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The silent revolution of fraternity. Using digital methods to study togetherness.

Team members

David Hielkema, Nina Eshuis, Nina Rijnierse, Charlotte Nijhuis, Rae Alexander, Jueling Hu, Lisa Fluttert, Anja Duricic, Darsana Vijay, Jade Favre, Sophie Wandzilak, Meriam Telhig, Priscilla Costas Santos, Alessandra Del Nero, Bas Mesters, Natalia Sanchez-Querubin, and Mine Gencel Bek.

Introduction & questions

After decades driven by individualism and dreams of personal and economic freedom, the boundaries of these ideologies are being felt around the world. People and politicians criticize migration policies, either asking for walls to block the movement of people or for ways to protect the vicimts of the so-called migration crisis. In terms of economics, uncontrolled capitalism has lead to financial struggle and growth has shown its costs and boundaries. Also, unlimited use of carbon and other resources has ruined the environment and climate. Old questions regarding equal distribution of resources are back on the top of the agenda, with populist movements all over the world criticizing the system, with some wanting to destroy it. Indeed, there is frustration, stress, conflict, anger, and uncertainty about the future.

The news media mainly reports on the negative side of this current scenario, giving the spotlight to the Alt Right, fake news, and polarization. We argue that there is different side of the story, namely, the same sense of crisis is also fueling constructive energy, solutions, and an urge for civic togetherness. Indeed, new grassroot movements are taking initiative in the fields of migration, climate, education, and the social and economic sphere. Leaders like the pope, the Dutch king and philosophers - for example, the Dutch essayist Bas Heijne (2018) - have claimed that there is a growing urge for civic togetherness. In fact, according to the King, it is already happening, as he stated in his Christmas talk (2018). Based on this intuition, journalist and historian Bas Mesters started in early of 2017 to report on what he calls "initiatives of togetherness". He stated in his essay, 'The revolution of Fraternity, or: who is we? (2017/2018)' for the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, that after a revolution of equality (19th century) and a revolution of freedom (20th century), we now have arrived in the era of a 'silent revolution of fraternity (21th century). After his reporting on the so called silent revolution of fraternity, Mesters proposed a project at the Digital Methods Winter school of the University of Amsterdam to test how digital methods can be helpful in finding and analyzing the so called urge of civic togetherness. Indeed, can we used digital methods to better understand this emerging revolution of fraternity?

Throuhg our research we have learned that fraternity is an important engine for social change in different sides of the politcial spectrum. On the one hand, it drives open grassroot movements based on special issues. They tend to be more inclusive and open, operate bottom-up, and clusters around themes like migration, climate change, food, health, education, democracy, and local issues. They also affirm a ‘we’: but an inclusive ‘we’. On the other hand, fraternity also fuels closed identity movements, who define fraternity through ‘we’ against a ‘them’ and operate top-down. They think in terms of boundaries and struggle and exclusion while also cluster around themes like migration, race, religion.

We have captured methods and findings from this project is pilot booklet with 4 chapters. The booklet can be accessed here: Togetherness_booklet (1).pdf and summary of the chapter and their main findings are below.

Methods & Findings

Chapter 1 ‘Searching for togetherness’. Earlier qualitative research from journalism students of the University of Amsterdam indicates that initiatives currently focusing on fraternity tend to operate in the fields of immigration, food, climate/sustainability, housing, health, new democracy, education, neighborhoods, etc. We dedicated one day to search the web from a different perspective. From the insights gathered by these journalist, we built a list of keywords associated with the concept of togetherness. We used these keywords for ‘query design’, which is a technique to repurpose Google search capacities for research. We did this in the context of three issues, namely: food, climate and migration.

In one day we gathered more than 800 initiatives and projects in Europe, and started building a directory and collecting insights. For example, in the Netherlands we found that people come together through energy cooperatives and adapt solar panels and windmills. Their aim is to reach sustainability on local scale and to lower energy costs. We found 260 initiatives of this kind. Also, dutch grandparents are organizing themselves around climate change to secure a future for their grandchildren, and students are creating environmental organizations in their high schools. Initiatives also focus on connecting migrants with Dutch people through eating and language classes.

In the UK, people come together around food. Only today we found 15 urban farming projects and 122 Food aid initiatives, and 2 group using cooking as means to support the integration of refugees. We also found student networks working in environmental and social justice and organizations working to change how refugees are represented in the media, as well as one organization connecting refugees to digital art. We have only started querying the rest of Europe and the world. In Romania, for example, there is an organic farm that helps survivors of human trafficking, in Istanbul, neighbours share food, ideas and music in the ‘migrant solidarity kitchen: ‘here everybody is a cook and all food is shared.’ In Spain people are combating the sensationalism in reporting migration. The use the hashtag #inmigracionalismo.

