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Platform politics in Europe – Where is the user?

(Cover: Fabrice – Muiderpoort Station, Amsterdam 2010, detail. Photo: Giulia May)


In a dystopian present marked by physical isolation, digital platforms are acquiring an even more central role in our private and social lives. They enable us to connect with our loved ones, to look for useful (or misleading) information, rethink our work connections, find online yoga courses, buy goods and share uplifting or emotional contents – in short to live in and feel a system of interconnected close and wider communities.

While the social, cultural and psychological outcomes of these new patterns of interaction with digital media are yet to be seen, just before the beginning of the pandemic era a series of studies were trying to assess the impact of digital platforms on political participation. The International Communication Journal’s last issue of 2019, with its special section dedicated to Platform Politics in Europe, looks like an ideal occasion to try and resume some of the many open questions on digital platforms and their political use – as we try to process other uses in a version heightened by our hyperconnected isolation.

Edited by Marco Deseriis and Davide Vittori, the feature included six case studies on the use of digital platforms in different European contexts and involving various political actors. While the common thread was how each platform makes some degree of political participation possible, one central question remains mostly unanswered, and even unasked: who are the users of these digital platforms, how do they use the platforms, and why in these studies they are almost never given a voice?

1. Digital platforms shaping the “long 2010s”

Social media platforms and digital democracy platforms. The “long 2010s”, as Deseriis and Vittori call them, have been dominated by anti-austerity and anti-authoritarian movements incorporating social media in new and disruptive ways. While the “inner logic” of commercial social networks might have facilitated social movements in their emerging phase, it appeared to be less suited to long-term strategies (van Dijck & Poell, 2013). This is why some groups moved to specialised (and open) software tools for their organisation and decision making, creating new digital democracy platforms. Deseriis and Vittori insist that the communalities between political use of social media platforms (SMPs) and digital democracy platforms (DDPs) are more relevant than their differences. Still, they are significant: SMPs are mainly focused on commodifying user data and extracting profit from this information, although, thanks to their large user base, they have surely contributed to revitalise political action. DDPs, on the other hand, can in principle support democratic participation and deliberation, but they tend to have limited impact and scope.

How is algorithmic logic affecting participation? One important theme in recent debates is how much ‘algorithmic logic’ conditions the agency of Social Media Platform users. On the one end of the spectrum there is the idea (e.g. van Dijk & Hacker, 2018) that an algorithmic logic, replacing the editorial logic of earlier media generations, is more pervasive and shapes users’ participation in subtle ways. At the other end there are those who emphasise users’ creativity and resourcefulness (e.g. Clark et al., 2014), showing how people can play with platform affordances, repurpose features, and circumvent limitations. Another author contributing to the special issue, Maria Bakardjieva, concludes that “citizens’ participation … cannot be reduced to the design of the platforms alone, but it is certainly affected by it”. What makes the difference, she argues, is “Who participates? In what? For what purpose?”.


(Street mosaic in Grodno, Belarus. Photo: Victoria Strukovskaya)

2. E-government, party and civic platform users

Can a digital platform empower party members? Deseriis and Vittori try to assess the impact of the platforms used by Podemos and 5Stars, respectively “Participa” and “Rousseau”, on internal party democracy and power imbalances. Both parties show a “technopopulist orientation” (Deseriis, 2017), but also strong differences in terms of political and ideological trajectories. These are also reflected by diverging organisational models: a variety of centralised and decentralised decision-making bodies (Podemos) versus no intermediary party bodies at all (5SM). Deseriis and Vittori argue that despite these important differences, in both cases “the affordances of these platforms are often employed selectively” and mostly used to just confirm decisions already taken by the party leaders. This might be one of the reasons for the sharp decline in voter turnout both platforms registered after the first year. Other possible reasons include the drop-out of early adopters or the fact that members are asked to vote too frequently, or – in the case of the 5SM – that when it comes to controversial issues, Rousseau only provides members with their leaders’ viewpoints and no alternatives. New studies would need to confirm these hypotheses, and include extensive feedback from the users of both platforms.

