In the summer of 2015, Europe experienced what some claim to have been the largest humanitarian crisis in the region in decades. At that time, many thousands of people fleeing conflict regions, particularly Syria, crossed European borders in search of international protection. Their main destinations were Germany and Sweden. The situation transformed Austria into the most important transit country in Western Europe, with its capital Vienna becoming a key focal point. Right at the peak of this crisis, the Austrian capital held its mayoral election. Refugees became the main issue during the election campaign which polarized the Austrian political spectrum.
Facebook assumed a pivotal role in this scenario of polarization. Right-wing populists have instrumentalized it politically in a very successful way. In Austria, the Facebook account of their leader Heinz-Christian Strache is the most popular in the country.
Political communication on Facebook enables nonpublic figures to take the floor as well and enhance the interaction between citizens and politicians. In addition, Facebook in particular works as an arena, where users are virtually urged to take a position on current issues. This feature belongs to the modus operandi of this social networking site as public sphere. In order to trigger the engagement of users, politicians on Facebook must provide messages that generate controversy. Because of that, user engagement is not only feedback, but rather backlash.
Users can react to posts on the Facebook wall of candidates and parties with likes, shares or comments. Such forms of user engagement require and show different levels and meanings of engagement. In general, a comment requires more engagement from users than a like. Comments are also the main and clearest way to show disagreement.
Learning from Vienna
Vienna’s mayoral election campaign on Facebook was a privileged case for analyzing some hypotheses about media representations of refugees that one can seldom observe empirically in other contexts. As earlier studies show, refugees are mostly depicted negatively in the media, so that the chances of being able to analyse the role of positive representations are extremely rare.
In Vienna’s mayoral election campaign, this was not the case. In order to compete with the right-wing populist positions, other parties such as the Social Democrats and Greens posted intensively positive depictions in the wave of the so-called “welcome refugees-culture”. As these political forces were the most active in publishing posts, the majority of the posts on refugees of the competing parties and candidates for the office of Vienna’s mayor were positive depictions.
On the other hand, the depiction of refugees was not able to counter the representations put forward by right-wing populists. Although Heinz-Christian Strache published fewer posts than the Greens and the Social Democrats, messages on his Facebook wall unleashed far more likes, shares and comments. Depictions of refugees on Strache’s Facebook wall were overwhelmingly negative, displaying people seeking protection as terrorists and as a threat to the Austrian cultural identity and economy.
Triggering user engagement
To what extent can such user engagement be attributed to the refugee issue itself?
In all Facebook-accounts of the five main parties and candidates in Vienna’s mayoral election (NEOS; Greens, Social Democrats, conservatives and right-wing populists), posts about refugees unleashed more user engagement than posts about other subjects.
Regarding valence, as expected, on the Facebook walls of the Greens, positive depictions of refugees on average got more likes, shares and comments than depictions associating refugees with problems (as, for instance, the causes of the crisis). Nevertheless, this only happened in the case of the Greens and the newcomer party NEOS, keeping user engagement at a lower level.
Considering all posts (and not only those about refugees), in all accounts user engagement was higher by posts providing a depiction of an undesirable or an uneasy situation than by those with positive messages. To sum up: user engagement was triggered by problems. The same occurred with the single posts that received the biggest number of likes, shares and comments in the sample.
Notwithstanding, the “success” of right-wing populists on Facebook is not only due to the refugee issue and its problematization. Parties and candidates are using Facebook for different means in their political communication.
The visibility of most parties in this campaign on Facebook seemed to reflect the internal party structure, by having one Facebook account on the national, another on the local level and a third one for the candidate, instead of having just one single Facebook wall. This had the effect of dispersing instead of channeling utterances and users from their own political spectrum. Right-wing populists, in turn, presented themselves during the campaign on only one Facebook page (Heinz-Christan Strache). Presenting their political platform on only one page during this campaign facilitated right-wing populists bringing users and positions together in their opinion spectrum where they reacted and articulated amongst each other.
The single post with the highest user engagement besides Strache’s page was about a Green Party initiative calling for donations to be made during a speech by the right-wing candidate at a special parliamentary session about the humanitarian crisis. Members of Parliament could make donations to under-age refugees by putting money into a glass urn on the table of the Green Party leader in the plenary session every time the right-wing populist stated something that was untrue. With this action, the Greens re-defined the refugee issue as a power struggle in the host society, and not as the refugees themselves. In a nutshell, the Greens did not unleash more user engagement by positive (unproblematic) depictions of refugees, but by providing a new definition of the problem: it is not refugees, but right-wing populists who are the problem.
In order to understand, why “positive” representations do not work, one must consider that media agenda is first and foremost built up by conflicts. This is an intrinsic feature of media logic and usually perceived as “negativity”. In order to reach and to stay on the agenda, a media message should activate positions pro- and contra. In other words, it must generate a communication conflict or, as Luhmann would say, bring speakers to utter contradictions. Positive images of refugees usually do not urge speakers in the media to take a position, as unproblematic depictions as a whole.
This media operational bias is not only about refugees. When media contradicts its “nature” and produces positive depictions in controversial issues, even recipients distrust such depictions and become hostile to media.
In order to tackle the scapegoating of refugees in public discourse, media and public figures need other issues or problem definitions. In this sense, the “problem” in a humanitarian crisis does not have to be the refugees themselves.
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Liriam Sponholz is Senior Postdoc at the Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and Alpen Adria University Klagenfurt. After concluding her PhD at the University of Leipzig, she held teaching positions at the University of Erfurt (Germany), was guest professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil and at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain and has also published several articles and books. Her research interests include journalistic objectivity, media conflicts and hate speech.