Lockdown of the Public Sphere? Value Contestation and Digital Mobilization during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Focusing on the emergent social and political conflicts surrounding COVID-19 and the role of social media in creating, disseminating and shaping conflict, this project analyses the dynamics of value contestation and political mobilization in European social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. It aims to understand the appeal of anti-lockdown protests and to propose (counter-)action scenarios that can strengthen the resilience of democratic public space. Using an innovative visual analysis approach, we carry out an in-depth study of a single social media platform (Instagram) for six countries across time, expecting the study to obtain new insights and methodological tools for tracking the patterns and resonance of digital mobilization.
Who can forget the recent photos of protestors attacking the German parliament in the wake of new COVID-19 restrictions? Across Europe, other anti-COVID restriction protests have presented similar pictures. Behind these mass events was a complex web of motivations, connected to a range of basic underlying values: civil rights and liberties, freedom of speech, data security, the need to safeguard vulnerable social groups (such as care workers and migrants), gender equality, and the authority of science. In some countries (Ireland, the UK), the demonstrations were clearly right-wing and populist; in others (e.g., Poland), they were either unassociated with any specific political position or (e.g., Spain) combined both right- and left-wing positions. These differences aside, a closer look at the protests reveals certain commonalities: all of them veered away from the trend towards digital mobilization, opting for an in-person, urban format; all used social media platforms to spread their message and mobilize broader constituencies, mainly by appealing to underlying value conflicts already present among users. How can we make sense of these protest dynamics? How deeply did they resonate within and across European societies? Did they further divide the European public and deepen existing value polarizations, or—on the contrary—call into evidence the resilience of the European public sphere?