On April 28 Spanish citizens went to the polls to renew the Cortes Generales, the Spanish bicameral parliament. The 2019 ballot has been a peculiar one for at least two reasons: on the one hand, it has been a snap election, held after the resigning of the Sanchez government and the consequent dissolution of the Parliament. The crisis has been triggered – at least officially – by the rejection of the budgetary law by the Congress of Deputies, but it is strictly entangled to the Catalan crisis. Spain held three general elections in the last five years (2015, 2016, 2019), a novelty for a country otherwise characterized in the last decades by quite stable central governments: now the PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez has the task of building a majority in a highly divergent parliament. Secondly, the election took place less than a month before May 26th, the date set for the European Elections (and for several local elections). The election campaign was therefore expected to roll seamlessly, turning parties’ communication activity in a marathon touching all the hottest political issues at both levels.
Hence the election campaign was expected to run along two lines: one focused on the urgent internal crisis – tied to the events in Catalonia – and one hinging on the upcoming European elections. In past elections, the EU as such was not considered a matter of contention by Spanish parties and citizens. This time however, the politicization of the EU was expected to be boosted in the public debate – also as a result of the rise of the newcomer far-right Vox party, which emerged on the national scene after the December exploit in regional election in Andalusia. Vox holds positions of soft euroscepticism, arguing that Spain should make no sovereignty concessions to the EU, and its presence on the national stage pushed expectations towards an increased politicization of the debate around the European Union.
What do Twitter data have to say about Spanish election and the EU
Capturing the elements of a public debate is not a straightforward operation – especially when it is about a broad topic such as the European Union. Digital media can cater for this purpose, since they open new avenues for the analysis of public opinion: not only they are recognized as crucial by political actors – especially when campaigning for office- but also they offer to citizens an arena for participating to the public debate. With the adequate caveats, social media can provide a glimpse of what politicians and citizens have in mind, what they see as relevant and what are the most divisive issue around which the debate arises.
Because of its structure, the relative accessibility of data and the way conversations take place in it, Twitter consitutite a valid source for this kind of analysis. For around a month before election day, we monitored the Twitter communication of the six major Spanish parties: we have collected all the tweets, retweets and replies by the parties candidates and the leaders, for a thorough total of 853 accounts – plus all the retweets and replies to the candidates’ tweets by other users (namely, citizens) – and we have investigated such data to in order to disentangle the debate related to the EU.
From this pool of around 3 million messages, EU relevant tweets have been initially identified on the basis of the presence of a set of keywords related to the topic. They have been furtherly classified on the basis of their content by means of machine learning algorithms. The final analysis has been conducted on tweets containing an opinion on the EU, or EU policies, or EU prominent figures.
As shown, expectations went toward a prominent role of the EU topic in the debate – but data was not ashamed of telling a completely different story: the politicization of the EU, in fact, appears to have stayed low throughout the election campaign in Spain.
The Twitter campaign revolved around European topics only to a limited extent – and this is true if we consider communication by the candidates as well as citizens’ reaction. This marginal interest in the European sphere can be summarized by the number of tweets by candidates or citizens that feature an opinion either on the EU itself, or on EU policies and actors. In the last month of the campaign (from March 20 to April 28), we were able to identify less than 18,000 such messages out of a database of over 3 million tweets.
It is straightforward from our results that the European dimension was not at the centre of the stage during the election campaign. Precisely for this reason however, the content of EU-related tweets is of interest: what are the topics pushing the EU on the scene? And why them?
With the aid of computational methods, the most relevant sub-topics of the debate have been investigated in order to make sense of the EU-related conversations. That lead to the emerge of some “clusters” of messages, ie. groups of tweets conveying the same message and containing similar or related words and concepts. We discovered that even in the already relatively small subset of conversations where the Spanish candidates and citizens talk about the EU, they tend to do so by referring to other topics – typically national affairs.
As the Table shows, out of six identified clusters only one – the first- can be directly ascribed to a truly European dimension, insofar as it contains comments about the very nature of the European integration process in which institutions and policies of the EU are questioned. That confirms the thesis of a marginal role of the future of the EU institutions in the debate.