Can a platform preserve the quality of a debate over time? Looking at social media platforms one might be inclined to say no, but digital democracy platforms used by local administrations in Europe have also tried to reshape participation and deliberation. In their study on Decidim, the platform allowing citizens to contribute to Barcelona’s Strategic City Planning, Borge Bravo, Balcells, and Padró-Solanet looked at “the deliberative quality” of the debate on tourism and hospitality in the city. What emerges from their analysis is that time is a key factor, as conversations on platforms like Decidim go through different stages. While at the beginning most users focus on developing persuasive and rational arguments, as the discussion continues there is often noticeable “degradation” of the debate. This can make other users less interested in taking part and lowers the threshold of acceptable arguments, while the few active users left might turn the debate into a personal confrontation. The conclusion is that spontaneous online deliberation is possible, but that the difficulty lies in “ensuring and preserving the quality of deliberation over time”.

How are users positioned in e-government platforms? As Bakardjieva argues, it very much depends on who created the platform, who takes part and what strategies the users adopt to influence political powers. Her study compares three different online platforms created in the Bulgarian city Stara Zagora: an e-government platform; a citizen-lead collaborative platform, My e-Municipality; and a Facebook page.  On the e-government platform established by the municipality, citizens can report faults or request documents, and, as happens in similar cases, users are positioned as clients. What makes the collaborative My e-Municipality different is that it has been “conceived and designed by citizens”. Through interviews with the activists’ core group, Bakardjieva describes how My e-Municipality users are “not only enabled to issue a comment or signal, but also entitled to a timely response”. Most importantly, this collaborative platform built a strong negotiating position over time and is now recognised as a stakeholder by the city administrators, while maintaining a clear autonomy.


(Photo: Peyman Farmani)

3. The user of commercial digital platform

Is one platform enough to promote participation? Bakardjieva also provides a textbook example of how each platform can serve different scopes. When another group in Stara Zagora started campaigning to save a local park from development plans, it became clear that contention “needed different tools than cooperation … and the activists found them in the multipurpose platform Facebook”. To this group Facebook offered “a generic communication apparatus that was well understood and skilfully used” by the citizens. At the same time, Bakardjieva concedes that “effective participation … could not be engineered through Facebook (or, arguably, any platform) alone”. In the case of the park, the support offered from other groups was crucial to mobilise the larger city population. In general, as it has been argued since the early 2010s with the idea of media convergence and similar frameworks, it is essential to keep looking at how digital platforms connect (and overlap) with other political and media forms.

Can a platform combine participation and representation? In another contribution to the special, Louise Knops and Eline Severs presented the case of the Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Support (CPRS), a Facebook page created in Belgium as an answer to the 2014-2015 refugee crisis to coordinate first-hand assistance with basic logistics. They analyse how over the years the CPRS “has increasingly taken up the role of spokesperson”, speaking on behalf of Belgian people who support more inclusive and welcoming immigration policies. This resonates with previous studies arguing that online social networks can strike a compromise between the logic of participation and the logic of representation (Gerbaudo, 2017).
Interestingly, the article also underlines the important role played by the CPRS Facebook page administrator, constantly filtering and selecting content posted and shared by members of the platform, thus remembering that editorial logic can coexist with algorithm logic, and in some cases still plays a central role. In this case however, as the authors admit, more research with platform members would be needed to validate their results.

Can a platform combine participation and social learning? Dan Mercea and Helton Levy explore the relationship between participation and social learning on Twitter, looking at a set of retweets for the British “People’s Assembly” from mid-2015 to early 2016. So far, network theory has approached social learning mostly as a diffusion process needing social validation, which on Twitter can correspond to retweets. At the same time, as Mercea and Levy note, retweeting can also be seen as a process of “knowledge curation” in as far as “it filters out noise such as spam”. In the case of the People’s Assembly, they argue that retweets “helped distribute knowledge that made visible the grounds for association and cooperation” among different actors on Twitter, while maintaining “a common and public pool of knowledge about the movement”. Their study involved a small number of interviews with Twitter users, but – again – Mercea and Levy suggest that more empirical data would be needed to expand their findings.


(Photo: Vladislav Nikonov)

4. The user as a target: it’s just (computational) propaganda

Are online platforms just facilitating reactionary politics? While this special issue looks mostly at barriers to participation, other recent studies focused on what someone would call the dark side of online platforms. After all, Brexit did happen, and other reactionary campaigns have been pretty successful in Europe and beyond. One of the features explaining this unexpected popularity of digital platforms with far-right parties is their participatory dynamics, which according to Gregory Asmolov (2019) create ideal conditions for “participatory propaganda”. The concept of propaganda, although digitalised, is clearly problematic, as it recalls the old and luckily surpassed debate on the media “effects” on mobilisation. Still, Asmolov rightly point out that the outcome of manipulative information is not necessarily mobilisation: in several cases – think of Cambridge Analytica or Breitbart – it rather aims at political disorientation and social disconnection.

Are the users helpless targets of bots and trolls? Since 2015 the Computational Propaganda project (Oxford Internet Institute) has been investigating the assemblage of social media algorithms, autonomous agents, and big data involved in information manipulation. Their last report on the “Global disinformation order” claims that investments in this field saw a 150% growth in the last two years all over the world – in liberal and authoritarian, Western and non-Western states. “Cyber troops” are now operating through bots, and human and cyborg fake (or stolen) accounts; they work to discredit political opposition and drown out political dissent. Despite there being plenty of alternatives, Facebook seems to remain “the platform of choice” not just because of its global scale, but also its key features: the close ties that make up the network, the incorporation of political news, the capacity to host groups and pages.
What is clearly left out of this picture is the meaning people give to the information found on social media. And, while one would expect political communication and political sociology to be dominated by the view of the user as a target, among new media theorists also seem to gain popularity apocalyptical views of “an invisible, oppressive system that tries to deceive us” where trolls are allowed to “permanently disrupt our thinking and behaviour” (Lovink, 2020).


Photo by Ashkan Forouzani / Unsplash

5. Conclusion – Stuart Hall and platform thinking

Platforms as meeting points. So, what are we left with? As Emiliana De Blasio and Michele Sorice argue in another piece included in the special issue, one non-controversial point is that the idea of the “platform” has slowly become a meeting point between very different perspectives. Interestingly, at the end of their encyclopaedic tour de force on political participation literature, De Blasio and Sorice also mention Stuart Hall and his unmatched capacity to combine “methods and tools from political sociology with those from media studies and social analysis of antagonistic cultures”. This multimodal, critical but solid analytical perspective is precisely what seems to be missing in most contemporary media theory, which can be at best inspiring but often inaccessible and/or politically barren.

Platforms for critical times. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 emergency measures in Asia and in Europe, commercial platforms have shown some of the best and the worse practices of content sharing and connection building. Social networks are conveying disinformation, fake news and staging the performances of unlikely pandemic experts or professional narcissists. At the same time, such a crisis opens to an actual social and technological reset, to which digital platforms could contribute with information aimed at supporting communities, finding solutions to shared problems and redistributing resources. While it is too early to see the development of ad- hoc and non-commercial platforms, a possible direction is indicated by early initiatives such as groups, pages or wikis built to gather and coordinate local and global solidarity efforts.

Prescribed users and missing users. The most useful suggestion in the special issue possibly comes again from Bakardjieva, who borrows from de Certeau (1984) the view of platforms as “ensembles of possibilities and interdictions”, characterised among other things by their “prescribed” user (Latour, 1992) but also “their anticipated and manifested uses”. Comparing different types of platforms, as Bakardjieva does in her study, is necessary to understand more about the variety of subject positions that platforms create for their users. The only piece missing from the picture is once again the users: we need more of their voices to learn what they actually do with all of the platforms designed for (and against) them, in ordinary as well as extraordinary times.

