Polish and Rust: The Use of Images in the Online Discussion of Margaret Thatcher’s Death

Polish and Rust: The Use of Images in the Online Discussion of Margaret Thatcher’s Death

When Margaret Thatcher died in April 2013, the reaction on Twitter was varied and often extreme. Hatred and contempt mingled with tributes, demonstrating that her legacy continues to be a site of struggle. ‘The Death of Thatcher on Social Media’ is a project, part of the larger ESRC funded ‘Picturing the Social’ project (see description at end of this post) that considers how images were used as part of this discussion. The project is based on two historical datasets that were obtained from Twitter in 2014 and 2015, containing 123 thousand and just over two million posts respectively.

A workshop held at the University of Sheffield in June 2015 gave an update on the project’s development highlighting how different members of the project team had engaged with this data, as well as drawing on the expertise of academics in related fields and civil servants working with social media data in government. Workshop participants live tweeted the event, using the hashtag #thatcherworkshop.

Dozens of printed images from the Twitter corpus provided the backdrop to the workshop (all user names were removed), and prompted discussion throughout the day:

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This project is led by Simon Faulkner, who began the day by outlining some of the context and motivation behind it. He also gave an overview of some of the types of image use he has observed in the data, ranging from re-appropriated and modified, to photographs that depict both historical and contemporary scenes:

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Faulkner suggests that Thatcher has predominately been used to personify social change There was also a distinct theme of metonymic use, in which one scene or incident was used to symbolise an entire political approach and legacy. Other images critiqued the media coverage itself, with a screenshot of the BBC’s mistaken reporting of her death from a ‘strike’ being widely retweeted.

Faulkner also described how there were dominant themes that recurred in the data, relating to the miners’ strike and Hillsborough. Each of these topics presents a potential avenue for exploration, and Faulkner suggested that he would need to make some definite decisions about what to cover and in what depth. A related issue was the theme of mourning, regarding the denial of mourning presented as a response to Thatcher’s previous actions:

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As Faulkner suggested, this ties in with Judith Butler’s work on who is accorded the right to be publicly mourned, and how this reinforces wider messages of solidarity and status. Some of the images directly juxtaposed Thatcher with subjects seen as more deserving of praise, in ways that were markedly gendered:

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This therefore is more than a discussion about what a worthwhile person looks like, but also what constitutes a good woman.

Jim Aulich

Aulich looked at how Thatcher has been constructed and contested iconographically, by asking how the images themselves work. This entailed an approach that looks at images, as images, as well as considering the social relations that they entail. This was a useful point, as I have found in myself a tendency to consider what these images are saying, rather than to reflect on how it is that they are doing this.

Aulich continued by emphasising the connection between the image, action and the individual, using an example of four girls holding a Socialist Worker poster, which struck many of the workshop attendees as rather unsettling:

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Aulich also asked “what do images do?”, arguing for a direct interaction between images and the material world. Furthermore, he emphasised that images demonstrate interactions between people, not just between people and things.

Geoff Bright

Bright’s talk – ‘The lady’s not returning’ – looked at the concept of social haunting, in relation to the miners’ strike. Bright focused on how one image, from the Battle of Orgreave, is reused within a rhetoric of ‘never forgive’, which erases complexity and flattens the possibility of a critical engagement with the miners’ strike, rather than opening it up.

This talk gave a fascinating analysis of the use of class narratives in this particular area of social history. His discussion of the ‘ghosted transmission of affect’ outlined some of the ways in which the history of labour conflict – especially relating to the miners’ strike – is passed on from one generation to another:

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Bright described the way in which the Goldthorpe story is presented as being a straightforward narrative of left wing working-class culture. In particular, he demonstrated elements that complicate this story, such as the presence of union jacks, which embody some of the tensions between the socialist groups and the armed forces:

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Furthermore, the images from Goldthorpe depicting a makeshift pyre problematically reinforce a simplistic narrative about the North – with a backdrop of condemned buildings – rather than demonstrate its complexity:

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As Bright emphasises, referencing Avery Gordon, ‘life is complicated’ and therefore cannot be reduced to simplistic narratives of good and bad.

