Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Research reflection: Facebook’s role in the rise of virtual British extremis


Figure 1-Image of Madeleine McCann found on the Facebook fan page 'deport the Muslims who ruined 2010 Remembrance Day'

This article is based on a study that examines whether and how online forms of remembrance reinforces British national identities, by observing and analysing a web-based sample of commemorative fan pages particularly those related to Remembrance Day 2010.
This study suggests that territoriality does not exist online as it does in the real world, as members of the virtual world are to an extent void of any defining spatial characteristics (Gifford et al, 2003), allowing transnational individuals to amalgamate into the community providing they express the correct characteristics.  Furthermore, it is evident in the fan pages that a British identity is constructed on the basis of a fear of the other, in this case a fear of British Muslim’s (Smith, 2006. Mertz, 1995. Gilroy, 2004).


Initially the study was influenced by the death of an acquaintance in early 2010.  The death was a result of a gunshot wound during a routine patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan.  Following his death the usual events occurred; the Wootton Bassett parade; a family funeral in Dagenham; and a dedicatory Facebook fan page.  The comments evident on his fan page were initially void of nationalistic remarks, however as the months passed the comments developed a national identity of their own. The frequency of the comments eventually died down, however around Remembrance Day his page experienced an abundance of racialised and nationalised condolences. During that time, it seemed that the connection between his decease, his time spent serving in the British Army and Remembrance Day was so strong that all other non-military aspects of his life had been lost.  Infrequently a user posted a comment stating some long-lost memory regarding a shared childhood, but apart from such seldom referrals his life appeared to have been amalgamated into the wider collective of an online British national identity.
The study was also influenced by the poppy-burning event of Remembrance Day 2010, which served as a reminder that despite ritualistic British events taking on a multi-cultural façade, they still remain clearly racialised with very little space for ‘other’ identities to take part.  As a result of the burning of a large plastic poppy during the two minutes silence synonymous with Remembrance Day, affiliated fan pages have been brimming with users keen to put forward their opinions and perspectives on the event, which in turn has resulted in the construction of a collective national identity online.
Previous research regarding online communities has tended to use ethnographic research consisting of face-to-face (or avatar-to-avatar) interviews with participants in conjunction with online observational methods (Miller and Slater, 2001. Miller, 2011. Lysloff, 2003.)  Brotsky and Giles (2007) on the other hand conducted their online research by creating alternative virtual identities and participating as covert members of the discussion board in order to gain access to the pro-anorexic community.  Within the present study, a non-participatory observational role was adopted, despite having the option to adopt the identity of a covert participator like Brotsky and Giles (2007), it was avoided as taking such a deceptive role is rife with ethical implications.
As the researcher was already a member of the online community being studied, contrived deception was kept to a minimum. Kottak (1982) states that by trying to research a culture different to one’s own, the researcher may develop a more “impressionistic domain, one in which analysis sometimes seems akin to philosophy or the humanities as to the sciences” (1982:42), therefore researching an unfamiliar culture may create an invalid analysis.
Research design
In order to generalize the research to the wider population, it was important to develop a sample criteria, the internal search engine within Facebook was used to find a selection of fan pages which adequately portrayed the poppy-burning event.  A key phrase (Remembrance Day 2010) was inputted into the search engine which reflected the main interest of the study. Pages were eliminated if they had less than a thousand fans, as it was believed that the online activity could develop further than initially evident.  The search ended after ten fan pages were chosen, which contained enough data for a successful discourse analysis to occur. 
An emergent mixed method design was developed due to the need for a more observational research method that acknowledged real-time user interactions within the fan pages.  The socially constructed claim to knowledge within this study suggested that the complexities of subjective meanings ascribed to the experiences of those being researched needed to be identified rather than categorized.  This in turn supports the use of a discourse analysis and a non-obtrusive observational method.

Lurking within Facebook

The precise observational position adopted within the research was that of a ‘lurker’, as described by Jordan (2009), that is to say the researcher logged in and logged out without contributing directly to the online community. This ‘one-way mirror’ technique has often been frowned upon due to the associated ethical implications of it being a covert form of observation. However, it is justified within the study as the researcher is reflecting the actions of a large number of potential online participants who ‘lurk’ around the site observing without necessarily making their presence known (Jordan, 2009).  ‘Lurking’ thus allows for the covert study of virtual human life as it is lived in its own undisturbed setting.
Discourse analysis

