The role of religion analysed through Facebook comments

27 May 2021

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In her dissertation, the lawyer Linnea Jensdotter studies the role of religion in public discourse by analysing Facebook comments.

By analysing Facebook comments under news posts from the country’s largest news publishers, Linnea Jensdotter at Uppsala University has studied the role of religion in the public discourse. She has concluded the context has a large impact on what as argued as “Swedish values”.

Religion has come to be an increasingly discussed and polarised question in Swedish public discourse and political debate. In a recently defended dissertation on the sociology of religion at Uppsala University, Linnea Jensdotter shows how this debate is taking place on social media, specifically Facebook comments to news stories about three different political parties and three different issues. The analysed material discusses questions like: Can a Muslim be a politician in Sweden? Do you have to shake hands with everyone you meet even if it is against your religious beliefs? What attitudes to abortion, freedom of conscience and LGBTI are possible to express in public as a politician?

The dissertation contributes to highlighting religious changes in modern Sweden. Linnea Jensdotter concludes that religion is becoming an increasingly visible and politicised issue in Swedish politics and public discourse, often in relation to questions in the intersection of political positions ranging from libertarian to authoritarian. Two central issues where religion is clearly politicised are integration and gender equality, and religion often serves as a starting point for discussions on these and other important social values.

Religion’s complex role

The dissertation analyses a type of material that was previously absent from similar studies, and the results show that the answer to what role religion can have in public discourse is complex and highly context dependent. Secularism and gender equality are considered a part of so-called Swedish values since religion is discussed against the backdrop of Islam. This occurred in the discussion about the handshaking controversy that was widely publicised during the spring 2016, when a Green Party politician declined to shake the hand of a female reporter because of his religious convictions.

“When a discussion centres on Christianity, there is room for more nuances and renegotiations for uniting religion and Swedish values,” says Jensdotter.

New participants in the debate

The study also clearly shows how opinions about religion and its relation to politics are influenced by the media environment of the debate, such as by making feelings and personal experiences a part of the public discourse and by opening up for new participants. On social media, a political opinion can be heightened through the use of emojis to emphasise a sense of anger or happiness that arises in the meeting about the discussed news or by referring in your argument to a knowledge based on ‘the friends I have and the cultures I have lived in’. There are also religious arguments that refer to the Bible or Quran, which complicate the image of a secular Sweden.

“It surprised me that religious arguments were used by so many people. That a discussion characterised by the idea that Sweden is a secular country with a clear line drawn between religion and politics used arguments like ‘Hasn’t he understood the Sermon on the Mount?’ or ‘Our laws are based on our Bible and not the Quran. I don’t understand what they are doing? I’m very disappointed in them all. :(’. These challenge this very division, but also challenge the type of rational argument that previously characterised public discourse.”

THE STUDY’S MATERIAL:

The study’s material consists of comments from the comment section under selected posts from the Facebook pages of the news publishers Aftonbladet, Dagens Nyheter, Expressen, Svenska Dagbladet and SVT-nyheter. Each post contains a linked article. The material was collected from January 2015 to September 2017, within different timeframes for each analysed discussion. Only the comments are analysed and not the linked articles or the posts in which the article was included on the news publishers’ Facebook pages.