In the changing Dutch hybrid media system, the right-wing talk show Ongehoord Nederland ('unheard Netherlands') claims to tell the 'real story' of the Netherlands. All too often, this includes conspiracy theories, racism, and information disorder. It usually doesn't take long for the controversial discourse to move from live television broadcasts to Twitter. Here, groups of people discuss the issues and topics of the latest broadcast.
What do these networks look like? How do they interact with the messages spread by Ongehoord Nederland? And how do they influence the impact Ongehoord Nederland has? In this article, I aim to investigate how 'thick' these Twitter communities are through a mixed-method ethnomining approach. As is usually the case, things turn out to be more complicated than 'thick' vs. 'light'. Indeed, the analysis reveals a complex and layered network of communities, topics, and discourses bound together by the conservative far-right messages broadcast by Ongehoord Nederland.
Ongehoord Nederland in the hybrid media system
Ongehoord Nederland (ON) joined the Dutch public broadcasting order on 1 January 2022 to spread the “real story” of “the real Netherlands” (Groot, 2019). In the TV broadcasts of their talk show, they often discuss topics popular among the conservative right-wing of the Netherlands, like (anti) immigration, COVID-19, (anti) European Union, (anti) ‘woke culture’, and resentment for mainstream politics and media. Over the past year, ON has gained notoriety for spreading disinformation (Schipper, 2022), conspiracy theories (Hofman, 2022), and racist discourse (NOS, 2022) on public television.
But Ongehoord Nederland does not stay on TV. As is to be expected in a hybrid media system where legacy media and digital media are deeply connected and intertwined through multidirectional interaction (Chadwick, 2017), the discourse surrounding ON broadcasts quickly moves to Twitter in the form of issue publics: (temporary) communities centered around an event or issue.
Following Blommaert and Varis (2015), we could consider these issue publics ‘light communities’, “focused but diverse occasioned coagulations of people. […] around an object, a shared interest, another person, an event” (Blommaert & Varis, 2015). Such a light community is not a community in the most traditional sense of the word, like the gothic community, the Silicon Valley community, or the K-pop community. Rather, they are groups that are created 'in the moment'. Think of the temporary camaraderie in a bar during a world-cup finale, or the sense of community between stranded commuters when their train gets canceled. In the moment they are a community, but the community disappears as soon as the issue disappears.
On the other hand, the issues discussed by Ongehoord Nederland – race, tradition, religion, etc. – are also key to Durkheimian ‘thick groups’ such as those of nationality, class, and religion (Blommaert, 2018). This might indicate that the ON community could also qualify as a ‘thick community’. This would mean that these people, based on their interest in Ongehoord Nederland, remain a close community with shared values, ideas, sentiments, and discourses even after the issue public following an ON broadcast has faded.
Do we still have 'real' communities, now that we can easily come into contact with all sorts of groups from all over the world?
The distinction between 'thick' and 'light' groups is important since it changes how we should interpret these people and their (collective) behavior, as well as how we should interpret the role that Ongehoord Nederland plays in their community. If they are a thick group, Ongehoord Nederland might be central to their (group) identity, as the Bible is to Christians. But if they are a light group, Ongehoord Nederland might be something they care about without it defining who they are on an individual or group level. Like a football match screened in the local pub.
Understanding how legacy media like TV broadcasts act as semiotic resources in the construction and enactment of either ‘light’ or ‘thick’ communities via Twitter can help grasp the dynamics of politically oriented communities like the ON community in the hybrid media system. And it will help us understand how social media influence the concept of 'community'. Do we still have 'real' communities, now that we can easily come into contact with all sorts of groups from all over the world?
To further explore these dynamics, the current research focuses on the prevalence of ‘thick identities’ in the issue publics surrounding ON broadcasts and the practices through which these identities are enacted after these issue publics have faded. In doing so, I hope to answer the following research question: to what degree can the ON Twitter community be considered a thick or light community? And what are the implications of this?
