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Encouraging Network Generation’s Accountability and Global Engagement

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ENGAGE (Encouraging Network Generation’s Accountability and Global Engagement)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2016-08-31

What is the problem: One of the main challenges facing European society according to the EU Youth Strategy 2010-2018 is to encourage young people to actively participate in society. This is essential, in order to safeguard democratic development and processes that give young people from different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities and genders a say in shaping their own future. It is therefore vital to develop deeper knowledge of how and where this younger, more Internet savvy generation participates in public debate, what different political and social views are being expressed and what kinds of new forms of political and civic actions are being taken. We need more insight into- and knowledge of the practices that take place on social media, specifically through image sharing within what can be identified as an emergent visual digital media public.

Impact society: Young people represent the individuals who will form the core of our future society. Consequently, exploring the perspectives young people have on Europe and to better understand how they engage in shaping its future is crucial for the long-term success of the European project. The project addressed young people’s digital practices and online participation in society as a valuable knowledge area for future democratic processes and participation, focused on understanding and mitigating new forms of political and civic engagement within the digital visual cultures and social network societies that young people from Norway and the United Kingdom are a part of. The new and deep insight from this project has significant value to policy makers, youth-organizations, NGOs, practitioners and educators who need to better understand how young people can be involved in future societal frameworks and politics.

Overall objectives: It is vital to develop better knowledge of how and where the young, Internet savvy generation participates in public debate, what different political and social views are being expressed and what kinds of new forms of political and civic actions are being taken. The ENGAGE project takes up this challenge within Europe through an innovative and comparative research design and by concentrating on developing knowledge based on young people’s user-experiences and digital visual practices within two different European cities: Sheffield (UK) and Oslo (Norway).
Work performed: In the research project Encouraging Network Generation’s Accountability and Global Engagement (ENGAGE) I examined the overall patterns of civic and political engagement that arose online after the image of Alan Kurdi went viral on Twitter the 2nd of September 2015. I analysed the overall patterns of how the image of Alan Kurdi spread and circulated in debates on Twitter in Norway and the UK as well as analysing the overall themes that came up in the discussions on Twitter in Norway and the UK related to the image. The project also investigated the cultural context of which these patterns and themes took place among young adults (18-34 years old). In order to answer the aims and objectives in this research, ENGAGE applied a mixed methods design of quantitative and qualitative methods.

Main results: ENGAGE has investigated how the image of the death of Alan Kurdi contributed to reshape the conditions for active involvement among young people in Sheffield and Oslo. The iconic appeal of the image stems from its ability to articulate an abstract conception of recognition through figural composition in combination with its circulation through social media and ordinary people’s affective and coordinated enactment with it. During the two weeks in September 2015 that I focused on, charity organizations and RW-groups represented networks of people with porous boundaries, yet representing spaces where people engaged civically and politically. Despite political, cultural and socio-economic differences, despite differences in young Britons’ and Norwegians’ trust in the government and politicians, the image of Alan Kurdi elicited an initial affective response that raised awareness of the refugee crisis among the younger generation, which in turn generated engagement and mobilisation. Whether these new forms of engagement have the capacity to affect politics remains to be investigated.
"Beyond state of the art including socio economic impact:
One image’s ability to move people and bring them together around new values is a central aspect related to iconic images and their agency. The iconic image of Alan Kurdi may have motivated dominant narrative responses that functioned as an ‘affective intersection’, where central yet often disparate political currents and actors met. The affectivity experienced by the involved subjects in this research connects individual and collective practices and feelings to social meaning. This approach encourages awareness of bodily capacity being constantly shifting and redefined based on relations with other bodies and forces in the world. In addition to this, an image’s agency is not only located in the individual picture, but also ‘in the circulation of the image, its proliferation and durability in the whole sphere of visual culture’. The research emphasize that social ties are based on collective, shared stories that underwrite social relationships compose distinct types of social ties. The assemblages of the many young volunteers and the collective actions seen in my research were a response based on a collective shared story. The research shows that one image had the capacity to convert something abstract, distant and complex into something concrete, proximate and simple, which had affective significance.

The research bridges small scale data with big scale data as well as theories from feminist media studies on affectivity and social sciences and ICT – bridging methods and initiatives that often are interwoven within different disciplines and hence disjointed, which results in fragmented knowledge. The synthetization of disciplines, knowledge and methods has provided insight beyond state of the art in the field: Results from the interdisciplinary project shows that emotions and affectivity bring abstract political ideas close and somehow physical, and contribute to expand the circle of what is close and what we care about. In this case, the image of Alan Kurdi did not function solely as a by-product, but with its agency and affective power, supported by transportable social media channels and groups, it allowed for public assemblies and responses. This is not to say that the image of Alan Kurdi determined young people’s preferences, values or actions, yet it underscores the way in which the image was perceived and young people affectively responded to it, together shaping social assemblages based on connective emotional felt experience to which common meanings were assigned.
The novel insight from this project can contribute to recalibrate school curricula; it provides insight for future studies and points toward a richer understanding of the impact of images in a digitally connected world, vital for policy makers, NGOs and practitioners. The multifaceted understanding on the ""network generation"" correlations with new communication tools, is a much requested knowledge for governments and policy makers who are in need of advanced literacy in order to support the prevention on radicalization and extremism.