Exploring the Emoji Divide in Catalonia

When Politics Get Emojional

An interactive timeline of the emoji divide in Catalonia,
by Daniel Balcells

The secessionist movement in Spain's northeastern region of Catalonia has brought about the country's worst political crisis since its return to democracy. The streets of Barcelona are flooded with ribbons and graffiti: yellow for independence, red for unionism. How does this politization of the public space translate into the online world?

The timeline on the right lets you explore the symbols that people wear and paint on the streets of virtual Catalonia—in other words, the emoji they use on Twitter. I mined over half a million tweets from September 2017 to November 2018, and plotted a timeline showing how many of them had the Spanish flag 🇪🇸 or yellow ribbon 🎗 emoji in the username or tweet text. Scroll and drag with your mouse to zoom and pan the timeline. Hover over the peaks to see tweets and events. Double-tap to show the legend.

The streets of Barcelona are an explosion of color. The variety of flags, scarves, ribbons and pins that locals have waved, worn, tied and spray-painted all over Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia would suggest to the unknowing tourist that a bizarre Carnival has been going on for over a year. However, there is little reason to celebrate: these innocent symbols are one of the symptoms of Spain’s worst political crisis since its return to democracy in 1978.

La Vila OlĂ­mpica, the seaside neighborhood that hosted thousands of athletes during the 1992 Summer Olympics, is no exception to the rule. The Olympics seemed to announce to the world that Spain was leaving behind a century of bitter divisions, marked by a devastating civil war and a 40-year fascist dictatorship, and was entering a new age of political and economic prosperity. A quarter of a century later, a stroll down the streets that welcomed Michael Jordan and the Dream Team leaves no doubt that Spain still has some issues to deal with.

How did we get here?

Tensions between Catalonia and Spain, which can be traced back at least as far as the 17th century, remained relatively low since the country’s transition to democracy following the death of the dictator General Franco in 1975. However, they began escalating in 2008 after Catalonia’s new Statute of Autonomy, which updated the terms of its self-government, was ruled unconstitutional and amended by Spain’s Constitutional Court, after having been approved in the regional and national Parliaments, and by the Catalan people in a referendum. Catalan nationalists thus considered Spanish law to have lost its legitimacy by amending a text that had been approved in a referendum, and began devising a roadmap for a new referendum, this time for independence. Spanish authorities, on the other hand, considered this unilateral drive for independence an illegal secession within a democratic state, and responded by ruling the roadmap unconstitutional and threatening with legal action.

This divide over the distinction between legitimacy and legality grew steadily since 2012. Several factors, such as the opposing majorities held by nationalists in the Catalan parliament and by conservatives in the national parliament, the yearly organization of some of the largest rallies Europe has seen since the end of WWII, and one of Spaniards' first contacts with the widespread use of social media for political purposes, have helped the conflict develop into a national crisis of unprecedented proportion. The tension climaxed on October 1st, 2017, when Spanish riot police cracked down on voters during an independence referendum that had been ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court. Following a unilateral declaration of independence, the Spanish judiciary jailed regional ministers pending trial and issued European arrest warrants for several others who had fled the country, including regional president Carles Puigdemont. For the unionist side, this was rightful prosecution of criminals who had attempted to break the unity of the nation. For the pro-independence side, this meant Spain had gone back to the days of political prisoners and exiles.

The rise of ribbon warfare

In this context of conflicting perspectives, there was no common ground for constructive debate to take place. Furthermore, with its leadership in jail or abroad, without the support it had expected from the international community, and having hit the wall of the Spanish judicial system, the pro-independence movement was left without a plan. The two largest Catalan grassroots organizations, the Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural, whose leaders had also been jailed, started handing out yellow ribbons for people to demand their freedom and show solidarity with the cause. The self-appointed Comitès de Defensa de la República (Commitees for the Defense of the Republic) soon began spray-painting yellow ribbons on the streets, and tying plastic ribbons on trees and fences. The yellow ribbon thus became a political statement, a way for people to act symbolically when the real action plan was uncertain.

