Polarisation and Contestation of the Covid-19 Crisis debate in the Greek Digital and Social Media

  • Project Objectives and Challenges

The Covid-19 crisis has caused a serious health, welfare, economic and social crisis in almost every country around the globe. In most countries, governments followed scientific advice which led to different crisis management policies aimed to stop the pandemic, fortify the public healthcare systems and support those affected by the economic consequences of the crisis. Prevention policies imply that people should act and behave in a specific way, the so-called “individual responsibility” (Giritli Nygren and Olofsson, 2020) which has also become central in discursive terms. However, many people contested both political decisions and scientific recommendations in physical as well as in digital public spheres. Digital Public Sphere offers alternative arenas for public debate, as well as platforms on which people bypass the mainstream media and enable citizens to exert influence on decision-making and public policy (Bennett, 2012; Castells 2008). However, the Digital Public Sphere does not only increase people participation but also increase social and political polarisation (Zhuravskaya et al. 2020), as they both spread new messages and trigger value conflicts already present among users. Along with disruption of people’s lives, Covid-19 disrupted Public Sphere function. People isolation, blurred boundaries between private and social life, huge amounts of unreliable information which cannot be confirmed, attempts at finding un-produced scientific knowledge necessary for survival are only some examples (Trenz et al. 2020). Moreover, restrictions on movement have limited access to reliable, high-quality information sources, pushing people instead towards newsfeed on portals and social media (Kalogeropoulos et al. 2020). Finally, other studies showed that quality of produced information and media freedom declined due in part to the pandemic (Herr, 2020).

Focusing on Greece, although the government set up a scientific committee, consulted on Covid-19 management policies, in many cases political decisions did not follow scientific recommendations. Moreover, a few times different members of the government or scientific committee spread contradictory messages. Additionally, different studies showed that media freedom in Greece faces some serious issues (RFS, 2020), and there are major violations of the democratic standards, especially to those related to restrictions in media freedom, due to the Covid-19 crisis (Grahn et al. 2020).  These facts led a sector of society to distrust both political and scientific leadership and to contest their decisions in the public domain. Contestation in the public sphere derives from a wide variety of reasons and arguments, which lead to divisions and polarisation within society (Nielsen et al. 2020). A closer analysis of the public discourse is expected to show that a significant part of the contestation has roots in post-truth politics and populism such as those that deny the existence of the virus and believe in conspiracy theories (Shahsavari et al. 2020). Others, on the other hand, argue against the restriction measures and the co-called individual responsibility policies, considering them an attack on their civic rights and democratic liberties. Another part of the contestation comes from political motives, as its core argument prioritises state over individual responsibility, hence authorities should have adopted more preventative measures such as supporting the public health system, having fewer pupils in classes, strengthening the public transportation system, etc. (Stavrakakis & Katsampekis, 2020). Finally, some argue against government decisions because they strongly believe that the government is taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis in order to implement harsh neoliberal policies, and secure its political power and strengthen its rule (della Porta, 2020). Behind these arguments there is a complex set of motivations, connected to a variety of basic underlying values: civil rights and liberties, freedom of speech, data security, the need to safeguard vulnerable social groups (such as care workers and migrants), gender equality, and the authority of science (Mullis, 2020).

In light of the different perceptions and values, the proposed research project has four main objectives: First, to examine the evolution of the debate about the Covid-19 crisis by identifying and investigating the claims that were made, the main issues of public discourse and the most salient actors in this debate. Secondly, to reconstruct the dynamics of contestation in the public sphere in terms of competing actors, interests, and arguments, and their main lines of division. Thirdly, to investigate the discursive construction of the Covid-19 crisis in terms of its underlying conceptions, democratic ideas and values that drive public debate, and how they form the contestation between different actors (e.g. for vs. against political decisions, pro vs. against vaccination, rational thinkers vs. conspiracy theorists). Fourthly, to investigate the polarisation of citizens who read and comment on the news in Social Media, aiming to show how the global health crisis affects the public’s attachment to pre-existing values, and the role of social media as a possible driver of new emerging value conflicts. These four main objectives can be summarised in the core research question that drives the project: How was the debate about the Covid-19 crisis in Greece developed? What were the main contestation patterns, and how did they trigger the polarisation of public discourse in social media?

