Austerity, emotions and social media - Kirsten Forkert

Austerity, emotions and social media – Kirsten Forkert

Why is there not more resistance to austerity measures despite the assault on livelihoods and living standards in the UK and across the European Union? This isn’t just a question of whether or not we agree with arguments in favour of cuts or have bought into neoliberal ideology. This is because consent for austerity does not only operate on a rational level (on the level of arguments about budgets for example) – but also appeals to our emotions: fears, anxieties, prejudices, resentments, longings and hopes. One of the most contested debates around austerity is around who deserves access to public services (it is assumed that in an era of constrained budgets that there is not enough money for everyone). Equally contested are debates around who we see as the deserving or undeserving, and how we perceive them in relation to ourselves. Debates around austerity thus involve processes of identification, disidentification and othering.

Within this context, the issues around unemployment and welfare benefits become particularly vexed. Welfare benefits are the object of many myths and misconceptions: for example 47% of the entire benefits budget of £159bn is spent on pensions, and only £4.91bn is spent on Jobseekers’ Allowance. Benefits fraud accounts for 2% of all public sector fraud as opposed to 69% tax fraud. However, consent for austerity, and particularly consent with benefits cuts is not simply because people don’t know the facts or are misinformed. This is because it touches on some highly emotive issues: ideas of fairness and reciprocity, expectations for a livelihood and career (for ourselves and for our children), and the role of higher education in preparing people for the job market (or, as is the case for many graduates, unemployment or zero-hour contracts and other forms of precarious work). These issues are often divisive and are laced through with anger, guilt and shame. How such loaded issues are framed by politicians (such as Iain Duncan Smith) and media commentators (such as, for example, Edwina Currie, Katie Hopkins, Jack Monroe or Owen Jones) play a crucial role in consolidating or challenging arguments and beliefs about the necessity and moral value of benefits cuts as hegemonic common sense.

Participatory and social media are key sites of struggle over the legitimacy and meaning of austerity. It is in these places where some of the most heated debates take place about the “deserving” or the “undeserving”, where experiences of living the cuts are shared, and where, crucially, people position themselves in relation to others affected by the cuts (showing solidarity with them or judging and deriding, and othering them as “scroungers”). As the late Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea discussed in ‘Common-Sense Neoliberalism’ analysis of comments on an article about benefits cuts, these debates are charged ‘with an energy that comes from genuine anger, irony, moving accounts of people’s own difficulties, unashamed prejudice, etc.’ Inspired by Hall and O’Shea’s approach, I examined online responses to two media controversies where these issues were hotly debated. The first was the University of Birmingham’s graduate Cait Reilly’s challenge to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), after being forced to work at Poundland for free in connection with the Work Programme, under threat of losing her benefits. The second was the controversial Channel 4 programme Benefits Street.

Within the online comments I analysed on several news articles about Cait Reilly’s challenge to the DWP, the most common reaction consisted of a sense of outrage at the injustice of the Work Programme, including the fact that it could be used to replace paid staff with unpaid workfare participants. However, almost as common were personal attacks on Reilly: calling her lazy and a “job snob” who thought she was too good to work in Poundland. She was simultaneously praised and attacked for volunteering in a museum (which she had to give up in order to work in Poundland for free), reflecting some of the contradictory views around austerity. Some commenters complimented Reilly for trying to get voluntary experience in her field; for others it meant she had unrealistic career aspirations and was a burden on the taxpayer – and by extension, that having a career within the context of austerity had become a luxury. These contradictory responses reflect the difficulties in contending with the idea that anyone, potentially, could be unemployed, including university graduates with previous work experience such as Reilly – and not only caricatures of claimants (as low skilled, having never held a job, etc.).

Reactions on Twitter to Benefits Street were equally divided, as I saw through analysing a selection of tweets from the nights when the series was broadcast. Many of the tweets derided and vilified the people on the programme, affirming stereotypes of the unemployed as lazy, stupid, bad parents and blowing their benefits on objects of conspicuous consumption (like flat screen televisions or gadgets). There was a sense that such responses may have been encouraged by the programme, which emphasised these characteristics and periodically flashed the #benefitsstreet hashtag on the screen. Personal attacks were directed towards central character, Deirdre Kelly AKA “White Dee”; many were openly sexist, commenting on her appearance (especially her breasts) and on whether or not anyone wanted to “shag” her. However, there were also many attempts to “hijack the hashtag” to raise awareness about issues around poverty: in-work poverty, the bedroom tax, cuts to disability benefits and so on. The welfare rights campaign group WOWPetition held a “twitter protest”. In order to balance the debate, others used #benefitsstreet to redirect attention to tax fraud, corporate greed and cronyism, as in the spoof site Parasite Street ( Others shared personal testimonies, songs and poems about the experience of life on benefits.

What these responses show is that there are two main ways that one can react to austerity: one can judge, deride and engage in personal attacks – which can be possibly interpreted as both expressions of denial and attempts at self-reassurance that I will never be affected by austerity and that only lazy stupid people who make poor life choices become unemployed. Given the anonymity of much participatory and social media (as many of these comments were posted under pseudonym) it is very easy to do this with few consequences. Or instead one can show solidarity – through personal testimonies that show that those affected by benefit cuts are not alone, that talking about being on welfare is not shameful, and through challenging easy stereotypes and scapegoats. These responses are an important part of the terrain for affirming or challenging the legitimacy of austerity.

Kirsten Forkert is a researcher and activist, and researches the politics of cultural work and education. She completed a PhD in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2011, under the supervision of Professor Angela McRobbie. Her PhD thesis explored the conditions experienced by freelance artists in London and Berlin and serves as the basis for her first book, ‘Artistic Lives’ (Ashgate Publishers, 2013). She has also published on media art, activism, and the globalisation of education.