Algeria 2019: popular protests and national media

by Saida Benammar and Viola Sarnelli

Saida Benammar is Assistant Lecturer in Media studies at C.U.R., the University Centre of Relizane, Algeria. Her research focuses on social media use and journalistic practices in Algeria. She started to collaborate with TRU after a visiting fellowship in the Department of Human and Social Sciences at L’Orientale.
Viola Sarnelli investigated the role of Al Jazeera and the new media in the 2011 Arab uprisings during her PhD in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies at L’Orientale. In 2014/2015 she was a postdoctoral researcher in Algeria and published several contributions on post-2011 media reforms in North African countries.


As we write these notes, the new wave of anti-regime protests in Algeria has been already on for more than one month. Events are still developing, and several political scenarios are open. One thing is certain: even though the current President has now withdrawn his candidacy for the next elections, demonstrations are even stronger than before. We start with a timeline of the main events of this month, followed by some first thoughts on how national media reflected and influenced them.


Algiers, 8 March 2019. Source: Twitter


Timeline / Unexpected holidays and a partial victory

10th February. With a (long) letter to the Algerian citizens, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika officially confirms that he intends to run for a fifth mandate. Apart from a deterioration of the general economic and social conditions in the country, a crucial point raised by his opponents is that the 82-year-old leader has been unable to appear in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Several opposition parties withdraw from the election in protest. A few days later, a public reaction is triggered by the social media debate between an opposition presidential candidate, Rachid Nekkaz, and the pro-Bouteflika mayor in Khenchela, East of the country, leading to a demonstration during which a big image of Bouteflika is taken down from the town hall façade.


22nd February. The call for a demonstration on the 22nd in the afternoon, after the main Friday prayer, is spread on Facebook and Twitter. Although a targeted disruption of internet services  in the capital region starts already the evening before, the participation is spontaneous, massive and goes well beyond political and media expectations. Algiers had not seen such a demonstration in decades. Its success is a turning point, defeating an interdiction to public gatherings in place since 2001, and most importantly dissolving the fear of violence that has often been used to stop new political initiatives following the traumatic civil war of the Nineties. The appearance of a group of provocateurs which engages in minor clashes with the police at the end of the demonstration does not spoil the result of a largely peaceful event.


27th February. A leaked conversation between Bouteflika’s electoral campaign director, Abdelmalek Sellal and Ali Haddad, president of the Business Forum, where they openly encourage the use of violence against demonstrators, only worsen public resentment. To contain the outrage, a new campaign director is nominated: the ministry of transports and public works Abdelghani Zaalan.


1st March. A second national demonstration is called via online social networks. Although several media focused their coverage of the previous Friday on the clashes between provocateurs and police rather than on the peaceful and politically relevant event, the affluence this time is higher than the previous week. The demonstration specifically opposes to the official registration of Bouteflika’s candidacy, as the deadline is the 3rd March.


3rd March. Bouteflika’s candidacy is registered and supported by more than 5 millions signatures – mostly coming from citizens under pressure or local government employees, according to the opposition. On the same day the President addresses his voters with another public letter in which he acknowledges their outcry («cri du cœur») and promises deep systemic, constitutional and electoral reforms once elected – including anticipated further elections in which he will not run.

8th March. An exceptional demonstration in many respects, as the coincidence with Women’s International Day encourages even more the participation of many Algerian women and families. More than a million of people are in Algiers, in addition to other cities such as Oran, Constantine, Bejaia. This time also the conclusion is peaceful, without the appearance of external violent groups, and no intervention from the security forces. People of very different backgrounds are united by slogans like «République et non Royaume», and occasionally public figures, like the most notable female heroes of the anti-colonial war, Djamila Bouhired, are joining the crowd.

9th March. Demonstrators so far included people from several professional sectors (particularly media professionals, lawyers, the judiciary, teachers), with a big role played by students and young people in general. To discourage the participation of university students, the ministry of higher education and research abruptly decides to anticipate university spring holidays, twelve days before the scheduled date, closing also the university campuses and sending all the students and staff back home. These are the longest spring holidays in the history of Algerian university.