  • State-of-the-art & Innovation

Regardless of the millions of victims, Covid-19 has also left behind divided social and political systems, hence systematic empirical studies on the construction of public spheres and an analysis of the debate about Covid-19 crisis is much needed from global Academia. Hence, the project aims to contribute to this body of literature by focusing on the core debates, such as: Is democracy possible during periods of restriction and lockdown? To what extend should we sacrifice our freedom in the name of public health and safety? Can we turn the pandemic into an opportunity for unity and the promotion of democratic values? The only attempt at studying the message brought forth by the media is a frame analysis of global media, which has shown that Human Interest and Fear/Scaremongering frames have dominated the media coverage of the pandemic (Ogbodo et al. 2020). Other related studies so far mostly focus on the source that people choose to be informed about the Covid-19 crisis, as well as the reliability of these sources (Kalogeropoulos et al. 2020, Nielsen et al. 2020).

Directly connected to the previous issue, according to Trenz and his associates (2020), the Covid-19 crisis has disrupted the normal functioning of the public sphere. Their core argument is that in times of forced isolation, the virtual public sphere is strengthened, expanding into new forms of engagement. Thus, a project that systematically examines how and under what conditions the Covid-19 management agenda is set, the popular worries/fears expressed, the core values contested and how society’s polarisation reflects on social media during the pandemic will be a significant contribution to the field.

Another novelty of the project is its sources. Previous studies that applied Political Claims Analysis have mostly used newspapers as their data mining source. However, as is shown above, studies on how people get informed in times of Covid-19 point out that the majority of people use social media and news platforms as their main sources (Kalogeropoulos et al. 2020). Hence, a project about formation of public discourse that is based entirely on digital media sources (news websites and social media) is an innovation that adds to the scientific value and impact of the project.

Despite the fact that Facebook is a very influential social media, its contribution to the public sphere formation in Greece is still missing. Hence our novel attempt at analysing the debate between Facebook users, with the aim of examining how social media trigger polarisation in the digital public sphere between expressed values, democracy and populism. A similar to that approach has been followed to study contestation during the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 (Paschou and Loukakis, 2018). Other attempts to study the public debate on social media such as that of Michailidou (2017) on the debate about the Eurozone crisis use different research methods (semi-automated coding or qualitative analysis). Similarly, studies about the polarisation use surveys or qualitative data (e.g. Andreadis and Stavrakakis 2018) instead of social media as the proposed project does.

Finally, another novelty is the methodological plurality of the project as it combines two complementary quantitative content analysis methods with an in-depth quality interviews phase. In detail, political claims and Facebook comments analysis both examine contestation of Covid-19 crisis from different standpoints. The first focuses on public claimants who gain the attention of the media by trying to investigate the procedures of a top-down formation of the public sphere, while the latter investigates the contestation at the individual level trying to offer a bottom-up approach of digital public sphere formation. Finally, in-depth interviews with journalists and key civil society actors can shed light on journalism patterns and salience or the non-appearance of some actors and/or issues on the debate.

  • Scientific and Social Impact

To understand the public perception and contestation of the Covid-19 Crisis, to understand attitudes towards policy measures and the perceived legitimacy of actors (politicians and scientists), and lastly, to understand why people support or react against the way state authorities are dealing with the crisis is highly relevant for both the scientific community and society.  From a scientific standpoint, analysis of public discourse and patterns that it follows is directly connected with the operation of democracy today especially in times of crisis. More specifically, in times of a health crisis, the authorities face a dilemma: how far should people’s democratic rights and civil liberties be restricted in the name of public health and safety. Moreover, an investigation of the contestation and polarisation at the individual level will provide elements of actors’ and policies’ legitimacy, as well as the roots of the contestation. Another scientific impact of great importance is that the project will examine the procedures of public sphere formation and contestation in times of non-normal operation of the public sphere (e.g. reduced circulation of newspapers, more and more people using social media for sources of information, etc.) which is something that is missing from existing literature. Additionally, the project aims to show how the international health crisis is triggering new or existing conflicts around core values and democracy. Project findings will be presented in scientific audience via participation in international conferences, and publications in international journals. Finally, project databases will be made available for secondary research via the Social Data Repository of EKKE within a four-year period from the end of the project.

With respect to the Social impact of the project, knowledge about journalism patterns and the quality of information received by the media can benefit society and the quality of democracy. Moreover, an investigation of the main arguments about the contestation can reveal why people distrust both political and scientific authorities. Focusing on polarisation in the social media can reveal the actual divisions that appear in Greek society (such as pro-government against opposition voters, people that obey the restrictive measures vs. people that refuse to follow, people that want to be vaccinated vs. those that are hesitant or against vaccination, etc.), as well as the values and perceptions they are rooted in. It will also reveal the opportunities and dangers that engagement in social media debates carries for democratic engagement and the protection of core values, something that can gain the interest of both policymakers and the general public. A deep systematic examination of clashes in the public sphere and their roots could have a great impact on society and polity, since knowing the conditions that underlie public support or opposition to the corona restrictions are highly relevant to key public actors, such as public health, government and EU authorities, and can influence their design of public communication strategies during the crisis. For this reason, the PI plans to deliver a policy brief summarising the project’s main findings for journalists, civil society and policy makers in Greece and abroad.