Unionists responded by spray-painting red ribbons on top of the yellow ones and pulling plastic ribbons off public spaces. The situation soon escalated, turning the streets of Catalan cities into the board of a bewildering human-scale game of Monopoly, in which entire neighborhoods changed colors from one day to the next after the squads from either side had done a night’s worth of work.

Other symbols joined in the artful warfare. Purple ribbons could also be seen occasionally, although it remains uncertain whether they were painted by Spanish Republicans—the side that opposed General Franco in the Civil War—or by feminists during their massive strike on March 8th, 2018, as both movements use the same color. In one of the few Western countries that remains relatively free of Neo-Nazi movements, swastikas can now be seen painted in yellow by the unionists, as they consider the pro-independence movement discriminating and supremacist.

Twelve months of ribbon warfare have left us remarkable moments. The Barcelona city council chose to dress the city in yellow Christmas lights last year, only to find the measure banned by the Electoral Council on the grounds that it endangered the political neutrality of the public space. Pro-independence activists spray-painted the private residences of Supreme Court Justice Pablo Llarena and regional conservative leader Raúl Albiol. FC Barcelona ex-player and coach, and current manager of Manchester City, Pep Guardiola, was fined by the English Football Association for wearing a yellow ribbon during the FA Cup final. Spanish police confiscated yellow T-shirts and placards from FC Barcelona fans at the King’s Cup final in Madrid. A tribute to the jailed leaders in the form of yellow crosses planted on the beach in Canet de Mar (Barcelona) ended in a scuffle between pro- and anti-independence supporters.

Measuring the politization of the online shared space

In August this year, regional minister for Digital Policy and Public Administration Jordi Puigneró proposed that Catalonia become “a digital nation in the form of a republic” given the difficulties of implementing the independence plan in the physical world. The Spanish state, he argued, is “analog”, and therefore in the digital space Catalans can be “invincible”. Whether in the form of a digital republic or on existing social media, what is clear is that the Internet plays a crucial role in the way people build and share their political views.

Almost 80 percent of the population of Catalonia opposes the detention of their political leaders. However, many also argue that politicizing the public space not only doesn’t contribute to finding a solution, but rather further polarizes opinions, making the situation worse. In this article, you are invited to explore the way this polarization of shared spaces by means of political symbols applies to largest space we share: the Internet.

As you’re strolling down the streets of Catalonia, how many ribbons and flags do you see? How do these symbols contribute to polarizing the political discussion? Here’s the analogy underlying this study: as you’re scrolling down the tweets of Catalonia, how many ribbons and flags do you see?

The plot on the right shows the split of public opinion about Catalonia between September 1st, 2017, shortly before the announcement of the independence referendum, and November 30th, 2018, as measured by the use of emoji on Twitter. I mined over half a million tweets with the hashtags #Catalunya and #Cataluña, the name of the region in Catalan and Spanish, and measured how many of them contain a Spanish flag 🇪🇸 or yellow ribbon 🎗 emoji (there is no red ribbon or Catalan flag emoji) in the tweet text or username. Next, I filtered out duplicates to restrict the data to one tweet per user, per day, per category (ribbon in text, ribbon in username, flag in text, flag in username, or none of the above), which left me with some 300,000 tweets. I then plotted the four emoji categories in an interactive timeline, showing one tweet per day for each category as a sample of the online conversation. I also added markers for significant events. You can freely explore the timeline by zooming with your scroll wheel, dragging to pan the view, and hovering over peaks to discover tweets and events.

