Lectio Praecursoria: Exploring affective discipline of a crisis

Let me begin with an anecdote I believe most of us have become way too familiar with during this year. Imagine a press conference, held by the local authorities and politicians: participants are wearing face masks and are clothed in somber tones, standing two meters apart of each other. The message of the press conference is repeated, weekly, in the speakers’ tone of voice, their body language, and the words they utter: this is serious, this is a situation that requires restrained behaviour from all parties. Remain calm, follow the guidelines.

However, not all agree on this message. While here in Finland those who openly question and actively act to undermine the efforts of scientists and public health authorities remain in relative minority, there are places where the head of the state urges people to openly resist calls for restraint. While this is a contest over facts and interpretations of those facts, this is also a contest over emotion. And this contest is our topic today.

While my examples are of a larger scale, similar contestations take place between friends and acquaintances, relatives and colleagues, across what is called a hybrid media environment. While feelings of crowds and individuals alike have intrigued scholars for hundreds of years, what sets our times apart from the days of Spinoza, Descartes, Le Bon, and many others, is that the emotions and feelings are extended to and circulated, accumulated and amplified by the hybrid media environment.

In this hybrid environment, there are the powerful players such as the mainstream news media and established political actors, that have been around for a while now. However, what makes this environment hybrid in the first place, is that in addition to the older forms of media such as newspapers, radio and television, there is a cornucopia of newer forms: social media, blogs, podcasts, video streaming and so on, that are increasingly intertwined with the older forms.

These more recent forms of media have, in the past 20 years, granted people a possibility to express their thoughts and feelings to a much wider audience than ever before. This has allowed many to find connections with likeminded people, but this ability to connect has brought with it not only new friendships and feelings of belonging, but also ways to seek for common enemies. At the same time, the technologies that enable these connections have made their users and the information they generate a commodity: a source of capitalist profit.

This is the context of my doctoral dissertation, in which I study news coverage of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and online comments to this news coverage. I chose to focus on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster as the empirical case of my dissertation, as it is a highly complex event with simultaneous local and global effects and implications that also have made the interconnectedness of societies, economies and media technologies very visible.

The mediated coverage of the so-called triple disaster of an earthquake, a tsunami and the meltdowns at the Japanese nuclear power plant engaged people across the globe, and social media was one venue where this engagement actualized. Moreover, even though the hybrid media environment was very different in 2011 from what it is now, its formative elements were already in place nine years ago.

In my dissertation, I set out to study three things. First, I was interested in the relationship between journalistically produced texts and their implied and actual readers in the hybrid media environment. Second, I wanted to know how affect works in networked, text-based communication, and how it circulates in the news and in the social media comments. In order to answer the second question, I also needed, third, to figure out how to study affect in text-based media, and what does that mean in terms of research methods and results.

In other words, I wanted to study how people comment on news on social media, and what kind of emotions and feelings they express (or inhibit) while doing so. I was also interested in emotions and feelings expressed in the news texts and how that might be visible in the comments. Furthermore, I wanted to know what kind of affect and emotion was attached to the events described in the news, and how those might reflect wider cultural and social understandings of these events and issues. To briefly summarise: I wanted to know how emotion, related to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, is circulated in the hybrid media environment.

There are also three concepts: affect, public and social media, that largely define my study. These three concepts form a figurative bundle that binds the study and its articles together. Therefore, I have dedicated quite a bit of space in discussing the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of these concepts in the introductory section of my dissertation, devoting most attention to affect as a key sensitizing concept.
To briefly summarise a long discussion, I use affect to describe both bodily sensations and feelings that often escape words but still influence on how we perceive things around us, and the more easily articulatable emotions. In addition to recognizing that such feelings and emotions are very subjective, I also emphasize that they have a highly collective and culturally shared aspect to them as well.

By public, I refer to a group of people engaged in discussing an issue, as in the public that debates the continuing aftermath of the US presidential elections, or the public that debates the ongoing consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. And by social media, I refer to online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok, or traditional discussion forums, where people gather to talk, share photos of their pets, comment on news or to organize politically ‚Äď just to name a few things.

I suggest that bringing these three concepts together and scrutinizing and problematizing them in relation to one another opens new ways to study affect as an important element of the hybrid media environment. In other words, to study how emotions and feelings circulate in the mixture of social media, journalism, opinion, fact, science and your neighbor’s latest conspiracy theory.

My dissertation addresses this entanglement through five publications that discuss four case studies and three types of empirical material, as summarized in this table. Three of the publications (one, three and four) are written together with my colleagues and two (two and five) are solo works.

