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Hashtag Unity: Qatar’s digital nationalism in the Gulf crisis

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This article examines digital expressions of solidarity and unity that emerged on social media platforms in Qatar following the outbreak of the Gulf crisis in June 2017. The study undertakes an analysis of public tweets on the social network site Twitter published around Arabic hashtags in Twitter’s Qatar trends in the first two weeks of the blockade. The hashtags attracted thousands of users to form a digitally connected public calling for national unity and solidarity. An qualitative analysis of a sample from 402,962 tweets published around these hashtags reveals that users expressed national unity and solidarity through both visual and textual displays of strength, resilience, loyalty and pride. The article argues that following their emergence, the hashtags not only aimed to cement resistance against the blockade imposed on Qatar but also to forge a national identity that was centred on the persona of the nation’s leader, Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani, while denouncing social and cultural divisions that stemmed from transnational tribal identities.
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43
JAMMR 12 (1) pp. 43–64 Intellect Limited 2019
Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research
Volume 12 Number 1
© 2019 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jammr.12.1.43_1
KEYWORDS
Qatar
Gulf crisis
social media
Twitter
media and politics
digital nationalism
NURGUL ORUC
Qatar University
Hashtag Unity: Qatar’s digital
nationalism in the Gulf crisis
ABSTRACT
This article examines digital expressions of solidarity and unity that emerged on
social media platforms in Qatar following the outbreak of the Gulf crisis in June
2017. The study undertakes an analysis of public tweets on the social network site
Twitter published around Arabic hashtags in Twitter’s Qatar trends in the first two
weeks of the blockade. The hashtags attracted thousands of users to form a digitally
connected public calling for national unity and solidarity. An qualitative analysis of
a sample from 402,962 tweets published around these hashtags reveals that users
expressed national unity and solidarity through both visual and textual displays
of strength, resilience, loyalty and pride. The article argues that following their
emergence, the hashtags not only aimed to cement resistance against the blockade
imposed on Qatar but also to forge a national identity that was centred on the
persona of the nation’s leader, Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani, while denouncing social and
cultural divisions that stemmed from transnational tribal identities.
1. INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT
For Qatar, a young wealthy nation state with a small land and an indige-
nous population size, the creation of a cohesive national identity for citizen-
ship unity and state loyalty became significant as early as the country gained
independence from the British in 1971. Particularly since the mid-1990s,
the construction of a coherent national identity through traditional heritage
symbols, which evoke national pride and belonging, has been one of the
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1. GCC is a regional
political and economic
allegiance that was
established in 1981 and
consists of Bahrain,
Kuwait, Oman, Qatar,
Saudi Arabia and the
United Arab Emirates.
priorities of the state in Qatar. These efforts have intensified further follow-
ing the influx of foreign labourers to undertake the country’s modernization,
which practically reduced the Qatari citizens to minority in their own country.
At the core of the effort of the Qatari state to promote a national identity is the
issue of maintaining state stability and legitimacy, while defining the elements
of what it means to be a Qatari. Qatar’s heightened sense of being under the
siege of foreign cultures and the desire to remain attached to its traditional
roots have made the need to cling to a national identity at the societal level all
the more urgent.
While Qatar, like other Gulf Arab states, has been involved in construct-
ing an individual national identity aimed at influencing domestic politics, as a
member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),1 it also promoted a unified
khaleeji (Gulf) identity as one of the means to counterbalance possible regional
threats. The Arab Spring in 2011, however, altered the political climate in the
Gulf region. The foreign policies of Qatar did not align with the policies of
Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, and consequently led
to a major crack within the GCC bloc. This episode of conflict between Qatar
and its neighbours escalated to an unprecedented scale and in June 2017
culminated in an unprecedented diplomatic fallout known as the ‘Gulf Crisis’.
In May 2017, Qatar’s official media platform, the Qatar News Agency,
was hacked. The hackers allegedly published a number of fake quotations
attributed to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, includ-
ing supportive statements about Iran, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and
Hezbollah and speculating that the presidency of Donald Trump would
not last. Even though Qatar’s government communications office issued a
statement saying that Qatar’s news agency was hacked to attribute false state-
ments to Emir of Qatar, three Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain)
and Egypt – popularly known as the ‘anti-Qatar quartet’ – used the incident as
a pretext to announce their decision to cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar and
impose an air, sea and land blockade. Their justification for cutting ties with
Qatar was based primarily on accusations that Qatar was financing terrorism,
advancing relations with Iran and protecting dissident actors. Unlike previ-
ous political disputes among the GCC countries, this crisis became public and
involved a number of additional countries. The most spontaneous action came
from the United States, when, on the day following the blockade, President
Donald Trump joined the quartet via Twitter, accusing Qatar of supporting
terrorism (Trump 2017).
On 23 June 2017, the blockading countries issued Qatar with a list of thir-
teen demands as a pre-condition for lifting the blockade. They stated that
Qatar should stop allegedly supporting terrorism, cut ties with Iran, close
down the Al-Jazeera broadcasting channel, terminate the Turkish military base
and align itself politically, socially and economically with other GCC and Arab
countries (Wintour 2017). Qatar refused to yield to the demands of the block-
ading countries and dismissed them either as false accusations or as viola-
tion of its sovereignty. At the time of writing, Qatar has not accepted any of
these demands, but has instead attempted to resolve the crisis diplomatically,
increase the number of its allies and become self-sufficient in food security
and other economic activities.