Ethnomining: combining methods
The current research takes on a mixed methods approach, combining quantitative network analysis, statistical analysis, and qualitative digital ethnography in an attempt to ‘ethnomining’. First, I carried out a network analysis of an issue public on Twitter following the ON broadcast of 11 October 2022 using the freemium online software tool Netlytic. The following search query was used to collect Twitter data:
“(#ongehoordnieuws) OR (Ongehoord Nederland) OR (Ongehoord Nederland TV) OR (@ongehoordnedtv) lang:nl”
After combining multiple datasets, this query yielded 3070 tweets by 1802 unique accounts, posted between the ON broadcast of 11 October and the following broadcast of 13 October. The network analysis focused on what the Twitter network looks like using the PEW Research Center typology of Twitter topic networks (Smith et al., 2014).
Additionally, a statistical data analysis was performed to examine how prolific thick identities are in the network. More specifically, I manually coded a random sample of 307 tweets from the Netlytic dataset (10%) based on whether they were posted by an account with a thick or a light identity. I then compared the mean amount of tweets posted per account in each category to determine whether thick accounts contributed significantly more to the issue public than light accounts. For this analysis, I performed an independent t-test in SPSS with ‘account type’ as the binary independent variable and ‘amount of tweets’ as the continuous dependent variable.
Examined accounts use semiotic resources to index their connection to ON and ON topics, issues and themes
A ‘thick identity’ was operationalized as a Twitter persona enacted through multimodal semiotic resources (profile picture, header picture, account name, bio) indexing affiliation with ON issues and values. This is admittedly a rather blunt and rudimentary operationalization, especially considering the notorious ambiguity surrounding online personae (Varis, 2014). Of course, a binary categorization of identities in thick and light is in itself blunt as well. But within the scope of the current research, it gives us the most useful criteria to distinguish thick from light communities. Still, the results of this analysis should be interpreted as an analysis of enacted Twitter personae, rather than of the identity of the people behind these personae.
Finally, a sample of 3 emblematic thick accounts was taken from the 10 most active accounts in the Netlytic dataset. These accounts were subjected to a close ethnographic reading of their account and their 10 most recent (re)tweets as of 20 October 17:17. In doing so, I investigated how these thick accounts were enacted after the issue public had faded. This was done through a multimodal discourse analytical lens with a focus on indexicality (Blommaert, 2005).
This mixed method approach resulted in four key findings: 1) thick accounts are not more active than light accounts; 2) Ongehoord Nederland remains important for thick accounts after the issue public has faded; 3) the popularity of the retweet feature results in a polycentric broadcasting network; and 4) the Ongehoord Nederland community on Twitter is neither light nor thick. These key findings are elaborated upon in the remainder of this article.
1. Thick accounts are not more active than light accounts
The statistical analysis of a sample of 307 random tweets by 263 unique accounts revealed that thick accounts contributed slightly more to the Twitter discourse following the ON broadcast. 54.07% of the tweets in the sample were posted by recognizably thick accounts (Figure 1).
To investigate whether these accounts also contribute significantly more to the discourse on the issue public, an independent t-test was performed. The data was not normally distributed, thus the analysis was run on bootstrapped data. As can be seen in Figure 2, an independent t-test indicates that thick accounts (n = 140, M = 1.19, SD = 0.557) do not contribute significantly more to the discourse in the issue public than light accounts (n = 123, M = 1.15, SD = 0.507), t(261) = -.596, p = .57, Mdiff 95% CI [-0.163, 0.088]. The effect size is negligible, Cohen’s d = -.074, 95% CI [-.361, .169]. This suggests that, even though thick accounts are quite prevalent in the issue public, they are not especially more vocal than light accounts. Considering this, we move on to the importance of Ongehoord Nederland in the enacted Twitter personae of several thick accounts.
