Studies of social media user’s comments

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Previous research

This chapter presents the existing studies and research about the fields of interest: distant suffering, social media and terrorism. First, I will give a brief description over distant suffering studies and important audience research findings within this field, then I will continue with an introduction to studies on audience responses on social media. Finally, studies of terrorism framing and social media responses towards terrorism will be described

Audience studies on distant suffering

Distance suffering studies can be approached from many different angles but in this study, we will approach it from an interactive audience perspective. When spectators are presented to distant suffering, they are expected to respond with compassion (Höijer, 2004). However, this of course does not happen all the time and the responses to suffering can differ a lot. Who is considered a sufferer aka a victim is a cultural construction (ibid.). For people to feel compassion it is important that they perceive the victim as helpless and innocent (ibid.). Chouliaraki (2006) theorize that audience identify themselves in terms of cosmopolitanism or communitarianism, which can be viewed as ethical norms that enables or stops action on distant suffering. Cosmopolitanism stands for when the spectator act for suffering others that is not part of their own community, while communitarianism is when spectators act on suffering that is proximal to their own community (ibid.).
Now, one early study on this topic was made by Boltanski (1999) who analyzed moral spectatorship and focused on collective user responses and presented different forms of audiences’ responses to distant suffering (the topic of denunciation, the topic of sentiment, the topic of aesthetics). The topic of denunciation (pamphleteering) can be described as when the spectator responds to the suffering with indignation and anger towards the perpetrator. The topic of sentiment (philanthropy) can be described as when the spectator also responds with compassion and focuses on the sufferers and/or benefactors. The topic of aesthetics (sublimation) can be described as responding to the suffering by thinking it is sublime (ibid.).
The forms of audience responses to distant suffering presented by Boltanski (1999) have previously been used and adapted by Mette Mortensen and Hans-Jörg Trenz (2016), to a social media context and used as theoretical framework to study “group dynamics of media witnessing” (p.350). As mentioned in chapter 1 and 2.3, the social media context offers a more immediate relationship between sufferer and spectator than traditional media. They distinguished between three forms of social media user responses to suffering: emotional (expressing sentiment), critical (questions justice) and reflexive (questions facts). By using an interpretative textual analysis, the researchers studied discussion groups on the social network site reddit, that was formed in response to the pictures of Alan Kurdi, a drowned Syrian boy that stimulated much debate when the pictures were released in September 2015 (ibid.). The results showed that the dynamic of social media helped overcoming distance by pointing out possibilities to act and build communities with people who view themselves as benefactors of global humanitarian politics (p.359). Mortensen and Trenz (2016) adoption of Boltanski’s (1999) topics of responses to suffering will be used to compare with this studies results.
Another important study of audience responses to distant suffering was done by Höijer (2004) who studied the development of global compassion and more specific – “how […] people react to the emotional engagement that media offers” (p.513). The study was operationalized by doing interviews with people in Sweden and Norway. The results showed that the audiences’ ability to feel compassion for distant suffering was connected to ideal victim images. The ideal victim is a cultural construction and what could be concluded was that the ideal victim is helpless, innocent and either children, women or elderly. What is important for my study though is the forms of audience responses.
Höijer’s (2004) findings showed four new forms of compassion in addition to Boltanski’s (1999) three forms. The four forms or themes were named the following: “tender-hearted compassion, blame-filled compassion, shame-filled compassion and powerlessness-filled compassion” (Höijer, 2004, p.522). Tender-hearted compassion can be described as when the spectator expresses how oneself is feeling pity and empathy towards sufferers, for example “‘It breaks my heart when I see refugees […]” (Höijer, 2004, p.522). Blame-filled compassion is described as when spectators’ express feelings of compassion for the sufferers in combination with expressing anger and indignation, for example “‘I became angry when I saw the many innocent people and civilians who died […]” or “‘He is a terrible man, a Psychopath” (Höijer, 2004, p.523). Shame-filled compassion is identified as when the spectator feel ambivalence over the fact that they are unharmed but others are suffering in the world and they themselves are not doing anything to stop it, for example “I get furious with myself because I do nothing” or “I had such a bad conscience and I almost did not manage to watch any more terrible scenes on television” (ibid.). Powerlessness-filled compassion is identified as when spectators express that they feel like they cannot ease the suffering and therefor feel powerless, for example “You can of course give some money but that will not stop the war” (ibid.).
By combining Mortensen and Trenz (2016) social media adoption of Boltanski’s three forms of audience responses to distant suffering and Höijer’s (2004) four forms of audience responses to distant suffering I can compare these studies’ frames of audience responses to distant suffering to previous studies findings