Another significant consequence of the crisis has been the unprecedented
surge of popular nationalism in Qatar. Since the start of the blockade, the
landscape of Qatar has been saturated with Qatari flags, pictures of its Emir,
Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani and other leaders of the country, and flags and
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pictures of the leaders of the countries who have expressed solidarity with
Qatar. More importantly, the crisis has triggered dynamic nationalist activities
within the digital media environment and formed networked public groups
against the blockade of Qatar. Social network platforms have transformed into
platforms of solidarity and contestation, attracting participants from various
locations and with a variety of motives. Digital solidarities around hashtags in
both Arabic and English have been accompanied by the creation and circula-
tion of digital texts, pictures and videos to confront the blockade by mobilizing
a collective national identity.
This study focuses on the following research question: How were expres-
sions of national identity and solidarity articulated, manifested and mobilised
on social media platforms as a means of resistance in the initial period of the
blockade of Qatar? To obtain the answer, this study investigates the ways in
which Twitter, one of the most popular social network platforms in Qatar,
has been employed by various stakeholders to counteract an external threat
by producing, disseminating and circulating texts and visuals that expressed
resistance and solidarity and called for a stronger sense of national identity,
affinity and kinship.
The article first examines the major theoretical approaches and empiri-
cal studies that inform current scholarship on digital media, nationalism and
national identity. It then discusses the research methodology employed in this
study. This is followed by an analysis of hashtags and tweets sampled from the
original data set to identify the themes and tactics used in digital manifesta-
tions of national identity and nationalism in the initial days of the blockade
of Qatar.
2. LITERATURE REVIEW
Since the mid-1990s, the increasing use of digital media technologies has
given rise to new methods of analysis and a considerable amount of literature
on the social, political and economic implications of digital media. This litera-
ture review outlines the major debates on national identity and nationalism,
and the impact of digital media on the expressions of national identity.
2.1. National identity and nationalism
Due to its abstract, complex and multi-dimensional nature, there are concep-
tual difficulties involved in the idea of nation, national identity and nation-
alism. The body of literature on nationalism and national identity comprises
too many contributions from various disciplines to be discussed here. In what
follows, therefore, the article provides a limited number of discussions to
provide working definitions of the concepts and to contextualize the study.
This article follows Anderson in defining the nation as an ‘imagined politi-
cal community’ in which most of its members do not know each other, ‘yet
in the minds of each lives the image of communion’ (2006: 6). The concept of
national identity refers to ‘bonds of solidarity among members of community’
(Smith 1991: 15) and shared sentiment, which invokes ‘belief in a common
culture, history, kinship, language, religion, territory, founding moment and
destiny’ (Guibernau 2007: 11).
Closely related to the concept of national identity, nationalism is defined
as the ‘consciousness of belonging to the nation, together with sentiments and
aspirations for its security and prosperity’ (Smith 1991: 72). Anthony Giddens
(1985: 218) further elaborates on the concepts of ‘sentiment’ and ‘communality’
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to drive attention to the psychological aspects of nationalism, particularly feel-
ings of security. The ‘communality supplied by national symbols’, he argues,
provides ‘one means of support for ontological security, particularly where
there is a perceived threat from outside the state’. Giddens (1985: 218) also
suggests that one should not overlook the association between nationalist
feelings and leader-figures as leaders ‘acts as a focal point’ for the expression
of nationalist feelings.
Central to the debates of national identity from a modernist stance is that
national identity is constructed. Identities, states Hall, are ‘constructed and
“produced in specific historical and institutional sites within specific discourse
formations and practices, by specific enunciative strategies”’ (1996a: 4). Hall,
therefore, views nation as ‘symbolic community’ and argues that national
identity is constructed. He argues that ‘national identity’ is constructed through
national culture, which consists of a discourse, i.e. representations and mean-
ings that inform the self-perception and actions of individuals (Hall 1996b:
612). National identity, then, is the use of ‘resources of history, language and
culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not ‘who we are’ or
‘where we came from’, so much as what we might become’ (Hall 1996a: 4).
Furthermore, given their dynamic nature, national identities are discursively,
by means of language and other semiotic systems, produced, reproduced, trans-
formed and destructed (Cillia et al. 1999: 153, original emphases).
Focusing on the recent pluralist and competing theories relating to nation-
alism, Umut Özkırımlı (2000: 226–32) argues that the fluidity of the concept
of nationalism can take on various forms, depending on various political,
historical and social contexts. He, therefore, proposes that there is no such
thing as an ‘overarching’ theory of nationalism. This leads him to suggest that,
to understand nationalism, it is preferable to examine the nationalist discourse
as it serves as a ‘common denominator’ for all various forms of nationalism.