The empirical material, collected between 2014 and 2016, comprises of news reports from Finland and from English-language newspapers across the Northern Hemisphere, and three types of social media material: Tweets, Facebook comments, and comments on the Finnish public broadcaster YLE’s commenting platform.

Because of the different types of research materials, my coauthors and I have applied several research methods. In publications two to five I have developed an analysis method for answering my third research question of studying affect in text by combining several existing qualitative analysis methods such as metaphor analysis and discourse analysis.

This combination of methods was motivated by my wish to examine various elements of the news and comments at the same time. Moreover, because affect and emotion in text are not only expressed directly as in an utterance such as ‚ÄúI‚Äôm really nervous right now,‚ÄĚ but they can be present in word choices and metaphors as well. For example, it does make a difference if the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi are discussed as ‚Äúapocalyptic and out of control,‚ÄĚ as EU‚Äôs then energy commissar G√ľnter √Ėttinger did, or to discuss the meltdowns as a technical issue that has a straightforward technical solution, which was the most common frame used by the scientific experts interviewed in the Finnish media.

Hence, my dissertation is an attempt at bringing together complex concepts to discuss an equally complex phenomenon of affect in the mediated coverage and commentary of an event that in itself is manifold, and the method of getting there has not been very straightforward either.
The findings of the dissertation also branch to several directions, ranging from very concrete to more theoretical ones.

Beginning with the more concrete and, in an sense the most general level, my empirical findings confirm what previous scholars have observed, and what many people also have learned through their experience: namely that affect and emotion are what drive online discussions forward and sustain people’s interest in continuing these discussions. Indeed, in order to be interested in something, most humans must feel something about that thing or an issue.

In addition, because there is a strong collective element to affect, affect is also tied to social and cultural power. In my dissertation, this is visible both in the comments and the news, as they contain elements where affect is entwined with struggles over power. At the level of discourse, the affect-laden power struggle can be exposed, for example, by investigating what is defined as ‚Äėscary‚Äô and who gets to define this. Are the ‚Äúscary‚ÄĚ things the emissions from the faulty reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, or the environmentalists who argue for phasing out of nuclear energy?

Another example concerns those who are implicated or outright claimed to be ‚Äėridiculous‚Äô. Are the people buying iodide tablets or hoarding toilet paper behaving ridiculously, or are the ridiculous ones the public officials who go behind racist remarks about ‚ÄúJapanese culture‚ÄĚ or, as in the case of covid-19 discussion, ‚ÄúChinese virus‚ÄĚ, and attempt to downplay the crisis?

In my case studies, such power struggle was most strongly present in discussions that were clearly politically divided, in one way or another. For example, as part of this discursive contest of power commenters tried to silence one another, most often by trying to make the other to appear as laughable or immature. A different form of this struggle appeared in the news, as public officials issued statements that urged people ‚Äúnot to panic‚ÄĚ, for instance.

I capture the power-related dynamic present in the news and news comments with the notion of ‚Äúaffective discipline‚ÄĚ. In affective discipline, the participants of a discussion attempt to maintain what is considered a socially acceptable emotional ‚Äútune‚ÄĚ or mood of a situation. In order to maintain the preferred mood, participants seek to engage in acts of affective discipline. While I have studied this dynamic in the context of journalism and social media in my dissertation, I suggest that this phenomenon is present also in different types of communication, digitally mediated and othervise, deserving further research.

In addition to the mediated coverage of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, acts of affective discipline have been clearly visible in reporting and discussing the covid-19 pandemic, and other fast-evolving crises, as I illustrated with the anecdotes at the beginning of this lectio precursoria.

I argue that similar dynamic also applies to discussions about climate change and loss of biodiversity, for example, where activists such as Greta Thunberg or the Extinction Rebellion attempt to disrupt the complacent mood and alert people to the urgent, ongoing disaster. So far, though, people in positions of social and economic power have tended to seek to downplay the activists and their message as immature and laughable.

Questions about affective discipline, including who gets to define how others should feel about something are crucial in understanding how discussions about burning issues play out in the contemporary hybrid media environment. These discussions, in turn, have actual impacts on how people choose to think and act on these issues.

To conclude, I suggest that studying the dynamic and forms of affective discipline may help better understand how the hybrid media environment operates. While the commodification of human feelings and willful circulation of anger for political and financial gain clearly feed a dystopian imagination, I would like to conclude with a more positive note. I suggest that the findings of my dissertation can be used to recognize, question, and eventually perhaps dismantle some of the systems that currently enable these unequal power relations at the level of discourse but with very tangible implications.

Master of Social Sciences Anna Rantasila’s doctoral dissertation Circulating Emotions, Sticky feelings. Affective dynamics of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in a hybrid media environment was publicly examined at Tampere University Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences on December 4, 2020.