• Social Media as a new playing field for the governance of agro-food sustainability
(go to publication in Current Opinion of Environmental Sustainability)

  • Social Media Hypes about Agro-Food Issues: Activism, Scandals and Conflicts
(go to publication in Food Policy)

  • The Emergence and Evolution of Master Terms in the Public Debate about Livestock Farming: Semantic Fields, Communication Strategies and Policy Practices
(go to publication in Discourse, Context & Media)

  • Using Emotions to Frame Issues and Identities in Conflict: Farmer Movements on Social Media
(go to publication in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research)

Summary / Samenvatting

"social media create a public playing field that connects arenas and players,

and changes the governance game" (Stevens et al., 2016)


It seems social media are taking over the world. Without social media we would not have witnessed the Arab spring, Brexit and Trump as president... At least, that is the impression you would get from reading the news over the past years. When I started the PhD project in 2013 there was optimism about the potential of social media to empower citizens, diminish hierarchical structures and democratize societies. Over the past few years however this optimism seem to have been replaced by pessimism and concerns about power, polarization and misinformation.

The conversations I have had about social media in these past years were often about echo chambers, filter bubbles and fake news. Some tend to think of such characteristics as inherent to social media. As if social media dynamics steer the flows of information similar to the laws of physics that steer the flow of water. In contrast, others argue that social media simply reflects human tendencies; our tendency to connect with people similar to ourselves; our preference for stories that fit our worldview; and our craving for entertaining and emotionally engaging news. From their perspective, social media is just a different stage for the same performance. However, the social media dynamics that I have observed are not intrinsic to social media, nor a reflection of human tendencies. Social media dynamics emerge out of multiple interactions of social actors, online and offline. To understand these dynamics one has to study the use of social media, by social actors, in their social context.


This thesis examines the role of social media in the public debate about animal farming and food production in The Netherlands. The results of this case study provide insights into social media dynamics in the governance of wicked problems. More specifically, this thesis provides insights into;

(1) the issues, events and actors that generate peak attention on social media;

(2) the emergent dynamics that result from frame interactions;

(3) the influence of social media dynamics on public debates and policies.

To analyse social media dynamics, I combined computational methods for an analysis of emergent patterns on a macro-level, with a detailed interpretive analysis of frame interactions during critical moments on a micro-level. In addition to Twitter and Facebook data, news media messages, policy debates and documents were investigated.

The empirical research started with the development of an extensive search query to explore public debates concerning agro-food issues. Based on the increase rate of social media messages on various time scales over a four-year period, I identified cases of peak selective activity: ‘social media hypes’. An analysis of four dimensions (level of activity, message content, interaction of actors; and media interplay) and the patterns between these dimensions across cases, showed that peak activity revolves around three themes: scandals, activism and conflicts – each with characteristic patterns of activity, framing, interaction and media interplay, i.e. each with their own dynamics. First, scandals are triggered by a news event that generates a relatively high and long peak of social media activity. Social media activity follows news media reports, and there is little variety in framing. Second, activism is characterized by recurring waves of activity in which a single term is used as a rhetorical device to problematize industrial agriculture. These terms are used in campaigns and protest actions, but also more widely in public debates to evaluate various issues and events. Third, conflicts are characterised by a pattern of activity, framing, and media interplay that reflects three phases; animal rights advocates problematize farming practices and address politicians to take action; farmers mobilize a counter movement using identity frames and social media venues, which generates an online conflict that receives news media attention; the state secretary announces a policy decision on the matter, the attention for the issue diminishes and the conflict returns dormant.

The results show that peak selective activity not just follows news media messages about important events or policy issues in the sector. Instead peaks revolve around a few themes that arise out of the interactions between stakeholders. Hashtags form important framing devices to select and connect issues, events and actors, and to morally evaluate the situation.

"Peak activity revolves around scandals, activism and conflicts – each with their own dynamics, i.e. characteristic patterns of activity, framing, interaction and media interplay " (Stevens et al., 2018)

Based on these findings, two in-depth comparative case studies were conducted to better understand

