Renzi vs Juncker: a social media analysis

We focus on the recent war of words between Renzi and Jean-Claude Juncker, triggered by the latter’s critical remarks towards Italy during the Commission’s new year’s press conference. The Renzi-Juncker quarrel is the latest, and certainly one of the most visible episodes in what some have called a new fault line in European politics.

Over the past few weeks, a rift has emerged and deepened between the Italian government, led by Matteo Renzi, and European institutions, most notably the Commission. Disagreements between the two sides span many areas, including immigration, energy policy and banking. The latest chapter in the saga is being played out in the budgetary field, in which Italy claims the right to more flexibility (and a higher deficit) than the Commission is willing to concede.

The clash between Italy and the Commission is as communicative as it is political. From the start, the ways in which both sides have addressed one another have been as important as the substance of their respective grievances. In an unusually sharp exchange, for instance, Renzi recently reminded the Commission that the times in which Italy would be “remote-controlled” from Brussels are over. As a reply, the Commission let it be known that it actually struggles to find any institutional interlocutor in Rome.

As with any communications battle, much of the row between Italy and the Commission is taking place in and through the media, including social ones. Here we want to analyse the effects and resonance of this clash in the Twitter-sphere. In particular, we focus on the recent war of words between Renzi and Jean-Claude Juncker, triggered by the latter’s critical remarks towards Italy during the Commission’s new year’s press conference. The Renzi-Juncker quarrel is the latest, and certainly one of the most visible episodes in what some have called a new fault line in European politics.

An all-Italian affair

Given the highly personalized nature of the incident, our research strategy was to collect all tweets mentioning both Renzi and Juncker, on January 15 (the day of Juncker’s press conference) and for the following five days. Over the monitored period, a total of 8,724 such tweets were written across languages. The figure below shows their temporal flow.

Fig 1: Renzi-Juncker – tweets over time (click to enlarge)

As the chart shows, after a very brief moment, on January 15, in which the numbers of tweets in Italian and other languages were close, the Renzi-Juncker Twitter conversation became an almost exclusively Italian affair. Overall, of the tweets collected, 7,839 (89.9% of the total) are in Italian, 574 (6.6%) in English, 90 (1%) in Spanish, 57 (0.7%) in French and 9 (0,1%) in German. That German users ignored the Renzi-Juncker exchanges is particularly remarkable given that in these sorts of debates their country is often accused of being the Commission’s favourite—if not its puppet master.

The lack of a foreign reaction to the Renzi-Juncker clash is consistent with the view, held by many (in the first place in Brussels), that Renzi’s motives and objectives in the quarrel are largely domestic in nature. Weakened by Italy’s still underwhelming economic performance and some scandals involving his government, the argument goes, Renzi is for one thing trying to divert attention towards a “foreign enemy” and rally support around himself in time for next spring’s local elections. For another, he is preparing for a possible infringement procedure against Italy by pre-emptively shifting the blame onto the Commission.

That the quarrel was followed only in Italy is, in a sense, an advantage for Renzi as it insulated the debate from those audiences – primarily the German one – that might not be too sympathetic to Italy’s complaints. Granted, it also insulated it from (potentially) more benevolent audiences, such as the Spanish or the French one.

A gamble that backfired?

Generating a domestic debate might be a good strategy if one’s objective is simply to distract voters from other topics. It can, however, backfire if the debate ends up being dominated by negative sentiments. Following a method outlined in a previous article, we have tried to answer this question by separating, in the subset of Italian tweets, those expressing criticism of Renzi from the neutral or positive ones. Overall, 4,759 (60.7%) tweets belong to the former camp, while 3,080 (39.3%) are in the latter. For a politician well versed in the use of Twitter like Renzi, this was not a very good performance.

Fig 2: Renzi-Juncker – negative tweets word cloud

The above word cloud illustrates the frequency of terms in text-only anti-Renzi tweets (i.e. excluding re-tweets of URLs). Some recurring criticisms concern the uselessness (inutile) of Renzi’s attacks on the Commission, and the suspicion that his “song and dance” (manfrina) was largely for domestic purposes. In addition, many did not see Renzi’s fight for flexibility as credible, coming from a “puppet” (burattino) of powerful financial lobbies.

These last accusations are quite interesting because to a significant degree they are levelled against Renzi and Juncker at the same time. More generally, tweets that are negative towards Renzi are often also critical of the Commission president and the EU. If gaining some support among Italian Eurosceptics was among Renzi’s goals in the quarrel, his strategy—at least judging from the Twitter-sphere—did not work too well.

(OpenDemocracy, 26.01.2016)

Cameron’s renegotiation speech and intra-EU migration: how the web reacted

The reaction we observed was mainly directed to Cameron’s reform proposals. In particular, we noted an overwhelming presence of negative attitude with respect to what was presented by the PM: this result seems consistent with evidence from opinion polls indicating little confidence in Cameron’s ability to strike a good deal out of the renegotiation process.

On November 10, 2015 Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron held a keynote speech at the Chatham House, launching his proposals for the reform of the European Union – a preliminary step and condition to the referendum on Britain’s stay in the Union, which will be held by 2017.

Cameron’s renegotiation proposal revolves around four political issues – corresponding to the main points of his Chatham House speech: granting equal power to Eurozone and non-Eurozone member states in EU decision-making processes; reversing the objective of an ‘ever closer Union’, written in the treaties; making the European single market more competitive; finally, easing off intra-EU migration flows.