He notes that it is possible to consider objective characteristics that coalesce a
group of individuals into a nation (i.e. common territory, language, history and
ethnicity), but it is not possible to come up with a ‘perfect list’ encompassing
all the elements of what makes a community a nation. He further states that
nationalist discourse has three main characteristics: (1) it views the interests
and values of the nation as superseding all other forms of interest and values;
(2) it promotes the nation as the sole source of legitimacy; (3) it follows an
exclusionary logic that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ and ‘friends’ from ‘enemies’.
In the construction of national identities, information and communication
technologies (ICTs) have played a substantial role. Scholars have commonly
noted the role of mass media in fostering nationalism and forging of
national identities. The well-known Canadian theorist, Marshall McLuhan
(1994), discusses how two major technological revolutions (i.e. mass print-
ing and electrical communication technologies) have given rise to new
modes and structures. He calls the printed word the ‘architect’ of national-
ism. According to him, the invention of printing press along with the use of
uniform language system led to the development of linearity, uniformity and
continuity and thus had far-reaching consequences on the social order of
mankind, such as the burgeoning of nationalism. Similarly, Anderson (2006)
posits that by shaping national identities through the transmission of shared
symbols, print press contributed to the formation of national consciousness
and consequently to the emergence of imagined communities. Smith (1991:
11) also acknowledges that mass media is one of the agencies that bind
members of a nation together by ensuring common aspirations, sentiments
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and ideas. It is clear that traditional mass media has contributed to the
rise and spread of nationalism. What happens to national identities and
nationalism in a digital age in which identities and emotions are interactively
produced and consumed? In what follows, the article looks at the impact
of digital media on the construction of national identity and articulation of
nationalist sentiments.
2.2. Digital media, national identity and nationalism
In the common definition, the concept of ‘digital media’ is used to refer to
computer-mediated media. To reflect the social aspects of digital media, this
article, instead, uses ‘digital media’ to denote ‘the information infrastructure
and tools used to produce and distribute content that has individual value but
reflects shared values’ (Howard and Park 2012, quoted in Howard and Hussain
2013: 13). During the mid-1990s, a number of scholars suggested the advent
of a new historical era as a result of the wide use of ICTs. As with any new
technology, digital media technologies brought about both techno-determin-
istic and celebratory approaches. They also brought about discourses centred
around new concepts such as ‘postnational’ to denote ‘the end of nation
states and the rise of supranational entities’ (Menon 2009: 70). As one of the
exponents of this techno-deterministic approach, Nicholas Negroponte, for
instance, declares the coming of a decentralized global cyberstate and inter-
connected electronic communities as the new order that undermine the role
of the nation states (1995: 7). Moreover, some scholars point to the emer-
gence of multiple, fragmented, flexible and heterogeneous identities, which, as
a result, challenge the traditional and cultural definitions of identity, such as
race and class (e.g. Turkle 1995).
Sociologist Manuel Castells (2000) acknowledges that information tech-
nologies have significantly changed economies, cultures, social relationships
and collective identities, but proposes to understand the so-called informa-
tion revolution in its social context that it takes place and is constantly being
shaped. Placing the notion of network at the centre of his approach as the
dominant form of contemporary social organization, Castells takes the tradi-
tional understanding of the concept of social ‘networks’ (2004: 3) to the level of
emergent structures consisting of sets of interconnected nodes that, through
the use of digital communication technologies, process time and space of
flows.
One of the most significant sociocultural changes that digital media tech-
nologies have brought about is the high degree of interactivity. In contrast
to traditional mass media that offer one-way passive consumption of infor-
mation, digital media technologies have enabled ‘participatory culture’, which
refers to ‘a range of different groups deploying media production and distri-
bution to serve their collective participation through content creation and
circulation’ (Jenkins et al. 2013: 2). The structures of digital media that have
enhanced the scope to produce and disseminate ‘user-generated content’ are
particularly significant here. Not only everyone with access to a digital device
and the Internet can produce and share content, but also the path for diffu-
sion of content has shifted from being of one- to- many (a message is sent
via a single channel to many recipients) to also include many-to-many (any
number of communicators can send a message to many other recipients).
The widespread use of digital media technologies over the past several
decades has given impetus to studies attempting to understand their
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influence on the creation and sustenance of nationalism and national iden-
tities. As discussed below, the bulk of the early studies related to the online
expressions of national identity and nationalist ideologies are centred on the
use of the Internet among displaced people and transnational communities,
such as refugees, immigrants, ethnic minorities and so on.
Mitra, for instance, uses the term ‘diasporic websites’ when discussing
online sites as platforms that Indian migrants in the United Kingdom use to
connect with fellow citizens in the homeland, host country and other coun-
tries in the world to consolidate their identities (1997: 158–59). Similarly,
Kania-Lundholm and Lindgren (2017) demonstrate that despite the increase
in the numbers of Polish who move to other parts of Europe after the coun-
try joined the European Union, nationalist discourse and the construction of
Polish national identity continue to reproduce itself among Polish migrants
beyond the territorial borders of Poland thanks to the connections that the
Internet provides. Chan’s (2005) analysis of online communities by Chinese
immigrants living in Singapore shows that online forums provide space for
Chinese immigrants to resist against the disciplining discourse of the host
country.