We want to continue working on the directory and devising means for its study.

In Chapter 2: Dutch grassroots and their networks. In this chapter we ask, how grassroots organizations working in climate, food, and migration connect with government and fundings organizations? What type of networks do they assemble and what holds them together? We employed web link analysis to explore a selections of Dutch organizations and their websites, currently working on each of the issues. Through the analysis, we see different types of networks and stories assembling around each of the issues. While the climate change network is more professionalized, mature and government-focused and also business focussed, food connects local organizations and food cooperatives, whilst migration is funding dependent, and showcases little connections between the grassroots organisations themselves. In the analysis we use this this network maps to reflect on the working of togetherness and on how they can become conversation starters between stakeholders. Each network is being transformed into a news story by journalism students from the UVA.

Chapter 3: The uptake of the language of togetherness. Issues such as climate change and migration tend to evoke negative feelings and scandalous narratives. However, can these same issues lead to more than just divisive agendas and even be drivers of fraternity? The language employed by different organisations could be a starting point to studying this. When talking about climate change and migration, do grassroots organisations use the language of togetherness? Also, where else is togetherness located online? Does the language of ‘togetherness’ resonate also in the alt-right and the media? In order to answer these questions, we traced the emotive language used in grassroots organisations via close-reading. We found that these words broadly fell into two buckets - one denoting a sense of togetherness (eg. “support”; “community”; “fraternity”) and the other revealing how problems are framed (eg. “crisis”; “injustice”; “fear”). These keywords proved as a seed list that could be queried in grassroots, media and alt-right websites. This would highlight where in the online sphere togetherness is located.

Using the Lippmannian device we were able to estimate how often problem-related words and words that denote togetherness appeared in conjunction with migration and climate change in the websites of grassroots organisations, media and the alt-right in the Netherlands and the UK. Our findings reveal that grassroots drive the conversation on togetherness in the face of crises. Surprisingly, the media and the alt-right strike a balance between using the language of togetherness and focusing on the problems when discussing climate change and migration. The language of fraternity and togetherness is not confined to one corner of the web alone and persists in all quarters. It just takes a closer look to shed light on it. This provides an interesting entry-point to locating the language of togetherness propagated by grassroots initiatives in the larger online context. This method can be replicated for a larger dataset in different national, local or global contexts. Zooming in on the specific language used, one can identify issue-language and togetherness-language particular to each category. For instance, the term ‘solidarity’ (which we suspected would yield more results among grassroots organisations) was used sparingly by both grassroots organisations and the alt-right and was more of a media-favourite. The next step would be to close-read some of these interesting outliers to understand the sense in which these different organisations used specific words.

Chapter 4: Studying engagement and its sustainability on Facebook: “Solidarity with Refugees”. We selected the grassroot initiative on Facebook, “Solidarity with Refugees”, which is located in England and in 2015 organized one of the largest pro-refugees marches in the UK. We ask, what happens to a large event page like “Solidarity with Refugees” after the event/crisis has taken place? Do the page continue to engage with its audience? What becomes of these spaces? We used Netvizz to download all Facebook data from the page and study engagement over a period of time. The media and public opinion both greatly influenced the rise of this page which allowed for Solidarity for Refugees to become a space to showcase togetherness, create a community and discuss and act proactively towards the refugee influx which later evolved into a platform for sharing original content and showcase citizen journalism. The page participants report live and on-the-go, posting videos of the marches as they were occurring, especially during the second part of 2016. However, soon there is a decline in the collective action of this page, which became even more apparent when Brexit was announced, as noted by the co-founder of the initiative. As explained, Brexit created tension and an unstable environment where the public is more driven by other issues closer to them than the Refugees Crisis. We can see that the media and public opinion can also hinder the collectiveness of this page towards Refugees. Today, in 2018 the Solidarity for Refugees page is purely re-posting links to their newsfeed, rather than creating and sharing their own content or organizing events. This case study shows the challenges of the sustainability of togetherness when affected by external events such as the political developments of a country. The political situation in the United Kingdom has created a delicate situation, indirectly contributing to the sensitivity of pro-refugee initiatives. The page went from being proactive in creating a community to only sharing links. As shown through our research and case study, grassroot initiatives bring people together but they do not guarantee their sustainability in the long run. “Solidarity with Refugees” must remain interactive in order to maintain and attract public engagement to sustain in both the online sphere and the real world.

-- NataliaSanchez - 01 Feb 2019
Topic revision: r1 - 01 Feb 2019, NataliaSanchez
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