With regards to the discourse analysis, Fisher (2010) states that it is ideal to adapt the methodology to the distinct research site of Facebook. With this in mind, concepts to be identified within the texts were developed in order to create a semi sequential process to the analysis and to provide the research with a stronger degree of validity. To analyse the data the chosen pages were observed frequently and any significant changes or shifts in the topics of discussion were documented, in addition to this the layout of the fan page was also analysed in order to assess its significance to the discourse present. Initially the discourse analysis focused on purely the text evident on the page, however as the study developed it became obvious that the images present provided vital opinionated views which aided in the construction of ‘other’ identities (Hamilton et al, 2003), they were thus consequently incorporated in to the main body of the research.  Furthermore, the wall pages were observed in their entirety in order to preserve the flow of the narrative.
Facebook as an extremist space

The fan pages are a user –defined creation, in which the user is able to post images texts and videos which in turn builds up the structure of the page. With regards to pictures it was quickly noted that pages with fewer images had less user activity, this suggested that visual discourse provided a sense of authenticity to the page.  The most common visual theme across the images showed overt hostility against Muslims, as many of the crudely photo shopped images had a tendency to distort well-known aspects of Islam.  There were also visual associations between Islam and social evils, for example an image was evident which portrayed the missing toddler Madeleine McCann with the bewildering caption “Muslims hurt children”, despite the fact that she disappeared in Portugal, a non-Muslim country (figure 1).  Images of the Muslim protesters involved in the poppy-burning event were also evident with edited captions on their banners (figure 2), once again chosen from a broad spectrum of stereotypes: “my wife wears a burqa to cover her tash!!!” and “I won’t lie we do fucking stink” being a few examples.

Figure 2-Image of the protesters found on the page 'Poppy-burning Muslim should fuck off home'

According to Batur et al (2001) racist imagery are products of social processes that influence the construction of race. Initially the white British identity is created within the context of the long-term oppression suffered by the Muslim collective, the pro-white British and anti-Muslim images generated are then perpetuated by means of transformation and redefinition. Together these social processes help create a white collective with an anti-Muslim sentiment. National symbols were frequently incorporated within the images to reinforce the aforementioned anti-Muslim sentiment, such as the St Georges flag (figure 2) and the Union Jack flag (figure 3), both of which were used as the background for a wider message.  

Figure 3-Image incorporating the Union Jack flag on the page 'How Dare Muslims Disrespect Remembrance Day by Burning Poppies'

Despite the apparent nationalist rhetoric of the images, the added captions (“UK Resistance” and “NO FUCKING SURRENDER”) resonated hostility and overt British militancy (figure 3), supporting Billig’s (1995) view that attention must be paid to the seemingly mundane aspects of nationalism. 
However the images which gained the most user feedback were those that regurgitated infamous British World War Two propaganda.  For example the “Your Country Needs You” image, which was reclaimed from the past and replaced with “The English Defence League Wants You-To Join The Fight Against Militant Islam”, the image clearly defined two sides to the ‘war’, the English Defence League vs. Islamic extremism. The use of such infamous pieces of propaganda projected the view that Britain is at war with a social evil on the scale of Nazism. 
Similarly on the other end of the spectrum, anti-racist views were also portrayed through the use of parallel propaganda, for example the “Keep Calm and Carry On” image had been doctored to “Keep Calm and Twat a Racist” (figure 4), although interestingly the latter was found on an openly racist fan page as a counter-attack to the racist main discourse present.  Despite this, the image still remained similar to the English Defence League’s version of the “Your Country Needs You” image in that both condone violence against the other. Back and Solomos (1996) interestingly point out that the role of visual culture in conjunction with racism serves to provide a simplified and digestible version of the racism being promoted, such is evident in the images which reduced Islam and British Muslims to hairy, smelly kidnappers. Similarities can also be drawn between the images present on the fan pages and Nazi propaganda generated against the black allied soldier and the rich Jew during the Second World War, in that both past and present propaganda serve to visualise the downfall of a nation state as a result of a single race.  

Figure 4-Image incorporating World War Two propaganda with anti-racist views found on the page 'the sick people who burnt poppies on Remembrance Day 2010 deserve to die'