Moreover, there are studies that show that the Internet provides space for
the imagination or rebuilding of a nation among members of a nation who
experience displacement due to war or other political conflicts. After exam-
ining the content created on a west African listserv for two years by some
nationals of Sierra Leon who experienced a brutal civil war for a long time,
Tynes concludes that when a political or social strife tears apart a nation
state, its members can create a virtual nation online to imaginarily build and
bind the nation once again by using a collective discourse (2007). Similarly,
in Palestine Online, Miriam Aouragh discusses the role of the Internet in the
construction of a collective Palestinian identity whose members belong to ‘one
nation’ living in ‘multiple states’ (2011: 2). Her research concludes that the
Internet as a tool reconnects the Palestinian diaspora and provides a space for
imagining a Palestinian nation.
Contrary to the arguments in the early ICT studies that nation states and
nationalism are no longer relevant in a globalized world, some studies point
to the emergence of new nationalism in the form of increased visibility of
nationalist activities and expressions on the Internet. These studies look at the
use of the Internet by supporters of nationalist movements around territory
issues to examine the role of digital media in cultivating and strengthening
nationalist ideologies. Bakker uses the term ‘internet crusade’ to refer to the
use of the Internet as a ‘battleground’ and webpages and e-mails as ‘weapons’
by nationalist groups. Examining the websites of some diasporic groups who
have lost their national territory or have dispersed from their countries for
political reasons, he concludes that the Internet provides the affordances for
the creation of ‘virtual nations’. The Internet, he argues, makes it easy for the
members of the ‘virtual states’ to communicate and to access broader audience
for promoting their cause. One of the most interesting of his findings is that
these websites serve not as a place where group members interact but rather
a place for propagating and showcasing their nationalist identities (Bakker
2001).
With the increasing popularity of social network sites such as Facebook and
Twitter and their assumed role in facilitating collective action during the Arab
Spring, new studies have looked at how collective national identities are (re)
produced and mobilized on interactive and decentralized social network sites.
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2. A general overview of
Internet penetration
and growth rates in
Gulf states is available
at https://www.
internetworldstats.
com/stats5.htm.
In their research on how Facebook users (re)construct and manifest an Iranian
nationalist identity over the naming of a body of water as Persian Gulf versus
Arabian Gulf, KhosraviNik and Zia (2014) show that through the dichotomy
of Us as Persians and Them as Arabs , Iranian Facebook users not only resist
the official national identity imposed on them by the Islamic government
and international media but also reconstruct an imaginary national identity
that evokes a glorious pre-Islamic past and patriotism. Similarly, Yadlin-Segal
(2017), through textual analysis of the Twitter hashtag #IranJeans – created by
users to oppose Netanyahu’s statement that Iranians are not allowed to wear
jeans – illustrates how certain misconceptions about a national culture and
identity are critiqued in a social media platform.
Recent studies also show how expressions of nationalist ideology play
out in social network sites during intense political events. Iveson’s research
derives from nationalism, gender and communication theories and suggests
that civil society organizations that support the independence of Catalonia
from Spain capitalize on social media to raise nationalist consciousness and
mobilize the Catalans. Her discourse analysis of a sample of tweets published
in the hashtag #votarepertu (#IWillVoteforYou) suggests that both elite and
ordinary people contribute to the discursive construction of Catalan national
identity that conforms to the traditional gendered modes of national iden-
tity (Iveson 2017). Another research on Facebook postings in the aftermath of
the Brexit referendum reveals that Brexit supporters see themselves as becom-
ing a collective of true British citizens online and that they employ economic,
cultural and political nationalism discourse to justify their support for United
Kingdom’s leaving the European Union (Fuchs 2018b).
In addition, social network sites, and Twitter in particular, have been
widely used to call individuals into actual or imagined solidarity and action in
time of uprisings, political crisis and protests (Papacharissi 2015: 37). There is
a growing body of literature that examines the interweaving of social network
sites with a myriad of topics such as political participation, mobilization and
collective action spanning from the Arab Spring (Papacharissi and de Fatima
Oliveira 2012) and the Iranian Elections in 2009 (Morozov 2009) to the
global Occupy movement (Penney and Dadas 2014), and #blacklivesmatter
and #fergunson transnational Twitter protests to support African Americans
against police brutality in United States (Freelon et al. 2016).
The plethora of empirical studies on the use of digital media in other
cultures and regions do not translate into the amount of work done on digital
media use in the Gulf region in general, and particularly in Qatar. Despite
the very high rate in the use of Internet and digital media technologies,2 the
Gulf Arab region in general is poorly served in literature in terms of empiri-
cal studies on the various uses of digital media communications. A popular
conception of the Gulf populations is that they do not express themselves
on social media. However, as Leber and Lysa (2016: 20) argue, despite the
common portrayal of the nationals of oil-rich Gulf monarchies as content
citizens receiving state-controlled oil and gas income, the citizens of Qatar
voice their dissent regarding some political and economic issues on social
media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. The authors give
examples of twitter campaigns that Qatari citizens employ for collective
action that ‘contribute to a sense of citizenship that demands accountability
in state spending and government services as well as the right to define what
it truly means to be Qatari, often against elite projects of national identity
formation’.