8th-10th March. A call for civil disobedience appears on social media and various groups in all the country try to use this approach to increase the pression on the government. The initiatives however are scattered and uneven – closing of shops, strike of public transport and dock workers, closing of schools – and are met with mixed reactions by other citizens.


11th March. Bouteflika announces he will not seek a fifth term. However, this is considered only a partial victory by most Algerian protesters, as the president also announces that the elections will no more take place in April but will follow instead a national conference on political and constitutional reform, towards the end of the year. The situation in the country remains tense, as many consider the elections’ delay an unconstitutional move. The demonstrations following the announcement, on Friday 15th, registered the highest number of participants since the beginning of the movement.


Algiers, 15 March 2019. Source: Facebook


The silence of public media

As the movement rapidly and spontaneously grew into mass demonstrations, the majority of Algerian media were not in the position to give an impartial and objective representation of the events. In general, this possibility is quite far from the reality of Algerian public media and particularly of public television channels – still the main source of information for most of the Algerians – which have always carefully avoided to cover any issue undermining the government’s image. As the Algerians always say, the country in the newscast (that is the newscast of the most important public television channel, ENTV) doesn’t really resemble the country we live in.

Despite being used to the pro-regime line of the public television channels, Algerians would still look at the evening newscast on February 22, to find out to their amazement that there was no trace of the mass demonstrations held in the country. The week after, the silence of public media made way for some hasty comments on the fact that Algerians were taking the streets, without paying too much attention to why they were doing that. Meanwhile, the debates and accounts on the online social networks were growing day by day. On February 27th a group of journalists from the public television, exasperated by the editorial line of their employer, organised a demonstration.  Despite being part of the same public media conglomerate, APS (Algérie Presse Service) made a great impression by simply stating that those thousands of people demonstrating in Algeria were there to ask the president to withdraw his candidacy for a fifth mandate.


Media practices going back to the Arab Spring

We still remember the historical moment when Algerian public television opened its arms to a group of young people and invited them in a political programme, giving them the unusual freedom to share their opinions, ideas and demands. It was 2011, and this was an attempt to contain the mounting anger in the country. The same scene has taken place this time after the intensification of demonstrations, including several professional sectors. This time, however, the political debate happens both in the public and the private channels, funded after the liberalisation of the broadcasting sector – one of the concessions made by the regime after the 2011 protests. A weekly talk show on Hiwar Elsaàa (Le dialogue de l’heure) on ENTV public television channel has now started to invite guests to discuss the ongoing events in the country, covering also serious issues such as corruption, unemployment, and media freedom. These topics are still almost non-existent on public media, reflecting once again a problematic version of ‘media neutrality’ that seems to be structural.


Private media between freedom of expression and reality of funding

Despite some openings, the situation of private media in Algeria is still a complex one given the intransigence of the government, which does not accept any real change in the media environment not allows a real financial autonomy to private channels. Most of them are in fact still dependent on the advertisement distributed by a government-owned agency to all newspapers to which the new private channels are connected. This means that the government can effectively prevent private media from covering freely and fairly the popular mobilisation by threatening to cut all public advertisement, as it has just happened to popular media companies like Echorouk (newspaper and TV channel) and El-Bilad (both newspaper and channel) as a result of their liberal coverage of the protests. Meanwhile, the only private channel truly loyal to the regime, Ennahar TV, openly and shamelessly continues to focus only on the destruction of public good caused by demonstrators, and on the clashes at the end of the demonstrations. No need to say that these interventions of group of provocateurs seem to follow the well-known script mastered by the government in Egypt with the use of thugs during the 2011 Revolution – this is still be the main image promoted by public and private pro-regime media.
Meanwhile, the country is waiting for the next political developments and actively trying to shape them, hoping that with a political change will also finally come a change in the media narratives.