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Social media and resurgent ethno-nationalism in Greece

Final Report Summary - SMARTETHIC (Social media and resurgent ethno-nationalism in Greece)

This project aimed to contribute in a distinctive way to the rapidly growing body of research on the changing profile of European politics, in which much anxious attention has been given to the rise across the continent of extremist groups and movements, and ‘populist’ parties and leaders. Greece is an important site for such research, given its long-standing turbulence and its economic difficulties. In recent years these have led to it becoming a site for a dramatic demonstration of the tensions between the ideals and reality of the European Community on the one hand, and large bodies of opinion in member countries on the other. It was the first European country in the present era in which a frankly neo-fascist organisation became a significant political force. Amidst the abundance of academic and media attention being paid to such developments, there has been a growing realisation that public emotions are a key factor in understanding and responding to them, and that some forms of psychosocial research into the emotional drivers of support for populist and extremist groups is therefore necessary.

We sought to go beyond or behind a focus solely on popular feeling directly about those groups, to consider the way that Greek media and public debates have formed negative emotions and perceptions on democracy itself and how it works, and to examine how these broader attitudes fuelled by such emotionally-based perceptions might have functioned to create a political opportunity for extremists in the context of the crisis. This involved the study of the shifting contours of Greece’s party democracy during and after the parliamentary elections of 2015. At a more specific level, we aimed to profile the repertoire of emotions characteristic of Greek right-wing extremists, and to study the online networks within which transmission of these emotions might occur.

To these ends, the project has involved the collation and study of datasets of television news coverage of the 2015 Referendum, and of Twitter activity. The core finding to emerge is that much of the contemporary polarisation of Greek politics is based psychologically on feelings of humiliation, shame and resentment which are probably widespread in the Greek public. There are clear sources of these feelings in the history of the last century as well as in the more recent events stemming from economic crisis. Today’s mainstream and social media play a role in maintaining and elaborating these feelings, but they must also be seen in relation to deeper and more long-term aspects of culture and psychology. While the existence of these emotional drivers is now increasingly acknowledged, the explicit task of addressing them in ways that might neutralise their toxicity is less often approached, but is one to which the work of this project might contribute.

Alongside working on specific components of the project, the Fellow has been active in contributing to public engagement with research in this area, through appearances, commentaries and analysis in current affairs media drawing on her research and expertise. She has also been actively collaborating with researchers in Greece and at the University of Oxford, and has made numerous conference presentations. In 2016 she was invited to take up a fixed-term research post at the Centre for European Studies in Oxford, and the Fellowship was suspended for ten months to enable her to accept that offer. This was a prime career development opportunity, bringing contact with a wide range of expertise highly relevant to her Marie Curie project. It gave a substantial additional dimension to her experience of working in the UK, and to her immersion in interdisciplinary cultures of inquiry. It was followed by her success in securing a permanent faculty position in the Politics Department at the University of Exeter, commencing at the end of the project.

At a macro level, we sought to examine the way that Greek media and public debates have formed negative emotions and perceptions on how democracy works, and to decode the mechanism through which such emotional stocks might have functioned to create a political opportunity for extremists in the context of the crisis. At micro level, we aim to profile the repertoire of emotions of the Greek right-wing extremists through the new social media, and to establish whether and how this interactive communication has favoured the Golden Dawn. While the emotional drivers of extreme right wing (XRW) organisations have been studied in a number of countries, and common patterns have emerged, there are variations and specificities which must be understood if the influence of particular XRW parties is to be fully understood and responded to.

The empirical base was to be in the collection and analysis of data from social media and from Greek television, specifically in the production of datasets from Twitter and mainstream television news programmes. In 2015 the researcher worked with Dr Stamatis Poulakidakos of the Media Lab of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens to extract the television news programmes that were broadcast during the period of the referendum. In total, more than 3623 minutes of news content has been collected, corresponding to the full coverage of the referendum campaign on national television news programmes.

In 2016 the researcher worked on several occasions with a team of computer scientists from the University of Athens (Ioannis Katakis, Pantelis Agathangelou, Dimitrios Gunopoulos) on the extraction of Twitter messages. Three large sets of Twitter datasets that were relevant to the research have been collected. In order to capture variation over time and between periods of different political intensity, the researcher defined two 3-month periods of political campaigns and different kinds of elections, and one period of routinized politics. Overall 12.5 million tweets have been extracted.

Work on the analysis of these datasets continued throughout 2016, as the research design on big data evolved after the valuable feedback given by various colleagues. The execution of tasks as envisaged in the 24-month plan in Part B of the project proposal was not exactly followed, as training opportunities and the need to spend some data collection time in Athens influenced the schedule. However as reported in the interim report, and in the application to suspend the project in September 2016, work proceeded broadly in line with the projected researcher-months. As can be seen from the details in section 3. below, the Fellow took the initiative to seek out and apply for a number of different trainings, which throughout the life of the project have been adding skills and perspectives to her intellectual resources.

The main outputs of the project are not all published at this point; one is still in preparation and it is planned to submit it to the target journal in June 2018. The list of publications below show the productivity of the Fellow throughout the period, some being spin-offs from background research for the project.

The research conducted on Twitter networks has been particularly innovating and substantial both in terms of methodology and findings. In a nutshell, the researcher examined how the emergence of new cleavages is reflected in the online political world and what dynamics it produces between different political spaces. She brought into discussion the phenomenon of online polarization in multi-party systems, which has been a lacuna in existing research stemming from the fact that most relevant studies focus on the US two-party system. The resulting paper proposes and utilizes a novel method for advocates’ identification, an algorithm that assigns citizens to political spaces based on their activity in social media. The paper tests both theory-driven and tentative hypotheses by introducing measures of political cohesion, communication density and network visualizations.