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3. See Northwestern
University in Qatar’s
recent report on media
use in the Middle East
at http://mideastmedia.
org/survey/2017/.
4. https://sifter.texifter.
com.
5. https://discovertext.
com/.
It could be argued that despite the centrality of digital media technologies
in the Gulf, the use of digital media by different segments of the Gulf socie-
ties has not been fully realized. The diverse ways of digital media use, both
at the state and at the ‘ordinary’ people level, during the Gulf crisis reveal the
complex and entangled nature of the use of digital media in the region and
provide a compelling case to understand the practices of digital media use.
Drawing on insights from previous studies on nationalism and media studies,
this article contributes to the interdisciplinary literature on digital media and
identity studies. Moreover, as a result of the above-noted scarcity of research
concerning digital media in the Gulf region, this study contributes to the
scholarship examining digital media use in the region.
3. METHODOLOGY
3.1. Data collection
This study is based on the analysis of tweets that were published around
Arabic hashtags in Qatar during the initial days of the Gulf crisis. There is
a plethora of digital media venues providing data related to the Gulf crisis;
however, this study focuses primarily on Twitter hashtags for the following
six reasons: (1) Twitter is a platform that sustains not only real but also imag-
ined networks where participants show a sense of community (Gruzd et al.
2011: 1313). (2) Twitter is one of the most widely used social network sites
in Qatar.3 (3) Twitter’s data consist of rich meta-data, including information
such as date, user name, text, number of followers and friends, and used
hashtags, hyperlinks and visuals. (4) Thanks to its publishing conveniences
and characteristics, Twitter attracts users from diverse backgrounds and loca-
tions. (5) Hashtags combine ‘conversationality and subjectivity in a manner
that supports both individually felt affects and collectivity’ (Papacharissi
2015: 27). (6) The examination of hashtags is one of the most convenient
means of understanding what users are saying about a certain topic (Mejova
et al. 2015).
To investigate the nature of Twitter activities that called for national
unity and solidarity as a means of resisting the blockade of Qatar, the arti-
cle examines the Arabic hashtags spontaneously appearing on Twitter’s
Qatar trends during the first two weeks of the Gulf crisis, i.e. between 5 and
18 June 2017. Twitter’s lists of trending topics are an algorithm measuring
the total number of tweets, and the rapidity with which a topic surges in the
network. The final date of the data collection was determined by monitoring
the increments in the volume of tweets in the subsequent days of the Gulf
crisis and by gauging the number of tweets sufficient for the purposes of this
research.
After identifying the relevant hashtags, the tweets for the study were
purchased from Sifter,4 a major vendor for Twitter data, which provides all
undeleted and public tweets in the history of Twitter. The data set obtained
from Sifter consisted of a total of 402,962 tweets from 5 to 18 June 2017
containing at least one of the hashtags listed in Table 1.
The data set included complete information related to each tweet. Sifter
automatically transferred the data set into DiscoverText,5 a cloud-based text
analytics software used to manage and analyse data. Subsequently, several
analyses were performed to measure and compare specific parameters in the
data set.
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3.2. Data parsing, sampling and analysis
Due to the complex nature of Twitter data, the first step involved was pars-
ing of the data to make the large number of tweets in the original data set
(n=402,962) more manageable and to create a sample for close qualitative
analysis. The sampling was undertaken through a three-step process. First, a
data set was established from the original to include only one copy of a tweet
retweeted twice and more. This is to ensure an equal opportunity of selection
for all unique tweets in the data set. In other words, the tweets of users, for
instance, who have larger numbers of followers are not privileged over those
whose tweets are not retweeted due to low follower numbers. The original set
of tweets was de-duplicated. This process resulted in 21,940 duplicate groups
and 89,363 single items (i.e. those that were not retweeted). Second, one
copy of a tweet retweeted twice and more from each duplicate groups and
all single items were combined to form a new data set resulting in 111,303
tweets published by 43,925 unique accounts, which included: (1) tweets that
had been widely circulated and (2) those remaining at the periphery due to
a lack of circulation. Finally, computerized random sampling was used to
construct a representative data set of 500 tweets. This data set was initially
screened to remove tweets that are: (1) no longer available (because either the
account is no longer available or the account is set back to private); (2) with
URLs that are no longer available; (3) published with the examined hashtags
by users from opposing countries to attack Qatar; (4) scams or advertise-
ment; and (5) bots (i.e. automated accounts). This yielded a final data set of
352 tweets.
The sample data set of tweets was then read several times to identify
themes in relation to the research question. Notes were taken regarding the
content of the tweets, including (1) thematic patterns; (2) references; (3) use
of images; (4) use of symbols; and (5) the use of ‘we’ versus ‘them’ and ‘friends’
versus ‘enemies’. The tweets were also examined for use of additional tactics
such as inclusion of emoji and other visuals in tweets. Twitter profiles of the
users of the selected tweets were also examined to elicit information such as
account user information, location information, profile and banner pictures.
The findings were categorized by taking into consideration the social and
Table 1: Arabic Hashtags Trended in Twitter’s Qatar Trends on 5–18 June 2017.