2. Ongehoord Nederland remains important for thick accounts
A close reading of three thick accounts (the relevant metrics of which are summarized in Table 1) indicates that ON remains important for the construction and expression of identity after the issue public has faded. The examined accounts use semiotic resources to index their connection to ON and ON topics, issues, and themes. Sometimes this happens explicitly. Other times the connection is less direct or explicit. Additionally, the examined (re)tweets often express contempt for mainstream politicians and media and a strong preference for far-right political parties and conservative values. This is reminiscent of typical ON issues and sentiments.
Below, each account is looked at more closely:
Percolator_HNJ is not just one of the most active accounts in the issue public following the ON broadcast of 11 October. It is also one of the biggest, with over 30.000 followers. The thick identity of this online persona is partly expressed through an upside-down Dutch flag, a recently popularized symbol for anti-government sentiment used by right-wing conservatives, Dutch farmers impacted by environmental policies, and conspiracy theorists (Smouter, 2022). ON explicitly sympathizes with all of these groups, even going as far as using the upside-down flag as a background image during their broadcasts (Figure 3).
In the 10 most recent tweets by Percolator_HNJ, we find 7 retweets, 3 of which are originally tweeted by ON, e.g. a fragment from a recent ON broadcast in praise of the ‘corona-wappies’ (the Dutch equivalent to ‘covidiot’). Other retweets are originally posted by influential conservatives, e.g. ON co-founder Joost Niemöller and entrepreneur/podcast host Erik de Vlieger. In their tweets, Percolator_HNJ also discursively indexes a conservative, anti-establishment identity. For instance, in a tweet sharing an article about a scandal surrounding far-right populist party FvD (Forum for Democracy) the persona uses the words ‘cartel party’ and ‘mainstream media’. These terms were popularized in the Netherlands by FvD-members who often appear as guests in ON broadcasts.
Vvdwegermee2021 (Figure 4) identifies most explicitly with ON and its right-wing conservative values. Their Twitter handle translates to ‘VVD out with them 2021’, expressing a clear disdain for the liberal VVD party of Dutch PM Mark Rutte. This disdain for mainstream politicians is reiterated and amplified through other modalities as well. Their profile picture depicts Mark Rutte with a ‘no-symbol’ over him. And the banner above the account depicts several mainstream politicians with long Pinocchio noses and the text “a small group ruins it for everybody else”.
In their bio, vvdwegermee2021 shares that they are a member of the far-right FvD party and that they like to watch ON. Their screen name refers to the government as corrupt and affiliated with the World Economic Forum. In addition to that, the tractor emoji in their screen name is commonly used to express support for Dutch farmers, a sentiment that has since 2019 become synonymous with general anti-government sentiment in the Netherlands (Smouter, 2022). Combining these modalities, Ongehoord Nederland is discursively linked to the FvD party, conspiracy theories, and anti-government sentiment.
All of the 10 examined posts by vvdwegermee2021 were retweets (one quote-retweet). Two were originally posted by ON. Notably, multiple posts index affiliation with grand, anti-sematic conspiracy theories. Two retweets are in regard to a controversial visit to the Netherlands by conspiracy influencer David Icke, who popularized the reptilian overlords' conspiracy theory recently supported by FvD leader and recurring ON guest Thierry Baudet. Another retweet depicts a screenshot of a TikTok that boils down to “If you think Putin is bad, but you don’t know who WEF-founder Klaus Schwab is, the media have done their work well.”
Of the three examined accounts, BoosRen (Figure 5) seems to be the mildest in their right-wing, conservative values. Still, their profile picture includes the text “The Netherlands is no longer my country!” – a much-heard sentiment among conservatives. Their bio reads “Hates injustice, abuse of power, enrichment at the expense of others, profiteers, religious extremists, judges and most politicians”. Combining both modalities, it seems like BoosRen thinks that these things have become more common and/or problematic in the Netherlands and that they have changed the country for the worse.
