This article by Dr Ranjana Das, a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey.

In a recent blog-post I presented some findings from the Facebook presence of the Charlie Gard support campaign, outlining some strategies through which populist politics seemed to have been performed within the campaign, playing out in interesting ways using the very architecture of social media. I argued there that the Facebook presence seemed to display seven clear traits –

  • clear moral distinctions between in and out-groups,
  • evidence-free blame attribution using emotive language,
  • a consistent use of anecdotes to reject professional expertise,
  • a steady and highly selective circulation of headlines and stories from well-known populist media sources,
  • the sporadic but nonetheless critical involvement of populist public figures,
  • a climate of extreme like-mindednesshas been fuelled by the ongoing maintenance of heightened emotional registers and
  • high levels of technological literacy to appropriate the core architecture of social media platforms like Facebook through strict gatekeeping strategies.

Since then, further analysis, this time of keywords and key hashtags on Twitter reveal more findings, all of which raise concerns around the digitally mediated court of public opinion.

Heavy use of violent words in association with hospitals

A word frequency analysis reveals some troubling words in heavy circulation about public institutions, created for social-democratic purposes, with strong values of social justice behind them. Words harvested from tweets collected during a critical fortnight of the case reveals words like “killed” and “murder” appear strongly linked to the Great Ormond Street Hospital – with no basis in evidence.  As this graphic demonstrates – one randomly mined dataset of tweets during the fortnight which began with the final hearing and ended a few days after Charlie’s death shows up the GOSH hospital and the word “killed” as the largest sections of a cloud of the top 10 topics.

Top negative sentiments from non-UK tweeters:

A sentiment analysis of negative sentiments expressed during this same critical period shows up a critical finding that the top slice of tweeters most associated with negative sentiments seem to be located outside the United Kingdom, with a substantial section of tweets and top tweeters tweeting from American profiles. Some Twitter handle names of the top 5 of these tweeters (ones most strongly associated with negative sentiment) include descriptions such as “pro second amendment”, “conservative news”, “pro life”, “patriot”, “found by Jesus” among others, and the vast majority of these top tweeters, and top tweeters with negative sentiment, seem to be American. This is not necessarily true however.

A randomly mined data set of tweets during this critical period show the most gregarious tweeter (marked by the number of ties the tweeter directs to others) to be based in Lincolnshire. The most popular tweeter in the same period (marked by the number of ties directed in to the Tweeter) however – is again, American. This shows a critical finding that a large part of the opinions circulating within the network and a large volume of Twitterstorm sending out negative messages about British judiciary and healthcare institutions seemed to emerge from American sources, many of whom identify with right-wing positions.

Twitterstorm dominated by intense, powerful single words:

Analysis also reveals that the Twitter presence of the support campaign showed a heavy and sustained use of single words, repeatedly, all of which conjure up an image of violence and devastation inflicted on a vulnerable individual by an unknowable, strange powerful hospital. The top words in this category are – devastated, heart-breaking, cruel, death panel, loss, tragic and threaten. When cleaned out of most hashtags and usernames – this cloud of heavily used words in this critical period show the extent to which the Twitterstorm was dominated by a very specific kind of discourse.

It is important to note that this discourse is beginning to involve other, similar groups on social media, each mobilizing a moral distinction between private individuals (parents) who are presented as having been purposefully wronged on the one hand, and intentionally harmful and misguided public services on the other. These polarised conversations were punctuated by interventions from populist figures such as preachers, pro-life pastors and activists and psychic mediums.

I suggest that this discussion of mediated populist discourse on a patient-support campaign, is of public relevance because it is both symptomatic of and potentially impactful for the climate of opinion on the kind of relationship that is unfolding in the UK, and potentially other Western democracies, between public institutions and private actors.

Underlying populist rhetoric in the UK, is an ongoing climate of critical opinion against the public services including the National Health Service. In the past decade a series of austerity measures have been instituted over the past decade, impacting public health services and the services they are able to offer (see BBC, 2017). For instance, the primary port of call for new parents with children under the age of 5 – the Health Visiting services – are struggling (Health Visitor Implementation Plan (2011-15) owing to public funding cuts.

This is legitimized in popular discourse, such as in the tabloid press, as failings on the part of socialized healthcare systems, which is free at the point of use – something which repeatedly comes up in the Twitterstorm around Gard as his death being the fault of “socialized healthcare”. This rhetoric of suspicion and disdain for public services, at popular culture and policy levels, works simultaneously to undermine those very services which have being subjected to budget cuts, which both brings out and contributes to an atmosphere of apathy towards public institutions created towards social-democratic aims.

This article by Dr Ranjana Das, a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey.