many strangers, could stay accessible perennially, and may be promoted by algorithms tuned to generate interactions (...). From this perspective, online environments do not shape how people are motivated but shape what they can accomplish given a specific set of motivations. The hostility gap may thus emerge as a direct consequence of the larger reach of those already motivated to be hostile."

[Bor and Petersen, 2022], p. 2.

This is an important distinction. While people might experience discussions in online environments as more hostile than those offline, this might not be due to people turning into ogres online but simply due to that those behaving badly are more visible online than offline. The underlying problem would then be primarily psychological and motivational, not technological. So, how do Bor and Petersen [2022] test this?

In a first set of three studies, the authors survey respondents from the US and Denmark to find first evidence. They find that respondents in both countries perceived online discussions to be more hostile than those offline. Respondents themselves did not express differences in their own behavior that one could consider hostile between online and offline discussions. And they find that the personality trait status-driven risk seeking is no stronger correlated between self-reported hostile behavior on- or offline.

They build on these findings in a fourth study by using a more comprehensive scale to measure self-reported hostile behavior. They ran this study with respondents from the US. Again, they find no difference between self-reported hostile behavior on- or offline. In combination these studies do not support the mismatch hypothesis.

The authors continue to refine their findings and test different aspects of the mismatch thesis in three subsequent experiments. We skip these studies to focus on their test of the connectivity thesis. Let it suffice then, that the experiments also do not provide evidence for the mismatch hypothesis.

In a final study, the authors test the connectivity hypothesis. For this they survey people from the US and Denmark on whether they had witnessed attacks against self, friends, and strangers in on- or offline environments. Here, the respondents clearly reported to have witnessed attacks more often in online instead of offline environments, with the strongest difference being reported for attacks on strangers.

In combination, the authors see their findings as rejecting the mismatch hypothesis:

"(...) our research suggests that people do not engage in online political hostility by accident. Online political hostility reflects status-driven individuals’ deliberate intentions to participate in political discussions and offend others in both online and offline contexts. In large online discussion networks, the actions of these individuals are highly visible, especially compared with more private offline settings."

[Bor and Petersen, 2022], p. 16.

The article offers an instructive example for the challenge of identifying the drivers between perceived hostility and deviance in digital communication environments. While it is tempting to attribute digital technology causal effects on people's deviant behavior, it might simply be that digital make more of hostile behavior visible. That alone does not solve the problem of hostility in the digitally extended public arena, but it helps us to identify its drivers and to design interventions.

Beyond the substantive interest, the study offers also an interesting template for careful empirical work presenting a set of carefully designed studies first translating broad expectations into testable hypotheses allowing for the identification of different mechanisms leading to similar outcomes.

5.4.3. Contesting narratives

The public arena consists of spaces that hosts discourses in which societal actors compete for attention and dominance. The digital manifestations of this competition offer us a detailed view of the content, patterns, and tactics of this competition. Especially, the microblogging service Twitter has proved to be a promising research environment to better understand the competition between actors for attention in the public arena. But other digital environments, such as Instagram or Reddit, also start to feature more strongly in research. One example for such a Twitter-based analysis is a paper by Knüpfer, Hoffmann, and Voskrensenskii [2022].

In their paper "Hijacking MeToo: transnational dynamics and networked frame contestation on the far right in the case of the '120 decibels' campaign" Curd Knüpfer, Matthias Hoffmann, and Vadim Voskresenskii analyze the #120db campaign on Twitter. In late January 2018, members of the Austrian and German far-right Identitarian Movement launched a social media campaign. The goal of the campaign was according to Knüpfer, Hoffmann, and Voskrensenskii [2022]:

"According to their German website, their core goal is the conservation of an 'ethno-cultural' identity, in what is referred to as 'the age of mass migration, globalization and one-world-propaganda'."

[Knüpfer, Hoffmann, and Voskrensenskii, 2022], p. 1012.

In this, the activists encouraged women to

"use social media posts to 'talk about your experiences as a female with foreign infiltration, harassment and violence'."

[Knüpfer, Hoffmann, and Voskrensenskii, 2022], p. 1012.

In the campaign far-right actors latched on to the momentum and frames established by the feminist #MeToo campaign. But this association is merely rhetorical and stylistic - for example through videos imitating the style of grassroots testimonial videos. This is a shift from tactics of the past, where far-right activists might have actively and openly challenged successful frames presented by left or feminist activists. Here, instead of openly challenging or contesting the frame, they try to co-opt it and refocus attention away from the original goal - exposing and challenging sexist behavior and practices condoned by a patriarchal social system - to their own political goals - painting migrants as a broad societal threat.

"The campaign did so by drawing explicit attention to acts of violence against women perpetrated by 'foreign' men or recent immigrants. This form of strategic frame contestation is not characterized by an outright dismissal of the original framing effort but, rather, by a narrowing of the original problem definition and the propagation of a different set of policy demands."

[Knüpfer, Hoffmann, and Voskrensenskii, 2022], p. 1014.

This tactic is what the authors term "hijacking".

To analyze this tactic, they collected tweets containing the campaign hashtag #120db through the Twitter streaming API between January 30 and May 31st, 2018, the run of the campaign. During that time, they collected 172,972 tweets from 44,834 unique user profiles. Of the tweets mentioning #120db roughly ten percent were also mentioning #MeToo. The authors see this, and specific temporal and language patterns, as evidence that the originators of the campaign very actively tried to use the attention on #MeToo to launch their own campaign and inject their contesting frame within the larger #MeToo debate. One tactic to achieve this was the attempt to inject their specific regional claims within a larger international debate.

The authors continue their analysis, through a qualitative look at the content of messages using both hashtags. Here, they look for the occurrence of three tactics:

"First, agenda surfing is characterized by encouraging and progressive/feminist messages, usually referencing #MeToo without evaluation. Second, re-framing/undermining features a critical evaluation of #MeToo, accentuating the seemingly more accurate problem definition of #120db. Third, critical/anti-120db tweets included negative evaluations of #120db, and sometimes also of #MeToo."

[Knüpfer, Hoffmann, and Voskrensenskii, 2022], p. 1021.

The authors handcoded 123 tweets containing both hashtags that were posted during the first 48 hours of the campaign according to their correspondence with these tactics. Here, the authors found that tweets with co-occuring hashtags were dominated by a critical stance toward the #120db as well as those trying to actively reframe #MeToo following the far-right agenda. Mere agenda surfing tweets were in the minority. This shows that activists from the far-right as well as from the original #MeToo movement actively engaged in frame contestation around the concerned hashtags. With far-right activists pushing into the campaign and attention space generated by #MeToo and activists in that space pushing actively back and defending the movement from this attempt at hijacking attention and momentum.

Of course the study by Knüpfer, Hoffmann, and Voskrensenskii [2022] addresses other questions as well. But for our purposes, this is enough. The study is an interesting close look at the tactics used by activists within the public arena in their competition for attention. It is also interesting as it presents a case for Twitter-based and discursive activism from the far right. Often, these tactics are discussed with a focus on left leaning groups. But as Knüpfer, Hoffmann, and Voskrensenskii [2022] show these tactics can be successfully employed from the political right as well, weakening the argument that campaign tools or styles can be owned or associated with specific factions on the political spectrum. Associated imbalances in the literature are more likely due to skewed attention by researchers than by actual differences between tactics or approaches between different political factions.