Just like the previous two accounts, BoosRen hardly posts any original tweets. All 10 examined tweets are retweets. None of them were originally posted by Ongehoord Nederland. All retweets, however, index conservative values and/or anti-government sentiment. There are critiques on the corona vaccines, a tweet by right-wing politician Geert Wilders calling the Dutch PM and Minister of Finance dictators, and a critique on the choice of the Belgian city of Leuven to change the name for ‘Christmas lights’ to ‘winter lights’.
3. Retweets create a polycentric broadcasting network
Notably, all three examined accounts almost exclusively retweet other tweets – often from Ongehoord Nederland or people associated with it, such as co-founder Joost Niemöller. In doing so, these accounts act as amplifiers of ON discourses. ON and their affiliates create a message (or make a message visible, valid, mainstream), and a subset of their followers spread this message among their networks, be they small (BoosRen) or large (Percolator_HNJ). Thus, they become the center node in a new, small-scale network. And seeing how the examined accounts only affirm ON discourses and sentiments, we can truly interpret these new networks as amplifying extensions of the network of Ongehoord Nederland.
This dynamic of amplification is reflected in the polycentric shape of the issue public following the Ongehoord Nederland broadcast of 11 October 2022. It straddles the line between a broadcasting network where members are often connected only to the hub news source, without connecting (Smith et al., 2014) and Community Clusters, multiple smaller groups, which often form around a few hubs, each with their audience, influencers, and sources of information (Smith et al., 2014). The official ON Twitter account has by far the highest indegree in the network, which means that it is retweeted, mentioned, and reacted to the most often. But there are also multiple conversations happening about and surrounding the broadcast.
These conversations spawn medium-sized clusters (Illustrated as different colors in Figure 6) that function as mini-broadcast networks where one post generates a lot of interaction, but the accounts interacting with that post do not interact with each other. Based on the analysis of the tweets of the three thick accounts above, we might conclude that this dynamic is at least partly due to the retweet feature which is popular among the examined accounts and which affords easy amplification through replicability and scalability (boyd, 2010).
4. The Ongehoord Nederland Twitter community is neither light nor thick
The data analysis reveals that thick identities show a clear connection to ON through retweets and indexical semiotic signs in their accounts – even after the issue public has faded. This, however, does not bring enough support to the idea that the ON community as a whole can be considered a Durkheimian thick community since there are also a lot of light accounts that do not show a clear connection to ON. On the other hand, there are too many similarities between (thick) community members to label the ON community a “focused but diverse occasioned coagulation of people”, as Blommaert and Varis (2015) conceptualize light communities.
Ongehoord Nederland serves as a binding agent
This description evokes the idea that the ON community consists of people from all walks of life, like the communities formed in a pub during a football match. But this does not seem to be the case. Instead, the ON community consists of people from – and sympathizers of – a dynamic, networked complex of intertwined but distinguishable conservative communities, including farmers, conspiracy theorists, and far-right political party members. Take the three examined accounts: @percolator_NHJ (re)tweets in support of farmers (2022c) and fishermen (2022b), @vvdwegermee2021 retweets conspiracy theories (2022d), and @BoosRen retweets right-wing politician Geert Wilders (2022a).
In this complex of people, communities, organizations, political parties, issues, themes, media, and artifacts, Ongehoord Nederland serves as a binding agent. With their broadcasted television show, the themes and issues they tackle, and the guests they invite on their show, they connect people and communities on the common grounds of conservative values and contempt for mainstream politicians and media. In that sense, Ongehoord Nederland does not seem to instigate a new community, as much as it is a conductor and connector of existing communities.
The importance of thick accounts in the Ongehoord Nederland community
In the current research, a mixed methods design was used to answer the question: to what degree can the Ongehoord Nederland Twitter community be considered a thick community? The analysis shows that, following the ON broadcast of 11 October 2022, a polycentric broadcasting network emerged. About half the accounts in this network can be considered ‘thick’ members. These are not especially more vocal. But a close reading of three emblematic thick accounts indicates that the topics, issues, values, and people discussed by ON do remain an important source for enacting their Twitter personae as members or supporters of one of a complex of conservative communities. And in this enactment they deploy their own Twitter networks as amplifying extensions of the ON network, spreading ON discourses and sentiments.