Studies of social media user’s comments

Studies of user generated content have been studied in a variety of different ways. For example, Recuber (2015) conducted a discourse analysis on the micro-blog Tumblr to examine how micro-narratives of suffering is formed. The author concluded that the users “micro-narratives of suffering came to subsume the considerations of others’ misfortunes, rather than enabling a deeper engagement with those misfortunes and creating a changed perspective as a result” (Recuber, 2015, p.74). These findings will be used to compare with the frames of suffering visible in the comments on Aftonbladets Facebook wall. Another study on comment was conducted by Spence, Lachlan, Sellnow, Rice and Seeger (2017) who studied “how user comments on news stories contribute to the construction” of different issues (p.36). Their findings showed that user comments had a significant influence on people’s perception of news stories.
Now, framing theory, that will be used in this study have previously been used to examine user comments to understand people’s perceptions of issues. For example, Yalan Huang (2016) conducted a framing analysis of social media comments to examine how people perceive feminism in China. In addition, a netnographic approach was used to describe the varying atmospheres and cultures on the different websites. The author used a package approach to frame analysis, originating from Gamson and Lasch (1983) and Gamson and Modigliani (1989) media package approach. This study inspired me to use a similar method to examine the user comments on Aftonbladets Facebook wall. In addition, El Gazzar (2013) also used frame theory to examine the way social media users expressed their opinions towards the Islamic movement. By analyzing the frames revealed in the comments the researcher could understand what arguments that were used by pro- and anti-Islamists in their “defense or attack of Islamists as active participants in the political scene after the revolution in Egypt” (p.47). This study contributed with valuable insight in how to use framing theory on user comments to understand audience attitudes towards issues

Media framing of terrorism

Previous research about media framings of terrorism have concluded that there are three main frames: official frames, military frames and humanitarian frames (Abdulllah & Elareshi, 2015). Official frames refer to news frames that shows support for the leaders in the country and/or national unity, military frames refer to strategies to fight terrorism and humanitarian frames refers to when focus is on the damage that the terrorist have managed (Jasperson & El-Kikhia, 2003, cited in Abdulllah & Elareshi, 2015). Furthermore, in the case of terrorism reporting research have showed that when episodic themes are used, the spectators are less likely to hold public officials accountable (Iyengar, 1994, cited in Abdulllah & Elareshi, 2015). Finally, spectators are more likely to feel empathy with victims of terror attacks when they are framed in a way that allows the spectator to identify with the victim (Fahmy, 2010; Persson, 2004, cited in Abdulllah & Elareshi, 2015). In this study, I will look at Aftonbladets humanitarian frames of terrorism to understand the audience’s responses to distant suffering on social media

