Projet de recherche, financement RCDAV 2017–2019
Haute école d’art et de design – Genève
Abstentionism: A Democratic Issue?
Abstentionism is one of the major issues in contemporary democracies. Citizens are shunning ballot boxes in large numbers, both in Switzerland and throughout the world. Consequently, social networks have become the place where opinions are shared until one sometimes has the impression that electoral results are decided in advance. The Laboratory team examined this question since it is characteristic of the cryptic and ambiguous relationship that democratic authorities maintain with social networks.
Western democracies – Switzerland is no exception – struggle to mobilize electors to get out the vote. In 2017, we interviewed Christophe Genoud, Federal Vice-Chancellor of the Canton of Geneva about public policies the Swiss government had implemented regarding abstentionism and the difficulties they faced in their attempts to reverse the trend. With regard to this desertion of traditional democratic institutions, we know that social networks enable everyone to express themselves, and large communities can come together there around both social and political causes. We wanted to keep up with the intense stream of current events and therefore decided to focus on the French presidential elections of May 2017. French electors maintain a fairly close relationship to politics and their politicians, and we were sure that the event would be widely commented upon on social networks. To such an extent that online one sometimes gets the impression that the election is actually taking place there, and that the result is already a “done deal,” as if a “like” can take the place of a vote.
In 2016, the results of the American elections did exactly that, surprising both media and electors who had counted on the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Consequently, the wall of people favorable to the Democratic party on Facebook bore no bearing upon the US electors’ inclinations towards Donald Trump (even if the system of electoral college voting does pose a problem in terms of the true representation of US electors). At that point, experts questioned the use of filter bubbles, which mean that each individual connected to like-minded peers believes that their way of thinking is that of the majority. Social networks are places where birds of a feather flock together (friends, one’s socio-cultural sphere, or on pages dedicated to one’s values and interests). This mirror effect results in one’s being cut off from the full spectrum of diverse opinions of this world.
Ethical Premises: Not Being Divisive
Inciting argument over abstentionism on social networks implies doing it citizen to citizen, outside of institutional messaging, and remaining tuned in to everyone.
Over the course of our experiments in 2017, our research team did not position themselves as defenders of the vote, and they had no constituents or institutional directives. We did not wish for our point of view to be either Manichaean, caricatured, or dogmatic. We did not take on such a subject with the viewpoint that voting was the only option for a citizen, even if the desertion of the ballot box is obviously a danger to the essential core of our democracies.
It was important to approach this type of thematic without any preconceived assumptions, such as contrasting, for example, “good” voters with “bad” abstentionists. Furthermore, thanks to the viral dynamics of social networks, we sought to initiate discussion and debate on this democratic crisis with citizens present on the Internet platforms concerned (Facebook, Instagram).
Embodying the Message
Caroline Bernard, a researcher of the Laboratory, spent several months augmenting her “viral aura” by regularly posting personal and private content, creating a requisite profile in order to open the way for the Laboratory’s social experiments.
Caroline Bernard, a researcher on the project, established a personal presence on social networks, and provides feedback on the Laboratory’s experiments.
A viral strategy aims to individualize a message in order to place an individual at the heart of the mediation and get them to relay the message. As semiologist François Jost explains, social networks are based upon a variable geometry that places each individual at the heart of the network: “Blogs and social networks are a new form of this infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.” Virality is based upon this displacement of the center towards a center created according to a rebound policy wherein each individual becomes, in turn, a key disseminator. As a result, each person can share their opinion, more often than not their discontent, becoming a tribune that does not require consecration by any media authority.
A platform such as Facebook encourages the visibility of personal content such as selfies, family photos, to the detriment, for example, of the sharing of newspaper articles. Thus, Facebook chooses to disseminate private publications more widely. Having a thousand Facebook friends does not mean that a published message appears on a thousand walls, it will only be distributed to a specific selection of the user’s Facebook friends based upon their apparent affinities, algorithmic affinities to be more precise. In the beginning, I was more of a spectator when it came to social networks, with a minimum level of activity that consisted of forwarding a few professional articles on the art world or current events, and little or no influence and to little effect. Before committing myself to social experiments, I had to work on my profiles on social networks as if they were malleable, the better to increase my viral capacities, even on a modest scale. It was not possible for me to become ultra-popular within my network, such an effort would require a more long-term commitment with a virtually constant stream of publications, and, let us say, a different sort of “aura.” So it was difficult to imagine that, from my quasi-total absence of visibility, I could, from one day to the next, launch social content in a manner that would resonate online. Our first visual experiments turned out to be far from fruitful; we were leaning on amateur graphic criteria, we did not want to appear to be professional, as we attempted to open up debate with visual pleasantries. Our content was not relayed enough on social networks, simply because it did not appear anywhere. We had to begin by increasing our viral reach so that our messages might acquire a bit of visibility by default.
Consequently, I began posting personal content, beginning with a smiling portrait of me added to my profile, giving myself a face. I also began to exponentially increase my activity on Facebook and Instagram, asking questions and initiating threads. I would post on my life every two hours, tagging friends in order to be posted on their walls. As a researcher, it’s no mean challenge to thus expose one’s personal life to that extent for the sake of an experiment, even before conceiving of any socially oriented research. One is left with a definite feeling of selling oneself cheap to this form of populism. However, without losing oneself in moralistic equivocations, if one needs to send a message, then your online profile and presence needs to become a sort of showcase or conduit for that message: one must pave the way and show oneself to be a “real” person.
Making it a Family Affair
Although abstentionism seems to be a societal question that concerns democracy as a whole, researcher Caroline Bernard decided to engage the abstentionist members of her own family in discussions that were subsequently posted live on Facebook.