  • Research Methodology

The proposed project makes use of three different research methods: Political Claims Analysis (PCA), Facebook Comments Analysis and in-depth Semi-Structured interviews. In detail:

First, PCA allows the study of interventions by organised publics in the public domain (Cinalli and Giugni, 2016; Koopmans and Statham, 1999), providing a detailed overview of contestation about Covid-19 management in Greece over the whole crisis period. Within the public domain, contestation of the Covid-19 crisis was carried out by a wide spectrum of actors such as state actors and government, political opposition parties and scientists, as well as trade unions and confederations, pressure groups, and civil society organisations and movements. These different actors raised their voices in the media, competing for more attention.

The unit of analysis is a single claim which can be defined as an intervention, verbal or nonverbal, made in the public domain by any actor in the media related to the handling of Covid-19 crisis in Greece. A number of features are combined in the formation of a claim. These features are namely: the actor who makes the claim, the addressee (who is held responsible by the claimant), the issue (what the main concern is), the form (the verbal or non-verbal action through which the claim is inserted in the public domain), the object (the group of people whose interests and rights are affected by the realisation of the claim), the position (whether the claim is unfavourable or favourable to the object of the claim), and the reason (how claimants justify their interventions).

As for sources, for the article retrieval project uses news websites such as: in.gr, Protothema.gr, Zougla.gr etc. There are three main reasons for using news websites instead of newspapers: a) As shown above, most people chose news portals and social media for their main information sources during the pandemic, b) During the last decade, the circulation of Greek newspapers has dropped dramatically as more and more people are choosing digital media instead of newspapers, thus the digital media influences public discourse and public sphere formation more than the traditional press, c) Analysis of the press is common in sociology, media studies and political science, however there are few studies that exclusively relate to digital news to study the public sphere formation procedures, hence this choice increases the innovative character of the project. The selection of the proper sources for data mining will be based on a number of criteria such as: website ranking on website ranking platforms such as Alexa, Alexa v2 and Similarweb, the number of likes on Facebook, the number of followers on Twitter and political orientation. The only precondition that each news website has to fulfil in order to be included in source selection is to have a Facebook Page. Selection of the related articles will be done by an IT expert using specific keywords.

The second method that will be used is Facebook Comments Analysis. This method will be used in order to investigate the contestation and the polarisation of the Covid-19 crisis from below. Crowdtangle software will be used in order to download all Covid-19 related articles from selected news portals and Facebook pages. Then the most commented on relative articles will be selected in order to create the Facebook comments sample. The next step will be the coding of the comments which will be similar to that of political claims (same issue fields, addressee, position, etc.), but without coding any information about the author of the comment. It is important to highlight that we are interested only in the polarisation between Facebook users, what their position on the debate is and what their main arguments are, irrespective of their identity.

Finally, the proposed project will conduct 15-20 in-depth semi-structured interviews mainly with journalists, and actors from civil society in order to discuss how the main narrative of the Covid-19 crisis developed. The rationale of this approach is to contextualise the quantitative findings, to discuss them with people who affected the public discourse of the period. Interviews with the journalist target on how they covered the contestation about the crisis, and more specific on question such as: Do they take new responsibilities? Does the pandemic strengthen their role or weaken it? How do they build alliances to civil society and scientists? How do they deal critically with government?  Similar, it is important to investigate civil society response, approval or disagreement, on the implemented policies, as well as their salience or non-appearance in the public sphere. The interviews will be analysed with NVivo software.


  • PROJECT LEADER: INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL RESEARCH - National Centre for Social Research
  • BUDGET: 99.969
  • FUNDING AGENCY: H.F.R.I. - 3rd Call for H.F.R.I. Research Projects to support Postdoctoral Researchers
  • PROJECT TEAM: Aggelos Loukakis, Kostas Kanellopoulos, Argyro Psychi - Fili, Chara Kokkinou, Nikos Kapelonis. Advisory Committee: Apostolos Papadopoulos, Maria Kousi, Hanzs-Jorg Trenz
  • YEAR START: 2022-09
  • YEAR START: 2024-09