As you can see, the peaks on both sides highly correlate with major political events: the referendum, the declaration of independence, the regional election, the various demonstrations in support of either side... The data for the months of September, October and November 2017 reflects the tension that characterized them, with up to 10 major peaks and a considerably higher baseline activity. On the other hand, periods of uncertainty and little political movement, such as the three months following the regional election on December 21st, during which the pro-independence parties struggled to form a government due to internal divisions, appear in the timeline with fewer large peaks and a decaying baseline activity. The arrest of former regional president Carles Puigdemont and the jailing of the former president of the regional parliament and four former regional ministers at the end of March sparked renewed interest for some time, until the change of government in Madrid in early June again sowed uncertainty in the pro-independence movement. The summer—and arguably also the Football World Cup—helped keep things quiet until the National Day of Catalonia, on September 11th, and the first anniversary of the referendum, on October 1st.

It is worth noting that the dataset is not geographically restricted to Catalonia. This is intentional: we want to browse the streets of “virtual” Catalonia—and virtual Catalonia, like any other virtual space, knows nothing about borders. A Spanish expat living in Norway speaks just as loud in #Catalunya as does a sickle-bearing segador from the Catalan city of Girona. This also means, if we assume the rest of Spain is more likely to support the unionist cause than the secessionist cause, that the area in red, despite being much smaller than the area in yellow, comes from a much larger population: of the roughly 45 million people that live in Spain, only 7 million live in Catalonia, and yet the yellow ribbon is much more present on Twitter than the Spanish flag.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that support for independence is dominant in Catalonia: it only means that its supporters are more willing to openly show their support, and are more active in doing so daily. Spanish people who oppose Catalan independence might refrain from using the Spanish flag emoji out of fear of being considered die-hard Spanish nationalists. Indeed, given Spain's recent history of division and the ongoing tensions between its central administration and peripheral regions—predominantly Catalonia and the Basque Country, but also including others such as Galicia, the Valencian Community and the Canary Islands—the national flag is a symbol that many Spaniards do not identify with.

At the same time, strictly speaking, the yellow ribbon’s initial message was to demand freedom for the jailed Catalan leaders, rather than to express support for independence. Although the two opinions overlap generously, some political parties and figures protest the jailing of elect representatives while remaining ambiguous over the issue of independence, such as Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, or openly rejecting it, such as Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos.

Finally, another interesting insight comes from studying the decay of public interest in Catalonia. In the fall of 2017 the peaks are relatively wide, taking up to 5 days to fall back to their baseline level. However, the two major peaks in the fall of 2018 are extremely narrow: the very next day, the conversation falls back to its usual size. This might signal that people are still willing to show up on important dates, but the political stagnation has made them lose interest in sustaining a longer conversation.

Some final thoughts

Symbols are powerful. Within politics, specifically, symbols have the ability to express, in terms as simple as a color, complex ideas that millions of people with completely different opinions can more or less agree on. In Catalonia, the nationalist bourgeoisie and the heirs of the anarchist movement that seized farms and burned churches in the 1930s might agree that “we want these people back home”, and express that agreement in a simple yellow ribbon. On the other hand, the Spanish Conservative and Socialist parties might agree that “the unity of our nation is more important than political differences”, and that agreement can be symbolized in the color red.

However, symbols can also accentuate the boundaries between “us” and “them”, and thus prevent constructive debates from keeping a democracy healthy. This is especially true in the online world, where algorithmic content filters make it all the more difficult to encounter different opinions, and brevity and anonymity discourage deep and respectful exchanges. It is ultimately up to each of us to determine how our use of communication tools shapes our political reality.

As we have seen, emoji, despite being an informal and even playful means of communication, can be used to convey considerably complex messages. The powerful meanings that these symbols carry, together with the vast amounts of information that are available online, make it possible to study topics as complex and multi-layered as the Catalan secessionist movement using relatively simple tools. I think it’s pretty amazing to be able to complement the big picture we see in traditional media with insights that we find by aggregating hundreds of thousands of data points as small as 140 characters.

If you want to learn more about the data mining, processing and visualization process, check out the code on GitHub.

If you have any other questions, feel free to get in touch with me by email: dbalcells at gmail dot com