Social Media as an Accelerant? Value Conflicts in Europe
European joint project investigates the influence of digital media on value polarization within the European Union
What role do digital and social media play in the increasing polarization of values within European societies? This is the question the ValCon research project has been investigating since September 2020, for which the joint project from three universities in Germany, Denmark and Spain is receiving almost one million euros from the Volkswagen Foundation.
„We are experiencing a deep crisis of liberal democracy,“ states Monika Eigmüller, professor of sociology with a focus on European Studies at Europa-Universität Flensburg and principle investigator of the joint project ValCon – Value Conflicts in a Differentiated Europe: The Impact of Digital Media on Value Polarisation in Europe. „Increasingly, the rise of populist parties is threatening the internal cohesion of European states. Our thesis is that, while this crisis is related to growing social inequality and social exclusion, it also finds its roots in the dramatic changes in political communication, the media landscape, and the general public that have transformed Europe in recent years.”
According to Eigmüller, this crisis is expressed in increasing conflicts over central European values such as freedom of opinion, equality, or the independence of the judiciary. „In digital media, these conflicts surface in the form of increasing polarization and a questioning of these values. Digital media communication patterns drive and intensify these conflicts. In this context, the media is not just an arena in which conflicts are fought out: it is itself an actor, she explains.
The goal of the ValCon research project is to reveal the driving mechanisms behind this mediatized logic of public value conflicts. „To this end, the project poses various questions about mobilization, polarization, radicalization, populism, the legitimacy of the EU and the process of European integration,“ explains Eigmüller. „For example: Does digital media usage increase a person’s willingness to mobilize for or against certain political values? Do social media possibly mobilize particularly strong, and formerly rather passive, groups of those who oppose liberal democracies? Do certain patterns of media use show support for or a questioning of democratic values? Does populist rhetoric differ by country and opinion? How is the European Union attacked in ways that differentiate it from national states? Is there such a thing as European populism?
To answer these questions, the project brings together in an innovative research setting two core issues: first, how (populist) content is embedded and interpreted in digital and social media; and second, how people use and appropriate the content of (digital) media.Focusing on the three central value conflicts over freedom of opinion, equality, and the independence of the judiciary, the project’s multidisciplinary research team explores the mechanisms that drive digital-media based political mobilization in six European countries: France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland and Spain.
“In an online survey, we will ask randomly selected citizens from the six countries about their media usage behavior and political values,” explains Eigmüller. “We will combine this with a comparative analysis of the media debates to analyze the three central value conflicts.”
The aim of the project is to understand the structures that will have long-term effects within this changed public sphere. At a second level, it can also help EU and national institutions meet important challenges in the realms of political communication and government work.
„We are currently experiencing a threatening cultural backlash,“ explains Dr. Monika Eigmüller. „This project seeks to help preserve the future of democracy in Europe and its member states.“
Prof. Dr. Monika Eigmüller
Seminar für Soziologie
Gebäude Helsinki, HEL134
Tel.: +49 461 805 2243