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HSE Campus in St. PetersburgSt. Petersburg School of Social Sciences and HumanitiesInternet Studies LabSocial Media and Social Movements Laboratory for Internet StudiesThe Paradox of (Anti)Social Media: A Qualitative Content Analysis of Conflictual Framing in a Far-Right Social Movement

The Paradox of (Anti)Social Media: A Qualitative Content Analysis of Conflictual Framing in a Far-Right Social Movement

Thomas Ralph Davidson, Cornell University, Department of Sociology

Whilst social media technologies undoubtably provide an important tool and space for the communication and deliberation of interpretative frames between social movement organisations, members, and potential participants, this study posits that this also problematizes social movement framing efforts. It can be difficult for a social movement to maintain a clear and coherent framing effort when anyone can challenge the movement's frames and deploy their own counter-frames within the same online space. This issue is particularly acute for far-right groups, which attempt to gain popular legitimacy by avoiding framing their politics in overtly racist and violent terms despite the currency of such frames amongst many of their members. This paper engages in a qualitative analysis of comments made on Facebook by members of the English Defence League in order to explore how social media provides an arena for deliberation, and ultimately dissent, problematizing framing efforts as dissident voices undermine SMO framing.

Social media and social movement framing
We must understand contemporary social movements as 'networked social movements', whereby there is no clear distinction between online and offline activism (Castells 2012). Moreover, social media function as both ‘tools’and ‘spaces’for social movements (Lim 2012): as tools they facilitate new modes of ‘bi-directional, interactive and cost-less’ communication and organization (Mosca 2007), as spaces they constitute new public spheres for political deliberation and the collective identity formation (Mosca 2007; Della Porta 2013). This paper, however, seeks to explore how these functions can also be detrimental to social movements, specifically, how the interactive and open space provided by social media can not only serve to strengthen social movement organizations (SMOs), but can also foster dissent that can be detrimental to movement goals and outcomes. We shall now turn to the specific problematic of movement framing to better understand this issue.
Framing theory is a way of understanding the ‘micro level of social construction processes’ that take place between the SMO, activists, and potential participants (Johnston and Noakes 2005). This study operationalizes Snow and Benford’s widely used definition of a frame as ‘an interpretative schema that simplifies and condenses the ‘world out there’ by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of actions within one’s present or past experience’ (1992: 137). A frame must ‘resonate’ with potential participants so as to recruit them and mobilize them in collective action sequences (Snow et al. 1986: 477; Snow and Benford 1988); ‘potential constituents [must] find its interpretation and expression of grievances compelling’ (Johnston and Noakes 2005: 11). Social movements must also achieve ‘alignment’ between their frames and those of actual and potential participants, forging ‘the linkage of individual and SMO interpretative orientations, such that some set of individual interests, values and beliefs and SMO activities, goals, and ideology, are congruent and complementary’ (Snow et al. 1986: 464). In practice, however, this is difficult to achieve, as frames are challenged by a range of actors including the state, the media, and other movements—hence Tarrow’s (1998) characterization of framing as the ‘struggle for cultural supremacy’. Social media is used as a tool in these struggles and it is also the space where these struggles occur. Whilst it provides an efficient means for movements to frame their politics, this comes at the price of a loss of control; once a frame is entered into the public sphere it cannot be completely controlled by the actor that produced it, it does not necessarily resonate or align in the way an SMO intends (Williams 2004: 104).
Furthermore, the ‘struggle for cultural supremacy’ does not just involve competition with external actors, but also internal ones, as participant’s produce frames can compete with the SMO’s. Participants ‘bring values, norms, attitudes, beliefs, and ideological orientations’ that play out in  negotiations over SMO framing (Johnston 2009: 21). SMO frames are therefore ‘shaped, deployed, and reformulated in conversation’ amongst participants (Mische 2003: 258). In networked social movements, this conversation occurs within the same space as the SMO framing, to a large extent dissolving any hierarchy between movement and participant framing. This horizontalization can often reinforce and reinvigorate movement framing, but it can also problematize it, as both supporters and opponents can produce frames that challenge and even damage an SMO’s framing. This study seeks to explore the extent to which such counter-frames are deployed by movement participants.

Case Study: The English Defence League (EDL)
The EDL frames itself as a non-racist and non-violent group who oppose the purported threat of ‘radical Islam’ to British society and its values. It is important to note that they attempt to maintain a distinction between opposing all Islam and Muslims and attacking elements of ‘radical’ Islam that they find particularly abhorrent, however in practice this distinction is unsustainable. Most commentators situate the group within the extreme right of the political spectrum: they have been variously described as an Islamophobic ‘far-right social movement’ (Copsey 2010), a ‘new far right’ social movement (Jackson 2011), a ‘populist street movement’ (Bartlett and Littler 2011), a ‘counter-Jihad group’ (Goodwin 2013), a ‘far-right cultural nationalist movement’ (Meleagrou-Hitchens and Brun 2013), and an anti-Muslim populist group (Busher forthcoming). As with many far-right groups, there is a gulf between their more moderate external image projected by the group and the radical ideas expressed by their members in private (Trilling 2012), the former of which is crucial as these groups must appeal to broader demographics in order to attain any political legitimacy (Kitschelt 1995). Moreover, the veil of anonymity provided by the internet can encourage the expression of more extreme sentiments (Macy and Golder 2014). Consequently, the EDL has struggled to control the way it is framed; there are numerous documented cases of violent incidents involving the group and its members and they have also been associated with other racist groups such as the British National Party and the National Front. Through analyzing the views of the EDL’s online membership this study shows that there are indeed strong violent and racist tendencies within the group, which serve to undermine the SMO’s framing efforts and foster dissent within the group.
The EDL use a range of online platforms including a website, forum, affiliated blogs, and Twitter, but one website has been particularly important. Copsey (2010: 5) contends that ‘the EDL is a child of the Facebook revolution’, as the site has been vital to both the rapid organization of a network of supporters and their mobilization on the streets. Furthermore, Bartlett and Littler (2011: 32) argue that insofar as the EDL lacks an official membership list, affiliation with its Facebook page is an effective proxy for membership; it is the ‘central communicative and organizational tool’ of the group. Jackson (2011: 32-4) argues that their ‘online world [is] constructed from the top down by the EDL leadership and bottom-up by its followers’. Bartlett and Litter (2011: 13) draw attention to the tension between these constructions, and the effect this has on the coherence of the movement’s ideology. Through analyzing the framing used by EDL members during a period of heightened activity we can better understand how this tension affects the prospects for successful collective action.
The group was studied following British soldier Lee Rigby’s murder on the streets of London at the hands of Islamic extremists. It is a clear incidence of what Jasper (1997: 106) calls a ‘moral shock’: ‘an unexpected event or piece of information [that] raises such a sense of outrage in a person that she is inclined toward political action’, regardless of pre-existing social networks. Moreover, Bail (2012: 859) suggests that such negative emotions tend to cause people to gravitate towards 'fringe' groups like the EDL. Following the murder, EDL activists engaged in a flurry of online activity, with thousands joining the EDL’s Facebook group: its membership rose from around twenty-two thousand to fifty-thousand within a day; after a couple of days it reached over one-hundred-and-thirty-five thousand. Despite this meteoric rise in membership, a close analysis of the content of members' posting shows a strong rise in dissenting voices during this period, problematizing the EDL’s framing efforts and likely contributing to the group’s fragmentation and decline towards the end of 2013.


FULL VERSION  The Paradox of (Anti)Social Media: A Qualitative Content Analysis of Conflictual Framing in a Far-Right Social Movement