Social media comments and terrorism

Even though there is a growing research on social media from a crisis context, studies dealing on social media and terrorism is largely absent (Rasmussen, 2015). However, some of the studies that exist have focused on how citizens challenge traditional media by spreading their own photos from terrorist-attacks (Allan, 2014, cited in Rasmussen, 2015), how journalists handle the growing body of blogs about terror (Bennet, 2013, cited in Rasmussen, 2015) and how citizens discuss terror-attacks on YouTube (Rasmussen, 2015), Twitter (Yusha’u, 2015) and newspapers online message boards (Bressers & Hume, 2012). These studies do not focus on sufferers or suffering like in my study, but rather the discussion about terrorism. However, they provide valuable insight on what findings have been made before on discussion about terrorism on social media.
Rasmussen (2015) analyzed how social media users discussed terrorism in Norway. Since my study is similar to his it is of value to discuss their findings and research process. Rasmussen (2015) used discursive psychology for method and securitization theory to analyze attitudes on Twitter towards the terror alert in Norway in 2014. In addition, the researcher briefly analyzed press releases on the terror alert to give context to the Twitter communication. For my study, I will do a brief analysis over the news article about the Nice-attack to give context to the user comments towards the article in focus. Now, the aim of the study was to contribute with new insights of local responses through social media and securitizing efforts. The results showed the following number of themes: “(1) the authorities’ announcement and ways of representing the terror alert; (2) the diffusion of responsibility to lay people for monitoring suspicious events and actors; and (3) the issue of ethnicity and blame” (p.197).
Now, Bonnie Bressers and Janice Hume (2012) studied user comments formed in response to the 9/11 terrorist-attacks. The study covered 414 comments which was analyzed by using a combination of discourse analysis to understand the text in relation to political and cultural context, and a narrative analysis to study the structure of the text. The aim of the study was to understand “the history of interactive mediated communication” in times of crises and was one of the first studies to study online content as historical documents (Bressers & Hume, 2012, p.10). Their findings showed seven elements of use in the comments such as: “discussion of politics; calls for retaliation against the terrorists; pleas for restraint; offers of prayer; displays of patriotism; and expressions of grief, shock, and anxiety” (p.16). In addition, four themes emerged from the results: the need to express political opinions, to experience emotional release, to interact with people within the online community, and to find and/or dispense information. The elements of use in comments and themes presented by Rasmussen (2015) and Bressers & Hume (2012) contributes to this study since it covers audiences’ responses to terrorism and therefore can be used to understand the responses towards the Nice-attack.

Positioning the study

The aim of my thesis is to contribute with knowledge about how audiences interact and respond to suffering caused by terrorism that they face on their Facebook-feed. Since digital media are dominant sites of social engagement and solidarity with others, civic responsiveness is an urgent theme too in the field of distant suffering studies, according to Chouliaraki (2016, p.419). In addition, previous researchers argue that there is a need for more research and theorizing of the interaction between media-texts and the audience (Huiberts, 2016; Joye, 2016; Chouliaraki, 2016; Scott, 2014).
Since most witnessing studies have been conducted on television, social media provides different characteristics of mediated witnessing than audio-visual television (Kyriakidou, 2015; Mortensen & Trenz, 2016). This also opens the opportunity to contribute with more knowledge about an undertheorized subfield. Finally, framing theory has been used mostly for analyzing news reports, but can also be beneficial for understanding how frames are formed among people (Huang, 2016; El Gazzar, 2013). By conducting this study, I contribute with further knowledge on how to conduct framing analysis on online discussions about suffering in the context of terror attacks

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1. Introduction
2. Background 
2.1 Terrorism, Europe, and France
2.2 Aftonbladet
2.3 Social media
3. Aim and research questions 
4. Previous research 
4.1 Audience studies on distant suffering
4.2 Studies of social media user’s comments
4.3 Media framing of terrorism
4.4 Social media comments and terrorism
4.5 Positioning the study
5. Theoretical frame and concepts 
5.1 Framing theory
5.2 Distant suffering
5.3 Media witnessing
5.4 Scale, actuality, and distance
6. Method and material 
6.1 Methodological approach
6.2 Frame analysis and qualitative content analysis
6.3 Analytical model
6.4 Material
6.5 Ethics
6.6 Validity
7. Analysis and result 
7.1 Day 1
7.2 Day 2
8. Conclusion

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