Fan pages as a form of information

The use of the fan pages as an information source regarding a topic rather than a true reflection of one’s online personality supports Allmendinger’s (2001) view that the “influence and dominance of information and electronics on modern society cannot be denied” (2001:57). Despite this, the creation of a fan page for informative purposes was not consistent, for some pages the designated information section remained empty as the title of the page provided information enough (‘I hate the Muslim scum who burned the poppies on Remembrance Day’).  Other pages used this section to contradict the outward racism evident in the content of the page; “JUST TO CLEAR THIS UP, THIS PAGE IS AIMED AT THE SELECT FEW WHO DISRESPECTED OUR COUNTRYS' SPECIAL DAY AND NOT ALL MUSLIM BELIEVERS” thus serving to deflect the blame of the content of the page away from its creators.  However some pages performed the opposite by showing a tendency to deliberately distance themselves from all Muslims rather than just the culprits by using the term ‘Muslims’ far too generally thus referring to the entire social group rather than those involved: “It wasn't long back when the American Rev Terry Jones threatened to burn the Quran, muslims all over the world rioted. Now they do the same to our beloved symbol of Remembrance Day the Poppy. How dare they disrespect those who fought for our Country!”  Furthermore as the information section is not open source and only changeable by the page administrator, the information may remain visibly incorrect despite the fact that the users may acknowledge that the information is untruthful, this was particularly true in cases where the information section contained no viable information whatsoever: “just read this page, fuckin muslim wankers!!”

The normality of a white British collective

The extremist discourse present on the fan pages emerged from the assumption and to an extent romanticisation of an ideal white British collective, which in turn created a space ubiquitous with rules and regulations regarding the ‘correct’ way to express a British identity online.  This collective representation echoed Durkheim’s (1912) view, as well as those of many contemporary nationalist writers, that a collective is based on commonalities.  In particular Durkheim describes how relationships are formed through the intense interactions of rituals, in this case the fan page based interactions surrounding Remembrance Day.
Although within the fan pages it appeared that such commonalities transcends national boundaries (Gellner, 2006). For example there was a particularly vocal user who appeared frequently within the fan pages whilst reinforcing an outward identity of anti-Muslim Britishness, however on closer inspection of their personal profile it was evident that the user did not reside in Britain.  Their acceptance into a predominantly British context echoed Gee’s (1999) concept of the ‘political’, as the user appeared to conform to the nationalistic expectations of their fellow users. The transnational capacity of the virtual echoes Gellner’s view that it cannot be taken for granted that “the people who identify with a given nation inhabit the same space” (2006:1).
Despite the commonality of language and national identity, differences did exist within the collectivity of white Britishness. ‘Race traitorship’(in this case a white British individual with attitudes or opinions thought to be against the interest or well-being of their fellows) in particular, was viewed as a serious deficit to the amalgamation of the user to the page community, to the extent that portraying views of race traitorship generated hostility and accusations of favouring the enemy.
Hall (1996) supports this and asserts that race is a social production, where biological characteristics have less importance than cultural concepts. Ignatiev et al (1994) supports Hall in his view that race is historically, socially and culturally constructed, and further states that due to its construction race can be undone in order to promote equality and avoid oppression. Although the hostility surrounding the idea of denying (or ‘undoing’) ones race appeared to be an unforgivable act within the fan pages, resulting in the ‘traitor’ being likened to the very people they ought to be conspiring against: “put a turban on and stand by them why don’t you?”


Drawing on empirical data, this study was concerned with investigating whether or not interactive media reinforces a collective British national identity online.  It has examined the ways in which the fan pages themselves reinforce a collective British national identity by encouraging user participation.  Which in turn is a result of the layout of the fan pages themselves, as they are structured in accordance to what is deemed important by the users rather than by a higher authority of the media source.
This study argues that posting comments and images on the wall appeared to aid the creation of an online ethnoscape (Smith, 1999), such ethnoscapes assisted in the construction of national myths and memories (Anderson, 1991. Smith, 1999), and in turn acted as the backbone for the creation of a national identity (Colley, 1992). The data also suggested that a racialised theme ran across the majority of the discourse present on the fan pages, which in turn served to ostracise Muslim identities by presenting them as a ‘poppy-burning other’. According to Osborne (2008) the enemy within view of British Muslims is a result of a growing consensus that Muslim identities are a threat to British identities.
During the period of the fieldwork, from the emergence of the fan page to the current day, the limitless nature of the fan pages allowed users to post countless imaginative discourses, spanning from images to videos, articles to poetry.  The fan page thus replicated the roles of several different websites in their discursive, visual and informative elements (Wikipedia, Twitter, YouTube and Photobucket).  Towards the end of the fieldwork, the observed walls altered from a space for generic status updates from the page administrator to a self-contained flow of discourse which encouraged consistent interactions and responses from those affiliated with the pages. This in turn echoes Giddens’ once more in his view that  “society only has form, and that form only has effects on people, in so far as structure is produced and reproduced in what people do” (1998: 77).
Even though the study yielded data which may be applicable to only virtual phenomena, it may have helped explain Facebook’s role within the creation of national identities.  Therefore I have intended this study to highlight the potential for greater empirical and theoretical research.  Additionally I hope that this study points to a potentially fruitful exploration in the creation of online national identities.


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