Far from being disengaged from politics, young people have found a political outlet in social media. Such activism is happening both online and offline as political messages are becoming increasingly visual, says ERC grantee Eeva Luhtakallio. She is studying this “in between space” in four European countries. Through a mixture of ethnography and computational analysis of Instagram posts, she is looking at how younger generations are engaging in politics in new ways, and are reshaping the public sphere.
The climate movement offers striking examples of “this new way of doing politics”, which Eeva Luhtakallio’s team is observing across social media. “In the early 2000, climate groups did post images of polar bears on melting ice, but their political communication involved charts and things borrowed from science”, she points out. “Today, climate groups are using dramatic visual elements in their political messages. Extinction Rebellion, for instance, creates theatrical events, such as their Red Brigade. These performances take place on streets, but crucially, they are filmed and then posted on social media and hopefully go viral. That is the whole idea: the more these videos are shared, the more they are commented on and the more impact they have.”
The pursuit to create impact through visual branding extends beyond climate activists, says Luhtakallio. “Established politicians, especially the younger generation, are very dependent on their social media presence. The scandal of the dance video by the Finnish prime minister is a good example. Her ‘brand’ is both dependent on her posting visual material and weakened by the very thin line between posting something that is worthwhile and something that might not be.”
Moreover, social media has given a platform to groups that previously had difficulties getting their voice heard. “The ‘speech’ based public sphere is quite demanding with regards to how you are supposed to word your claims, and present yourself”, Luhtakallio explains. “When you have mental health issues, for instance, you might not be able to go to a committee hearing or a demonstration. Similarly, homelessness activists have found a way of visualizing homelessness by posting series of pictures of cities and places where they have slept rough. Among mental health groups, an important strand is posting crying selfies, and going against the positivity norm of social media.”
Whilst trying to grasp how political action is exactly changing under the influence of social media, IMAGIDEM collected ethnographic data in several ‘fields’ in Finland, France, Germany and Portugal via a method specifically developed for the project, the ‘snap-along’ ethnography. Luhtakallio: “This approach draws on the ‘walk-along’ method, which is about following people in their daily activities and having them talk about what they are doing. We have taken that to the social media world, and to the interface with the physical world. The young people who participate in the project work very closely with the researcher, who follows them and their social media communications for a long period. The emphasis is on the future: the young activists that we are following may become the political leaders of tomorrow, for example. So we are interested in knowing more about how this visual politicization is changing political culture.”
The online data collected – mostly from Instagram, but also from TikTok and Twitter – include images that are prevalent in different political groups. These have been categorised and used to create a training set for a neural network, an AI-based programme addressing image and similarity recognition. “We have trained the neural network for almost two years now; it has been very complex”, Luhtakallio says. “We are now in a very exciting phase: we are going to start exposing the network to loads of visual data from social media. We hope to find new types of protest that we haven’t picked up on otherwise, and national, local or activist group contextual differences that we cannot study in another way because the mass of images is so huge. “
A next step is to compare the political images of today to archival material from the early twentieth century. The research team is collecting images of significant political events, such as big protests, in the national photo archives of Portugal, Finland, Germany and France. “We will compare the archive images to the online data to see what has changed”, says Luhtakallio. “What are the new elements, which ones we cannot find anymore today? What will it mean for the nature of protesting?”
Asked about the most surprising result from her research, Luhtakallio responds: “the amount of strategic thinking and the new kinds of tactics that visual politics creation demands of activist groups, and how big a part of their action this is when they plan a public performance or a demonstration. These groups often name a person to be in charge of social media and visual presence. This changes the internal logics of activists groups, and the way they do politics.”
“There is also a lot of critique from within the activist groups on being submitted to the algorithmic logic of social media: they are very much aware of how social media lifts things up or silences others and of the capitalist corporations that run social media platforms. It is a very interesting bundle of political necessity and political critique,” Luhtakallio says. “Theoretically, the project draws on recent European strands of pragmatism, so we follow the action and how people engage. We are looking at what happens to theoretical concepts when justification becomes visual and instead of deliberation or a written or spoken argument, an image is the key element of political debate. To me, this is promising and very exciting. We will be able to suggest that there is a new transformation of the public sphere going on, different from the one that German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was talking about.”
Eeva Luhtakallio is Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki. She is specialized in political and visual sociology, social theory, and methodology. Her research focuses on democracy and citizenship as mundane practices. Luhtakallio leads the Centre for Sociology of Democracy as well as the ERC funded project “Imagining Democracy: Young Europeans becoming citizens by visual participation”. In Practicing Democracy as well as articles published in the last decade, Luhtakallio addresses everyday political action at different levels, engaging with theoretical debates concerning e.g. the plurality of the common good and definitions of civic action.