Hashtag English Translation
# #Tamim_The_Glorious
_ _ # #Promise_Of_Prosperity_And_Dignity
_ _ _ # #We_Are_All_Tamim_Bin_Hamad
_ _ _ # #You_Are_The_Losers_Not_Us
_ # #Our_Tribe_Is_Qatar
_ _ # #Qatar_Is_Not_Alone
_ _ _ _ # #Qatar_People_Is_In_The_Heart_Of_Tamim
_ # #We_Are_All_Qatar
_ _ _ # #Raise_Your_Head_You_Are_A_Qatari
_ _ _ # #We_Support_National_Products
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6. https://wordart.com.
7. See https://developer.
twitter.com/en/
developer-terms/
display-requirements.
html.
political context of the Gulf and how users chose to articulate national unity
and solidarity.
It is also important to note that social media include multimodal data. In
a single tweet one can find both text and visual (image or video) data. The
presence of both text and non-text content, consequently, renders it difficult
to follow traditional visual data analysis methods. Anonymity and the sheer
volume of visual data that are being created, circulated and viewed by unknown
audiences make it difficult to perform conventional qualitative visual analysis,
which is built on researching aspects such as sites and means of production,
the image itself and its audiences (i.e. how a particular audience interpret the
image) (Rose 2001: 32). This study employs a multimodal approach of study-
ing social media data. This approach suggests that textual and visual data work
together to create meaning and that meaning can be extracted from visuals in
conjunction with their associated texts (Pennington 2017: 234). Moreover, this
study approaches thematic analysis of visuals both as looking at ‘what is physi-
cally present in a picture’ and as understanding ‘symbolic or connotative mean-
ings’ based on social and political context (Pennington 2017: 237).
Finally, to validate the themes that emerged through thematic analysis,
an additional exploratory qualitative data analysis (i.e. content clouds) based
on textual data was performed. The content cloud method is used to find
the most frequently occurring words in a document, with the purpose of the
summarization and comparison of information (Cidell 2010). Content cloud
analysis was performed using the Discovertext application to identify the most
frequently used words in the body of tweets in the de-duplicated data set.
Words that do not carry meaning by themselves in Arabic – such as the Arabic
words for ‘of’, ‘will’, ‘to’ – were manually removed. Discovertext can visualize
the most frequently used words and hashtags as a list and cloud. The individ-
ual keywords were then translated into English and visualized using an online
free cloud visualization programme called Wordart.6
3.3. Ethics in the use of digital data
It should be noted that there is currently no consensus among scholars on
the ethics of social media research, and in particular in relation to content
that is publicly visible. Some digital media scholars warn that the fact that
social media data are public does not mean that these could be fully used
by a researcher as this could pose a legal, if not ethical, issue (Caliandro and
Gandini 2016). However, when dealing with big data from social media outlets,
it is unfeasible (even impossible) to obtain consent from all users. Some schol-
ars suggest to omit Twitter user names in a study as a good practice, unless the
account belongs to a public figure or an institution (Fuchs 2018a: 390). This
article endorses this practice, and therefore it does not display user names in
relation to a quotation from a tweet, so as to maintain the anonymity of the
owner of the postings. Since it is against Twitter’s terms and conditions to
display a tweet with modifications to its original content,7 only English trans-
lations of the tweets are included in this study to comply with Twitter’s terms
and conditions and to further protect the anonymity of users.
4. FINDINGS
This section of the study includes analysis of the themes and strategies used
in the tweets, with some examples for each category. It should be noted that a
tweet can refer to more than one theme or category. For instance, a tweet can
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8. In Qatar’s culture, the
expression ‘on one’s
head’ indicates paying
respect and value to
somebody.
9. This is lyrics from
a song by Nawal
El-Kuwaitia, a
contemporary singer in
the Gulf.
contain a statement that exemplifies both national sentiment and religious
references along with the use of symbols and video.
4.1. Themes
4.1.1. National sentiments
National sentiment refers to expressions of attachment, such as love, passion
and pride, towards the country, homeland and its people (Iveson 2017: 57).
The tweets in the data set are highly charged with national sentiments, as
reflected in the use of expressions of love, admiration and pride towards Qatar
in the examples below:
• ‘Qatar is the paradise of the world # Our_Tribe_Is_Qatar.’
• ‘Oh our country, oh our Qatar, we were created to serve as your soldiers
#Qatar’s_People_in Tamim’s _Heart.’
• ‘We belong to Qatar and #We_Are_All_Qatar #Qatar is on our hearts
and is high on our heads.8 Our association is #We_are_All_Tamim_Bin_
Hamad.’
Another user communicates his/her in the lyrics from a popular song, super-
imposed on a picture:
Figure 1: Man with Qatar’s flag. Source: Twitter.
Translation:
‘Oh Qatar nothing in the world compares to you,
You make miracles out of patience
Till you become as high as a palm tree
And purer than clouds and rich lands of rain’.9
4.1.2. The leader of the nation
The strongest theme emerging from the data set is the construction of
national unity through the persona of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani.
The strength, dignity and glory of the nation are articulated in many
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10. Ardah is a traditional
tribal dance performed
by males in the Arabian
Peninsula. Historically,
it was performed
before going to
wars, but today it is
commonly performed
during weddings
and on national day
celebrations.