Using natural language processing (NLP) techniques, we have analysed reactions to Cameron’s speech on the micro-blogging platform Twitter. We have focused, in particular, on the issue of intra-EU migration – Cameron’s fourth point – which is arguably the most politically sensitive and prominent in the current Brexit debate. Our objective was to see, first, if Cameron’s stance on the migration issue triggered a reaction and discussion on Twitter, and second whether such discussion was structured along clear lines of conflict.

Detecting attitudinal digital voices

Through Twitter’s ‘search’ and ‘stream’ APIs we downloaded tweets matching a set of keywords at different levels of precision,[i] starting on November 10 and for the two days following Cameron’s speech. We then analysed this corpus of tweets by means of a semi-automated approach relying on NLP, and based on the construction of classifiers to detect, at each successive stage of the research, language and meaning patterns in the examined tweets.

Figure 1 shows our classification pipeline. Broadly, we built and trained classifiers to sort tweets on the basis of: 1) their relevance vis-à-vis Cameron’s speech, 2) the presence of an attitude towards the immigration issue, and 3) the sentiment being expressed. The performance of our classifiers is detailed in table 1 (click pictures to enlarge).

Open vs. closed borders

The classification procedure left us with 8,568 tweets expressing an opinion on the intra-EU migration issue. Overall, such tweets show a negative reaction to Cameron’s stance on the matter. Looking more closely, we were able to separate groups expressing different types of criticism: 3,982 (46.5%) tweets attack Cameron while defending the principle of open borders in the EU, whereas 4,077 (47.5%) oppose the PM by arguing for a closed borders scenario. This balanced picture chimes with results of a recent study by ICM, showing that Britons are evenly split on the topic of the EU referendum.

Figure 2 shows the hourly distribution of tweets containing a given attitude. The closed borders discourse (blue line) displays three hikes (where it surpasses the open borders one—orange line): the first in the morning hours of the November 10—exactly when Cameron was presenting his demands at the Chatham House—and two more on the next day. The two November 11 hikes were mostly due to an intense retweet activity around two specific tweets by Nigel Farage (the UKIP leader accused Camreon of ‘fiddl[ing] with migrant benefits’, whilst ‘EU migration surges to record high’, and suggested to ‘leave the EU to control borders’) and the sharing of a Telegraph article by William Hague, in which the former foreign secretary defined the migration crisis as a ‘gust of the hurricane that will soon engulf Europe’.

On November 12, conversely, the open borders supporters were louder. This increase in activity was mostly due to the Official statistics watchdog’s confuting of the figures used by the PM during his speech. The Independent, in particular, covered the news in two separate stories. This case, together with that of Hague’s article, exemplifies the important role played by news releases in animating Twitter discussions. Table 2 shows the most shared media contents for both groups over the three days of collection. The most shared tweet in the open border group reminded people that ‘EU migrants pay more than they take out in benefits’, whereas the second most shared news story by the closed-borders group focuses on the absolute numbers of newcomers to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria.

Figures 3 and 4 highlight the two discourses’ semantic core, which we obtained by selecting the 50 most shared tweets of, respectively, the closed and open borders groups, and removing from each corpus a set of common words, such as ‘david’, ‘Cameron’, ‘EU’, ‘migration’, and so on.

Both word clouds show the centrality of the welfare benefit theme in the broader discussion on intra-EU migration flows. They also show, however, some distinctive traits. The importance of news sharing appears quite clearly in the closed borders group, which tweeted words such as ‘hurricane’, ‘gust’ ‘mere’ and ‘engulf’, directly derived from the Telegraph story. On the open borders side, it was words such as ‘statistics’, ‘stats’, ‘watchdog’ and ‘figures’ – echoing the clash between statistic authorities and Cameron – that appeared more frequently.

Twitter as a battleground

Our analysis provides interesting information about the nature of Twitter and its reaction to Cameron’s proposals. In the first place, it is clear that Cameron’s speech triggered an attitudinal discussion on Twitter. Approximately 40 thousand tweets (roughly half of the tweets relevant to Cameron’s speech) can be interpreted as containing an attitude of some sort. Of these, more than a fifth, as shown, focused on the intra-EU migration issue.

The reaction we observed was mainly directed to Cameron’s reform proposals. In particular, we noted an overwhelming presence of negative attitude with respect to what was presented by the PM: this result seems consistent with evidence from opinion polls indicating little confidence in Cameron’s ability to strike a good deal out of the renegotiation process.

It is also interesting to see how the ‘offline’ event – Cameron’s Chatham House speech – functioned as a trigger for a much wider discussion on the general principle of free movement inside the European Union, in particular with reference to the welfare benefit debate. In this sense, Twitter appears as a ‘battleground’ for users holding different political views. In such a battleground, active and engaged profiles tend to operate as amplifiers of political leaders’ messages and news items.


[i] Extracting Twitter data on a specific topic means facing a trade-off between ‘precision’ and ‘recall’ (i.e. comprehensiveness): a very precise collection strategy will likely result in tweets that are mostly on topic, but will also miss important conversations. The opposite is the case for more inclusive collection strategies. We opted for a balanced set of keywords and hashtags, containing very specific terms (e.g. #euref, #cameronletter) as well as generic ones, like ‘Cameron’.

(OpenDemocracy, 04.01.2018)