Thick members in the community are important weapons in ON's fight for attention and relevance
The implication of this is that the thick accounts following Ongehoord Nederland have a serious impact on the reach of ON's messages. If it weren't for these thick accounts on Twitter, the issues that ON raises on national television would quickly be forgotten or swamped by the next hot take on Twitter. But because these accounts, three of which we have closely examined, keep indexing and propagating ON issues, the issues remain relevant in the public discourse for extended periods of time. This gives ON as a broadcaster a louder voice in the public sphere than they might deserve purely based on their TV viewership.
With the rise of the internet and social media over the past decades, thick communities like religion, class, and nationality might have become less relevant. Since we can easily come into contact with all sorts of groups from all over the world, the 'real' community might even be on its way out. The current analysis shows an impactful side-effect of this dynamic: communities have to fight for attention. And even though we cannot classify the ON community as a thick community, we can conclude that the thick members in the community that act as amplifiers and spreaders of its discourse are important weapons in ON's fight for attention and relevance.
Academic implications: past the dichotomy
In addition to the societal implications of the results described above, these findings also have academic implications. They encourage us to take a different stance towards the use of 'thick' and 'light' communities in our scientific analyses of groups in the hybrid media system.
Even though the complexity of communities that ON binds together can hardly be seen separately from Durkheimian thick groups like nationality, profession, and class, the current analysis invites us to look past a dichotomous view on ‘thick groups’ and ‘light communities’. Indeed, in a hybrid media system, ‘thickness’ of a community should be seen as dynamic, complex, and networked.
This insight implies that, if we wish to research communities and community behavior in the hybrid media system, we need to look at more than the community itself. It is ever more important to take the rich sociocultural and sociotechnical context into account in which these communities are situated. This includes the media they consume and share, the practices through which these media are deployed as semiotic signs to index and enact group membership and enoughness, the networks they build and maintain within their community and with other communities, and the platforms and technologies they use to do all of the above.
We can no longer be satisfied with seemingly absolute categorizations as 'thick' or 'light'
Understanding community as dynamic, complex, and networked, means that we can no longer be satisfied with the seemingly absolute categorizations of 'thick' and 'light'. Based on the data examined in the current research, we need more flexible concepts, such as the concept of micro-hegemonies: the normative ordering of behavioral details valid as identity emblems in particular circumstances (Blommaert & Varis, 2011). This immediately invites new avenues of research. What are the benchmarks for enoughness in a complex of different conservative communities? Which voices are authoritative across communities and how do they 'bind' these communities together? And to what extent do communities like farmers, conspiracy theorists, and far-right political party members still feel connected?
An important note to these findings is that many community members exploit the Twitter affordance of anonymity - including the three accounts closely examined in this article. This makes it impossible to extrapolate findings about the online personae of the community members to their offline identity (Varis, 2014). In-depth ethnographic interviews could offer a more comprehensive view of how politically oriented identities and communities are enacted in the hybrid media system. These would be a welcome addition to the current research.
About – Netlytic.org. (n.d.). Retrieved October 24, 2022
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@BoosRen. (2022a, October 19). If Rutte does go to #Qatar please let him take Kaag and stay there together. They will feel very much at home with their Muslim friend the Tiran-Emir Tamim bin Hamid bin al-Thani. He rules Qatar much like she rules the Netherlands. Dictatorial. Twitter.
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@Percolator_HNJ. (2022c, October 20). This piece by @wierdduk makes me boil with anger. Fishermen, farmers and entire communities are being wiped off the map by VVD-66. Everything has to make way for the “major renovation” of the Netherlands. Unbelievable. . . (@telegraaf). Twitter.
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