11. Hamad is the name
of Sheikh Tamim
Al-Thani’s oldest son.
In Arabic culture, it is
common to address a
male with ‘Father of
[…]’.
characteristics attributed to him and strengthened though the creative use of
cultural symbols and imageries. Al-Thani is depicted as strong and courageous,
and a respected and caring leader, i.e. the kind of leadership that embodies all
the qualities capable of holding the nation together. In the following tweet,
for example, the Emir is praised for his qualities, which are seen as resembling
that of a hero:
Figure 2: Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani depicted as a hero. Source: Twitter.
‘The hero of dignity, honour and generosity. My hero and the hero of
everyone who loves this land. #Tamim the Glorious # Thank_You_Qatar’s_
Minister_of_Foreign_Affairs #Our_Tribe_Is_Qatar #Cut_Ties_With_Qatar.’
Another tweet includes a picture of him performing the traditional Ardah
dance.10 The text addresses the Emir that Qataris are strongly committed to
protect the country against any threat:
Figure 3: Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani performing the Ardah dance. Source: Twitter.
‘Oh Father of Hamad,11 we are the inheritors of national pride and we are
her strong shield and protector from outsiders.
#Qatar_Is_Not_Alone # Tamim’s_Statement.’
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12. This is a verse from the
Holy Quran, Chapter
(14:35) Sūrat Ib’rūhūm
(Abraham).
13. This expression means
‘those who have tamed
the challenges’, and
is taken from a poem
by Khalil al-Shebrami
al-Tamimi, a famous
Qatari poet.
14. See the interview given
by Qatar’s foreign
minister: https://www.
cnbc.com/2017/10/17/
saudi-arabia-accused-
of-bid-to-destabilize-
qatar-leadership.html.
Similarly, the following tweets refer to his leadership and the desire to
unite around him as a strong and content nation.
• ‘Tamim is not one individual. Tamim is unified people. The word is his and
his actions confirm his words. He is the heart and we are the one body.
May God protect Tamim, as we are unified under him #We_are_all_
Tamim_Bin_Hamad.’
• ‘God witnesses that the Qatari has raised his head high with pride and
glory. Oh Tamim, we are the lions of your land and the eagles in your sky
#Tamim the Glorious.’
• ‘# Qatar’s_People_ Are_In_The_Heart_of_Tamim # Cut_Ties_With_Qatar
I’d like to tell you and imagine with me
Every day is a national day in the presence of #Tamim.’
4.1.3. Religious sentiments
The term religion specifically refers to the religion of Islam, which, in Qatar’s
context, consists of a significant source of collective cultural identification. In
many tweets, religious sentiments are inflected to nationalist discourse as a
source of bonding and agent of national unity, with some containing prayers to
God (Allah) and other references to religious texts (e.g. the Qur’an), symbols
and motifs as are exemplified in the following tweets:
• ‘#ourtribeisqatar (“Oh my Lord, make this city safe”12) O Allah, protect
Qatar, its Emir, its people and all of Muslims from all harm .’
• ‘The time has come for every Qatari to prove that we are truly Mutawween
al-Saa’ib.13 We rely on Allah’s guidance. #Qatar is Our tribe #Cutting
relations with Qatar.’
4.1.4. Collective belonging
Qatar is a society with a strong tribal identity. Some of the tribes span across the
nation state borders in the Gulf. Since there have been allegations that the block-
ading countries could play on trans-border tribal networks to destabilize Qatar,14
there is a particular emphasis on renouncing tribal differences in the tweets with
the aim of constructing collective belonging to the nation of Qatar. Some of
the tweets demonstrate a sense of belonging to Qatari nation that supersedes
other affiliations and sub-identities. This also indicates the promotion of being
Qatari as the only source of legitimacy. This is expressed by explicit declarations
of loyalty and pride, both at the individual and at the tribal level, and is supported
by various textual and visual forms as shown in the below examples:
• ‘ Our_Tribe_Is_Qatar Name: Qatar Tribe: Qatar Father: Qatar
Mother: Qatar Blood Type: Qatar .’
• ‘#Our_Tribe_ Is_Qatar
Our leader is Tamim
Our hearts beat as one.’
4.1.5. Collective destiny
Collective destiny, which refers to commonality of present and future and the
desire to build a strong nation and maintain its unity, sovereignty and pros-
perity, is manifested as shown in the following tweets:
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15. This is a quote from
Qatar’s national
anthem
16. This is the official Qatar
National Day.
• ‘The people of Qatar are free and proud. They do not kneel down except
to God. We have a national duty toward our homeland and we only recog-
nize our leader Tamim the glorious . #The_People_of_Qatar_are_in_
Tamim_Heart.’
• ‘Qatar shall remain free in the spirit of loyal15 # We_Are_All Qatar #
Turkey_And_Qatar_Are_Brothers # Tamim_The_Glorious #Have_The_
World_We_Have_Tamim.’
• ‘To those who are happy with #Cutting_Ties_with_QatarWe would like
to you to know that we currently live the best life in Qatar and every-
day feels like December 1816 #We_Are_All_Tamim #Tamim_the_
Glorious.’
