War in Ukraine and the power of grief, empathy and social media communication.

A sociological perspective on common feelings we are experiencing right now.

When we were just starting to get our bearings after two years of a global pandemic, which has largely wrecked havoc on our lives, forcing us to deal with issues of illness, death, anxiety and uncertainty, a new world event shatters the normalcy we were all so much striving for. Since Putin has started Russia’s reckless attack of its neighbouring country of Ukraine, I have been barely able to focus on any other aspect of life than what is going on in Ukraine.

My thoughts are constantly travelling across the border to the Eastern part of Europe, which is so close to us. I wake up in the morning eager to know if the war is still happening, trying to grapple with that sense of early grief which you feel after you have lost a loved one, which makes you engage with that process which is called “wishful thinking”. My first thought upon awakening every morning is “this war is not real, it cannot be real, this cannot be happening”. As the mind clears, the war hits me again like a powerful nightmare and so I begin to scramble for news on my iPhone, switching from Twitter, to Instagram and the New York Times, the BBC and CNN, to check what the damage has been during the night whilst I was sleeping. How many casualties? How many women and children dead and injured? How many people displaced? How much of the Ukrainian cities have been destroyed? Are Russians getting closer to Kyiv and Odesa? Is Ukrainian President Zelensky still alive? As I try to calm myself reading the morning updates, my thoughts immediately turn to Ukrainian people. If this is the amount of grief that I am feeling, how can they possibly be coping with the grief that has befallen them since that fateful 24th of February 2022 when their lives got suddenly turned upside down by an unimaginable tragedy that has been sweeping their lives: the tragedy of war.

Our grief is not only personal, but it is also increasingly a collective experience. Why what is happening in Ukraine and to Ukrainians has been stirring our hearts so powerfully? Why are we foreign observers, especially in Europe, feeling their suffering so much? Is it because war has arrived in Europe yet again? Being a Generation X child, maybe I am feeling this tragedy so much because I have been brought up by a father who was a young child during World War II, who brought me up educating me about what he and million others had to live through. We have been brought up with the firm belief that a global war would not happen again, because we have learnt from the horrors of the 1940s. We celebrate the Italian Resistance every year on the 25th of April, national day of Liberation from Nazi-Fascism, recollecting every year the events that brought us to a peaceful mode of life. We know the huge loss of lives and the destruction of cities and human lives that the war brought about on our continent, which has not been conflict free in the post-war years, but this time the shock and the grief for what is happening seems magnified by the global reach of what is happening and by its timing. Have we perhaps become more sensitive to pain and suffering after the past two years of the Covid pandemic? Has the global pandemic increased our empathy for others? Have we finally acknowledged that grief is one essential component of our human condition? Those of us who have lost a loved one already were familiar with the annihilating power of grief. Maybe now everyone is becoming more sensitive to this experience?

Whatever the outcome of this war will be, hoping for peace to be brought about as soon as possible, things will never be the same again. Whatever the outcome, I have this crushing feeling that the damage being done is already so great that it cannot ever be undone. I find myself struggling not only with personal grief but also with a collective grief for all the things that are being lost: entire cities, culture, art, human beings and all their talents and feelings, which will be no more. The trauma that Ukrainian people are currently undergoing will be with them for generations to come. Their trauma will be our trauma: it will be a trauma for Europe, for Russia, and for the entire world community. How will they ever be able to overcome and start anew?

While I have been grappling with these questions, trying to find answers, today I came across the new video posted on Twitter by the Ukraine Ministry of Defence, with the voice over of President Zelensky and images of Ukraine during the war and after the war. Yes, after the war, the future of Ukraine. And suddenly all the answers I was looking for were there in that video. In that video there is everything. There is the powerful concept of WAS versus WILL. WAS is all Ukrainians have lost: “it was my city, my job, my dog, my dad, my daughter”. There is a definitive sense to all this that was, which is what we are all struggling to come to terms with, the source of our grief, all that will be no more. But then the video changes: in the future there WILL be more. “We will win. There will be new cities. There will be new dreams. There will be a new story. There will be, there’s no doubt. And those we’ve lost will be remembered. And we will sing again, and we will celebrate anew”. The video sums up the power of hope and the power of will, something that we so often forget in our lives. The power of imagining what the future will be like, even when all at present is lost. Grief makes space for hope.

From the point of view of communication, it is a very powerful video. President Zelensky’s voice over is cinematic and it strikes an emotional cord when we listen to it. Surely the cynics will point to his previous career as an actor as a demeaning factor rather than an asset. It cannot be denied that it is Zelensky’s power of communicating with people, which is making this war different. He is providing us with almost daily vlogs on what is going on with the war. He is engaging in almost daily video conferences with parliaments from governments all over the world. He is speaking to journalist sitting on the steps from inside his palace, equipped only of a microphone and video camera in a very real war setting, where there is nothing staged. When he talks, every one of his speeches is tailored made and aimed at a specific audience, which makes the communication more effective, more personal and impossible to avoid. Some critics have pointed out how this is all prepared beforehand, possibly forgetting the job of spin doctors, by implying negative connotations and consequences to this mode of communication. Some have even taken issue with the t-shirts and military gear that President Zelensky has been wearing since the beginning of the war in all his videos. To me all this points out to professionalism and seriousness of intentions. At this time, communication with the outside world is one of the main tools Ukraine has to gather support and solidarity from nations across the world. As for the military gear, Zelensky’s green t-shirts remind me of Steve Jobs black turtlenecks and Mark Zuckerberg grey t-shirts. When you must get a job done, it is advisable you spend less time choosing your wardrobe and more time focussing on what counts. Wearing the same most appropriate outfit everyday goes in that direction.

This war is also different for the massive use of 24/7 communication via social media. This is both bottom-up communication by journalists and people on the ground and top-down communication by both President Zelensky and world Governments, which have been heavily relying on Twitter and other social media as a means of communication, alongside traditional media. The war is thus with us 24/7 and we can get informed about the horrors suffered by Ukrainian people in real time. This is in stark contrast with the propaganda and paucity of news coming from Russia, where our constant guess work contributes to our anxiety for the outcome of this conflict. It is thanks to this continuous news cycle that we are painfully aware of what is going on in Ukraine every day and every hour. The effect of this detailed information is that we are deeply touched by the resistance of Ukrainian people, who have been fighting for their freedom for almost a month now, and their grief has become a shared collective grief. Their fight has reminded us of the power of our imagined nation states and communities, coupled with the power of the European Union and of trans-Atlantic relations, and of the importance of our shared destiny for all of us to keep living in a peaceful world.

This article can also be found here on my Medium page.

Facebook, Tartaglia, e le minacce del Governo

Nicola Bruno mi ha intervistato ieri per il Manifesto per parlare di Facebook, la censura dei contenuti pubblicati su Internet, e gli eventi di attualita’ politica degli utlimi giorni – l’intervista e’ pubblicata sul Manifesto del 15/12/2009: «Facebook che istiga all’odio? Mi sembra solo un’esagerazione che dimostra una totale mancanza di cultura digitale. Quello che succede online non è altro che la fotocopia della vita politica di un paese. Ci possono essere espressioni forti, ma per lo più più si tratta di semplice condivisione estemporanea di opinioni, come nelle chiacchiere da bar. Non c’è bisogno di nessun oscuramento». […]

New article published: Political Protest Italian Style

The article I co-authored with my colleague Alberto Pepe, from UCLA, has been published in the December Issue of First Monday: “Political protest Italian–style: The blogosphere and mainstream media in the promotion and coverage of Beppe Grillo’s V–day” First Monday, Volume 14, Number 12 – 7 December 2009.

Here is the Abstract:

We analyze the organization, promotion and public perception of “V–day”, a political rally that took place on 8 September 2007, to protest against corruption in the Italian Parliament. Launched by blogger Beppe Grillo, and promoted via a word–of–mouth mobilization on the Italian blogosphere, V–day brought close to one million Italians in the streets on a single day, but was mostly ignored by mainstream media. This article is divided into two parts. In the first part, we analyze the volume and content of online articles published by both bloggers and mainstream news sources from 14 June (the day V–day was announced) until 15 September 2007 (one week after it took place). We find that the success of V–day can be attributed to the coverage of bloggers and small–scale local news outlets only, suggesting a strong grassroots component in the organization of the rally. We also find a dissonant thematic relationship between content published by blogs and mainstream media: while the majority of blogs analyzed promote V–day, major mainstream media sources critique the methods of information production and dissemination employed by Grillo. Based on this finding, in the second part of the study, we explore the role of Grillo in the organization of the rally from a network analysis perspective. We study the interlinking structure of the V–day blogosphere network, to determine its structure, its levels of heterogeneity, and resilience. Our analysis contradicts the hypothesis that Grillo served as a top–down, broadcast–like source of information. Rather, we find that information about V–day was transferred across heterogeneous nodes in a moderately robust and resilient core network of blogs. We speculate that the organization of V–day represents the very first case, in Italian history, of a political demonstration developed and promoted primarily via the use of social media on the Web.

beppe grillo enters italian politics

Comedian/blogger Beppe Grillo has announced today on his blog that he wil be entering Italian politics by running to become a candidate of the Left wing party Partito Democratico. His decision has startled many, given his views and actions, which have often been labeled as ‘anti-politics’, causing a wide array of reactions from his supporters (as of today his blog post has gathered more than 2,300 comments) and politicians. Amongst the issues he wants to tackle on his political agenda, free information, free wi-fi, and his now famous ‘clean parliament’ campaign.

has Internet use changed the number of friends you have?

A forthcoming study by Hua Wang (USC Annenberg School for Communication) and Barry Wellman (University of Toronto) “Social Connectivity in America” has looked at how social networks of friendship have been changing from 2002 and 2007 and how this is related to different levels of Internet use.

The study was prompted by fears that Americans have been becoming increasingly disengaged from public life and disconnected from their peers as exemplified by the work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s on social capital “Bowling Alone” (2000), who blamed television as the main culprit for the breaking up of the texture of American social and political life.

What Wang and Wellman find – via an analysis of two American national surveys of Internet adoption and use, from the World Internet Project – is that networks of friendship amongst adult Americans aged 25-74 remain abundant and in fact they have been growing between 2002 and 2007. In addition, they found that this trend was similar amongst non-users of the Internet, light-users, moderate users and heavy users – dispelling the initial idea that the more time you spend online the more likely you are to become socially isolated and even develop depression. In fact, the study also found that heavy users of the Internet were particularly socially active, having the highest number of friends both online and offline. Continue reading “has Internet use changed the number of friends you have?”

Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the Future of Journalism

[live blogging] My friend and colleague Lokman Tsui (@lokmant) is talking today at the Berkman Center about his current research:  Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the Future of Journalism.

Global Voices is “a community of more than 200 bloggers around the world who work together to bring you translations and reports from blogs and citizen media everywhere, with emphasis on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media”. Why does this matter? The title of Lokman’s personal blog says it all: “Global Voices, One World”. Strangers can gather and discuss (the news) and form a public. Now with the Internet you have strangers you can connect to potentially everywhere. Habermas’ public sphere of coffee houses, Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities’ capture well this agora formed by online communities. Looking at how the Internet is destroying journalism is a one sided interpretation. The Internet offers new opportunities, a globalisation of culture. Continue reading “Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the Future of Journalism”

Italy as seen by the Italian blogosphere

Vittorio Zambardino writes today in La Repubblica about a recent research study carried out on the Italian blogosphere: what are Italian bloggers writing about? The article presents very interesting graphs, which show the top tags used in 2009 and the topics Italian bloggers write about.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top tag in 2009 was Silvio Berlusconi, which is followed by two current affairs related tags: the economic crisis and the Abruzzo earthquake – which are followed by Facebook in fourth place. In the top 15 most used tags we also find two football teams, Inter Milan and AC Milan, president Obama and the Pope.

Amongst the most discussed topics we find: 1) current affairs 2) soccer 3) the Internet 4) sport 5) politics. These are followed by a rather detailed list of less discussed topics from cinema, to art, to cooking, to music and so on. Finding current affairs at first place and politics at 5th place was indeed rather reassuring, supporting the idea that the Internet is indeed used as a virtual agora for discussion or a virtual civil society, rather than merely a tool for entertainment purposes. It should be noticed, however, that Maria de Filippi (TV presenter of Mediaset reality TV shows) was the top tag in the ‘entertainment category’, where we can find blogger Beppe Grillo at 4th place, and journalists Marco Travaglio and Michele Santoro further down in the list. Finally, finding the Internet as third most discussed topic, was also unsurprising – this is a common finding from research of different country/language blogospheres, where a big proportion of bloggers is made up by IT/media enthusiasts who blog about the medium they are using for communication (see for example our research on different language blogospheres from the Berkman’s Internet and Democracy project).

While the methodology used for this study is not illustrated in this article, it certainly provides a really good snapshot of what the online community and bloggers are talking about: this is very informative of what is going on in Italian society – and should be compared to the news agenda of mainstream media, in order to establish the role of the Internet in public discourse.

The Internet and the 2008 US election: participation and/or fragmentation?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just released a report on the role of the Internet in the 2008 US election, which analyses trends in how people consume political news & information and the ways they use the internet to engage with politics. Here are some of the key findings:

More than half  (55%) of the voting-age population has used the Internet to get involved in the political process during the election year (74% of Internet users).

The survey findings show that the Internet has become a paramount tool for people’s engagement in the political process, not only as a source of information (60% of Internet users have gone online to look for political information in 2008 compared to 22% in 1996), but as a tool for active participation. 18% of Internet users actively engaged online by posting comments on the campaign on online forums such as blogs or social networking sites and 45% watched online videos related to the campaign.

Young voters  (18-24 year olds) showed the highest levels of political involvement online. They engaged heavily in the political debate through social networking sites: two-thirds of young people with a social networking profile took part in some form of online political activity. Continue reading “The Internet and the 2008 US election: participation and/or fragmentation?”

Joe Green on Facebook Causes

Live blogging from the workshop “From Social Network to Social Movement” at Harvard Law School. Joe Green, Founder of Facebook Causes is presenting. You can also follow on Twitter: #HLSsocnetworks

Facts on Facebook Causes: 50 million people using it, 250.000 active causes, 7 million dollars raised, average donation $22

(1) Why does FB matter? 200 million people using it. This is the Internet getting real. Community online at the beginning was people in Usenet groups talking about Star Wars using pseudonyms. Real identity online has been a holy grail for a long time. Facebook profiles on the other hand use real names [CdG = is this equal to real identities?] – so it is much harder now to fake identity than before. Social graph – there are nodes and connections between the nodes – the nodes being people. That allows real world social dynamics to be brought on the Internet. Continue reading “Joe Green on Facebook Causes”