The remaining issues linked to the Union are basically topics that are ultimately related to Spanish national politics: in these tweets the debate revolves around the EU only to a limited extent. The main interpretative lenses, in fact, remain the ones of internal politics: the bulk of the conversation is ascribable to a subgroup which crosses horizontally all the clusters and it is made of tweets where the EU or other member States are referred to as a reference or benchmark in a comparison. Spain is often referred to as “the only country in Europe/in the EU” where certain facts may happen – usually, with a negative acceptation, e.g. a country where a golpe is tolerated, where politicians can stay in office despite being under trial, where unemployment indexes are let skyrocketing, and so on.
The second-largest contributor to the debate is the subgroup of tweets soliciting an intervention by the EU: they come mainly from the last three clusters (4, 5 and 6) and -while for the “Golpe” cluster the message remains mixed, with tweets stating about the super partes position of the EU/Member states about the Puidgemont’s expatriation- for clusters about Venezuela and Environmentalism this second sub-group is quite homogeneous: Twitter users ask for a direct intervention of the EU in the field – respectively, a common stance on the Maduro-Guaidò crisis, and impacting policies tackling pollution and global warming at European level.
Therefore, despite the EU is brought into play in discussions about a number of topics, just very few of them concern the nature of the Union itself or even an actual EU intervention Still, the predominant national dimension signals the perception of the EU as a political space that contributes to structure the meaning of national issues and topics – confirming the internalisation of the Union as a benchmark and a model to tend to.
The parties’ activity: weight and topics
Things get more interesting if we shift focus from the aggregate to the party level. This is mainly due to the far-right party VOX, which partially met the expectations. Vox candidates in fact generated the largest slice of conversation about the EU: about 7,000 tweets – a little less than half of our sample of EU-related conversations – comes from (or is triggered by) this party. This is all the more interesting if we consider the fact that VOX candidates -among all the parties candidates- are not the ones who tweeted the most about the topic. Even if candidates from other parties (especially PSOE) paid more attention to the topic, VOX tweets on the EU generated a massive amount of retweets and replies from the citizens. In other terms, the opinions expressed by the far-right party reached a way broader public – and carried more weight in the online debate making of the party the powerhouse of the debate.
Moving to parties’ favourite topics, they have been looked at through the lens of the hashtags, since (especially on Twitter) they provide a convenient way for candidates to address specific issue and for citizens to express their opinions, circumscribing the perimeter of the debate. Similarly to what we have seen with the clusters, the most widespread hashtags confirm a lack of a proper debate focused on the EU as such. With the exception of Podemos (#diadelatierra) and PSOE (#horizoneu) the most frequently used hashtags refer neither to the EU itself nor to topics falling under EU jurisdiction, actually – with the exception of those tweets labelled under #notredame and demanding for an (unlikely) intervention of the EU institutions in the Cathedral rebuilding.
It is worth noticing that if we look at hashtags cloud (or clusters) based on VOX tweets, and compare them with the national level, we can spot only minor differences in terms of salience and scope of the topics, with the exception of VOX paying greater attention on topics such as Spanish identity. This can be interpreted as evidence of the role of VOX as the trendsetter in the Twitter arena for what concerns the European Union, which is reinforced by the fact that no other party generates through their tweets a comparable echo in terms of retweets and replies by other users when it comes to talking about European matters.
The 2019 Spanish election campaign has clearly not been centered around the European Union. What our analysis of the online communication of citizens and candidates tells us is that an above the average politicization of the EU politicization can be found within the “VOX bubble” but still the topic does not break the ceiling of the mainstream. Further research is needed to better understand whether this is due contingent factors – ie., the Catalan crisis out-shadowing other topics – or more profound, structural reasons. It is a fact however that, with regard to the Twitter debate, highly contentious themes such as “Spainexit” or similar have no room in the parties’ agenda nor in the public attention. On the other hand, a European dimension is more often than not summoned by Spaniards as a benchmark or goal for national issues or policies, thus hinting at what seems to be an early-stage form of Europeanization.
Photo credits Flickr CC: Rojs Rozentāls
The analysis is based on tweets and retweets of the candidates and the leaders of the six main parties for a thorough total of 853 accounts, plus all the retweets, replies and replies to retweets of the candidates tweets by other users. The time span covers the period from March 20 to April 28.
EU relevant tweets have been initially identified through a set of keywords related to the topic, then they have been furtherly classified on the base of their content. The final pool is made by tweets containing an opinion on the EU, on one of the EU policies, or on an EU prominent figure.
A similar analysis have been conducted by Francesca Arcostanzo and Pier Domenico Tortola in reference to the 2015 and the 2016 Spanish General Elections. The article can be read here.