Consequently, once my profile gained a bit of traction, we decided to discuss abstentionism from a personal standpoint. For example, it was out of the question to announce that one was working on a project on virality or abstentionism through a design school. I had to place myself as a social citizen at the heart of the process.
So I involved my cousin, whose profile on social networks packed more of a viral punch than my own. We shared a common personal history and similar social and political commitments, but my cousin had decided to abstain as early as the first round of elections. Considering our parallel backgrounds, and the establishment of well-considered divergences in our positions, we decided to create an event around our differences.
Accordingly, we both took to the streets of Montpellier, one of us sporting a t-shirt that said, “I vote,” the other one with one reading “I don’t vote,” then we posted our discussions with passers-by live on Facebook. While it’s a bit passé today, at the time the live Facebook format was enjoying a boom and people were using it to share moments of their lives in real time on social networks. It must be understood that the functionalities offered by platforms also dictated the wiggle room we had for the creation of messages. Currently, 90% of videos are viewed on this platform using the automatic playback feature with subtitles. As a result, the sound on videos is only rarely activated, so the message should be legible on the screen, hence the visual importance of our t-shirts in this case. Consequently, we met with people in the street at the same time on Facebook. Each person expressed themselves regarding their convictions either live or through comments posted on our respective walls. Both our walls combined garnered over 2,000 views and a substantial number of comments. In addition to the amount of views, messages and comments, I must above all emphasize the quality of the exchanges that took place: the people who took our personal undertaking to heart provided detailed information on their positions.
Then, I began another experiment with my father, a disappointed former supporter of center-right politician François Fillon, who decided to abstain for the first time between the two ballots. I also had some exchanges with my sister, a fed-up ex-supporter of Jean-Luc Mélenchon who decided not to vote in the second round of polling in the presidential election. Facebook live enabled us to have an exchange that went beyond a family meal. We were able to share our family discussion on a wider scale. Nevertheless, one must emphasize that live exchanges on Facebook are used far less currently. Formulas can never be sustained and current technical means can never be used to predict future forms: a similar attempt in 2019 would necessitate playing out this family interaction through other means, both technical and conceptual.
So, this was a family affair, one used to recount the tale of an election that became symbolic of wide-ranging political alienation. The message is centered – one might even say egocentric – upon an “embodied” point of view. It is a form of self-heroization: the individual must proclaim their message and open up their personal history to the field of the collective, taking a central stance. It is in the spirit of a fiction that probably originates in a source that transcends the existence of social networks. It is even impossible to gauge whether Facebook or its users impose this self-centering: is it the algorithm that focuses upon personal content, or Facebook users who seek out such content – the eternal debate of the chicken or the egg.
Thus seizing upon the spirit of virality positions the designer at the ethical limits of their occupation. Often, buzz seems to be based upon a mob mentality such as fear, or peer pressure, mechanisms which, in the case of discriminatory speech, are rooted in populism. How can one create messages that adhere to the spirit of virality but do not fall into the trap of being overly facile. In turn, the danger also lies in our succumbing to divisiveness. Even in the midst of our convictions of professional intent and being “well-meaning,” we risk disqualifying a message that we might judge to be too simplistic in both form and substance.
The Memetic Message
Sign holding is the act of making politically committed selfies. This type of meme is used often on social networks and is a standard of communication on social issues. By appropriating this format, the designer must come to terms with a preexisting format that has consistently proved itself.
As expected, in May 2017, Marine Le Pen made it to the second round of the French presidential election. I then decided to express my fears in the form of a commonly used meme, sign holding. It consists of a selfie with a message written on a series of white pages. The declaration should be simple, expressing the quintessence of my convictions and my commitment, complete with a punchy conclusion. It plays on an emotional autobiographical aspect, as I position myself as a potential victim should the election of Le Pen take place. My message was a success, it was shared several dozen times and, a rare occurrence, it made its way outside my circle of Facebook friends. Additionally, the meme survived its moment, reappearing intermittently after the election, eliciting reactions that ranged from enthusiastic approval to violence. In this case, success is measured by a quantitative and tangible result, such as the transcending of one’s own circle, but it is obviously impossible to translate this good result into a calculation of the number of abstentionists whom we convinced to go out to vote.
Le premier Sign Holding date du 3 août 2011, une jeune new-yorkaise lance le mouvement « nous sommes les 99 % », les 99 % en regard des 1 % plus riches des États-Unis qui contrôlent la moitié des richesses. Ce Sign Holding en référence à l’acte de participer à un mouvement social ou politique en prenant un selfie ou en posant pour une photo, avec une pancarte manuscrite affichant un message sur le problème et le partageant en ligne sous le hashtag désigné. Cette forme est déclinée à de très nombreuses reprises dénonçant à The first sign holding dates back to August 3, 2011. A young New Yorker launched the “We Are the 99%” movement, referring to the one percent of the richest people in the US who control more than half the wealth of the entire country. This act of sign holding, is a reference to participation in a social or political movement by taking a selfie or posing for a photo with an inscribed sign featuring a message on a given issue, and sharing it online under a designated hashtag. This frequently takes a variety of forms that denounce both social and collective problematics, or relay personal appeals for help (for example, someone seeking a donor for a serious illness). These are selfies of a sociopolitical character, emblematic of contemporary forms of political action. People come together over a cause by exposing themselves and, in turn all become spokespeople.
To learn more about sign holding, see Molly Moran’s entry, “Sign Holding” on the Knowyourmeme.com, website, published in 2014, consulted on July 13, 2019.
Our video, Toi, Tu Peux t’Abstenir (“You Too Can Abstain”), on the 2017 French presidential campaign, ran between the two polls.