Stephen Farrall

Farrall considered the various ways in which the concept of a Thatcherite legacy can be analysed, by looking at shifts in discourse, social attitudes, policy and institutions. The responses to these measures, and the on-going negotiation over their effects, is evident throughout the material that this project is examining. As such, this talk provided a useful perspective by outlining some of the political backdrop to the narratives of ‘saving’ and ‘destroying’ the country that typify this topic. For instance, Farrall showed how the Thatcher governments engaged in successive waves of policy radicalisation:

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Farrall concluded by discussing the ‘Generation Right”, which was made as a collaboration between the School of Law at the University and filmmaker Michelle Coomber. The trailer can be viewed here.

Farida Vis

Vis’s talk addressed some of the methodological issues relating to visual social media research. One slide featured some of the image data that had been gathered and imported into a spreadsheet:

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These images were what Vis termed ‘doubly hidden’, in that they wasn’t just rendered non-visible, but they also often appeared as links rather than as files. To a qualitative researcher such as myself, who is used to dealing directly with images, this condensed kind of data is quite daunting, but this aversion is clearly something that needs to be overcome in order to make full use of the available tools and materials.

Vis called for a more critical approach to the study of data. This would entail developing more transparent ways of doing social media research together – including a consideration of who does the collection and how. In terms of methods, Vis asks how can we wrangle our experimental ways of doing things into a more defined approach, and what methods can we develop that will benefit the field, including tools for people who don’t use tools?

What data it is that we end up focusing on? It is important to consider the long tail of data as well as the most popular images or topics, as these inform our analysis by showing the wider conversation, and not just the loudest voices and most repeated themes.

Vis concluded by emphasising that amidst these discussions, and this data, one thing is notably absent: the voices and perspectives of the users themselves on what they are doing. Clearly social media research cannot solely take the form of computer-based data collection, and needs to be informed by other forms of research, such as interviews.

Francesco D’Orazio

D’Orazio briefly demonstrated the ways in which Pulsar could be used to research that Thatcher material. As well as showing how the material could be sorted in various ways, he also highlighted the complexity of interrelated concepts, and the means by which such tools can valuably prompt and inform analysis.

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Stephen Jeffares

The last talk of the day was from Stephen Jeffares. He began by discussing an image that loomed large over his childhood, in the form of a poster that his parents hung on the wall:

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Jeffares’ talk was named ‘Dance of the Mayflies’, which I felt was an apt description for the brief, bright life of some of the trending topics on Twitter. He used the example of ‘Amanda Thatcher’ – Margaret Thatcher’s granddaughter – who was briefly the subject of intense online discussion, which peaked and then faded within only a few hours:

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Jeffares outlined some of the various motivations to monitor and visualise, according to four sectors: social (in terms of calls to action, and coordinating a social movement), political (in terms of campaigning), practical (responding to emergencies, or a call for repairs / service) and commercial (building a brand community and a marketing campaign). His approach, utilising a combination of Q methodology and “capture and sift” – aims for analysis that is “systematic, interpretive, theory-led, immersive, hands-on and reflective”.

Material relating to Thatcher’s death is not always tagged ‘Thatcher’, so to avoid only seeing a narrow selection of the conversation, it is important to trace some of the related concepts (such as ‘wear red on Wed’).

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As Jeffares demonstrates, it is important to remember that the majority of tweets are not hashtagged:

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In his sample, searching for a keyword ‘NHS’ returned far more data than using #NHS. This feeds back into what Vis was emphasising regarding asking the right questions: hashtags are certainly not the only way of searching for material, and are they even the best way?

Jeffares concluded with a cartoon from Tom Gauld, which offers an interesting commentary on the range of perspectives being expressed about Thatcher:

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The workshop concluded with a group discussion, in which we considered a number of selected images.

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This was an excellent workshop, not just in terms of discussing the Thatcher legacy and discussion around it, but also serving as an interesting exploration of some of the ways to approach this kind of visual and online material.

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.