(1) the role of keywords as dominant framing devices in the public debate

(2) the discursive use of emotions and identity in online intergroup conflicts

First, a longitudinal comparative case study was conducted on the emergence and evolution of two dominant keywords in the Dutch livestock debate: plofkip (booster-broiler) and megastal (mega- stable). Based on an analysis of social media messages, news articles, and policy debates and documents the role of keywords in semantic fields, communication strategies, and policy practices were investigated. The results show four dynamics through which keywords become dominant framing devices: (1) loaded keywords used for contested politicized objects become powerful framing devices if they carry normative meaning and yet are open enough to be applied widely; (2) if activists explicitly and consistently relate the meaning of a loaded term to realities and responsibilities in the sector, the term becomes the signifier of an activist frame; (3) counter terms and frames increase attention, broaden the involvement of actors and deepen the conversation to a value-based debate, through which keywords become master terms; (4) master terms are politically defined and shape policy practices, which in turn reinforces the affordance and legitimacy of the term in the public debate. In line with the concept master frame, I propose the concept ‘master term’ as a keyword that not only reflects, but activates and establishes a master frame around which conversations and practices revolve.

"A master term is a keyword that not only reflects, but activates and establishes a master frame around which conversations and practices revolve" (Stevens, Aarts & Dewulf, 2019)

Second, two social media conflicts between farmers and animal rights advocates were investigated to understand how conflicts establish, escalate and return dormant. The analysis focussed on issue and identity framing and the discursive use of emotions in interactions. In contrast to previous framing studies in conflict research, I found that the two groups used the same set of frames and did so consistently throughout the three phases of both cases. I identify this as a symmetric conflict framing repertoire. The groups both use a dominant moral frame – animal welfare is of absolute value –, but express distinct views on policy solutions. This triggers a contestation of credibility – who knows best and who cares most for animals – in which the two groups use the same set of issue and identity frames to directly oppose each other. The binary opposition is initially established through issue-framing but escalates into an identity conflict that involves group labelling and blaming. The discursive use of emotion reinforces this escalation in two ways. First, it reinforces a vicious cycle in the contestation of credibility, i.e. emotion is implicitly used to frame oneself as caring and trustworthy, and explicitly used to frame the other party as deceptive and irrational. Second, disputants use collective emotions as a response to the other group’s offensive actions (blaming) and as a justification of one’s own collective actions. The frame interactions and the discursive use of emotion thus shape the three conflict phases.

"Emotion is implicitly used to frame oneself as caring and trustworthy, and explicitly used to frame the other party as deceptive and irrational" (Stevens, Aarts & Dewulf, 2020)

Overall, all types of stakeholders are involved on social media; political, public, and various private actors throughout the production chain (e.g. farmers, meat processing companies, retailers) are active as well as addressed, mentioned or talked about. Although social media actors frequently change their role to adjust to or alter the game that is being played, I identified relatively stable functions in social media interactions that reflect dependency relations; instigators that create events, crowds that generate momentum and culprits that reinforce or reduce public attention. The actions of instigators and crowds are generally directed towards bringing about change, as a form of activism and political opposition, whereas the culprits are targeted online to be held accountable.

This thesis contributes to three fields of literature: framing, social media dynamics and governance literature. First, two new concepts are introduced that help to understand how peak selective attention results from frame interactions; master terms and the symmetric conflict framing repertoire. Second, a theoretical framework is presented to analyse and interpret social media dynamics, and the self-reinforcing dynamics of social media hypes more particularly. This framework is accompanied by novel methodologies based on computational methods and interpretive analysis, to enable the analysis of the interrelation between emergence and agency on social media over time. Third, I demonstrate how the roles, strategies, resources and dependencies on social media have implications for governance. I conclude that social media create a public playing field that connects arenas and players, and changes the governance game.

Public defence

The public defense of this PhD thesis is on Friday 13 March 2020 at 13:30h in the Aula of Wageningen University, Generaal Foulkesweg 1, Wageningen

You can also watch the public defence via this live stream


  • Prof. Dr. MNC Noelle Aarts, Strategic Communication Group (COM), Wageningen University & Research
  • Prof. Dr. ARPJ Art Dewulf, Public Administration and Policy Group (PAP), Wageningen University & Research


  • Prof. Dr. CJAM Katrien Temeer, Public Administration and Policy Group (PAP), Wageningen University & Research

About the Author

Tim Stevens is an interdisciplinary scientist with expertise in digital media research. He studies the interactions between social media activity and stakeholders’ communication and policy practices in the domains: agriculture, food & health, and nature & environment. In his research, he combines computational methods on macro-level (e.g. semantic network analysis) with interpretive methods on micro-level (e.g. framing and policy analyses). Tim has a passion for building bridges; across the sciences but also at the interface of science and society. He is currently doing research on collaborative methods for educational innovation as a postdoctoral researcher at Education and Learning Sciences, WUR.