4.2. Other digital media tactics
Twitter users in the data set also employed certain interactive digital media
affordances to express their sentiments. Tweets are accompanied by pictures and
symbols (e.g. flags and hearts) to amplify the emotional content of the tweet
text as seen in some of the tweets that are shown above. An additional strat-
egy is the use of pictures and drawings of the Emir, which have become popu-
lar since the start of the blockade, as avatars; i.e., personal profile pictures. The
drawing of Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani with the Arabic script, which translates as
‘Tamim the Glorious’, has become the iconographic picture to symbolize unity
against the blockade (Figure 4) and has been widely used all over Qatar.
Another commonly used avatar is the collage of the picture of the previ-
ous Emir, Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani, and the current Emir, Sheikh Tamim
(Figure 5).
Figure 4: Tamim the Glorious.
Source: Twitter.
Figure 5: Collage of the profile pictures
of the father emir Hamad Al-Thani and
Sheikh Tamim. Source: Twitter.
In addition to avatars, other common strategies include (a) using national
symbols (e.g. flag, falcon) and the pictures of Qatari leaders as header images
and (b) replacing profile last name with words such as ‘Qatari’, ‘son/daughter
of Qatar’, ‘I am Qatari’ or ‘Proud Qatari’ to manifest national solidarity and
unity. It was found that tweets in the data set commonly include the pronoun
‘we’ (and its derivatives, such as our and us) to refer to Qatar as a nation, as
several tweets quoted above demonstrate.
Some tweets contain references to friendly countries that have supported
Qatar, as demonstrated in the following tweet:
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‘We_Are_All_Tamim_Bin_Hamad #Turkey_With_Qatar .’
Another tweet includes a video that shows Turkish people gathered in one
of the most famous squares holding Qatari flags, while a man in front of the
crowd reads a letter with statements supporting Qatar. The tweet reads:
A declaration letter from Turkish people gathered in #Taksim square in
#Istanbul in solidarity with #Qatar #Qatar_Is_Not_Alone #Gulf_People_
Refuses_The_Blockade #Cut_Ties_With_Qatar.’
There are tweets that employ the pronoun ‘they’ (in reference to blockad-
ing countries) and other countries who have sided with the blockading coun-
tries in the course of the blockade. The tweets that refer to ‘them’ , however,
generally do not employ inflammatory content or defamations but rather
statements that communicate how the actions of the blockading countries
have led to the unification of the country, as exemplified in the tweet below:
‘Glory be to Allah, who has turned the magic on the magician who wanted
to create a crack among Qatari tribes. Instead, they caused us to be more
unified. #Our_ Tribe_ Is_Qatar.’
4.3. Content cloud analysis
This study undertook an exploratory content cloud analysis of the complete
de-duplicated data set to identify prominent emerging individual words. The
larger the size of the word, the more frequently it was used in tweets (see Figure 7).
Figure 6: Turkey with Qatar. Source: Twitter.
Figure 7: Content Cloud of the Dataset in Arabic. Source: Author-generated using
Discovertext.
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Figure 8 shows the English translation of the words frequently used in
Arabic. The words are derived from the content cloud analysis in Figure 7 and
appear at least 4000 times in the word cloud.
The content cloud analysis of the complete de-duplicated tweets in the
original data set supports the thematic findings from a sample of tweets in the
hashtags. The data from the tweet corpus showing the circulation of the hashtag
reflect the ways in which users demonstrated resilience to the blockade. They
circulated expressions of national unity, identity and a strong sense of belong-
ing through declarations of loyalty and admiration of the nation and the leader.
5. DISCUSSION
One of the common perceptions about nationalism is that nationalist feelings
are instigated by elite structures as a top-down project to legitimize their posi-
tions or to unify and mobilize the population. Official mass media, from books
and newspapers to radio and television, have been considered influential in
forging national imaginaries. Given the growing intimacy between digital
media, society and politics, the production and consumption of nationalism
have transformed into a combined effort of networks of various stakeholders.
Digital media systems, in other words, have enabled users from all walks of
life to participate in the creation and dissemination of content and to express
and influence nationalist sentiments before public audience. The findings of
this study illustrate a case of how the affordances of digital media have shaped
the expressions of nationalist feelings in a region where tribal identities are
considered to prevail over national identities.
In responding to the blockade of Qatar, the users of hashtags in Qatar’s
Twitter trends in the first two weeks of the blockade were bonding emotively
Figure 8: Content Cloud of the Dataset in English translation. Source: Author-
generated using WordArt.
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through Twitter, which enabled them to create and circulate content aimed at
elevating nationalist sentiments. This included visual and textual circulation
of expressions of love and pride directed towards the country its leadership,
and references to religious texts and prayers, promoting a sense of bonding
to activate a strong collective identity. National identity has a psychological
dimension that stems from ‘felt closeness uniting those who belong to the
nation’ and arises to engender love and loyalty to the nation, especially
when the nation’s sovereignty is threatened (Guibernau, 2007: 11–12). Also
social media facilitate the forging of ‘feelings of belonging and solidarity’ by
activating ‘the in-between bond of publics’ (Papacharissi 2015: 9).
Based on theories of nationalism, the concept of ‘nation’ is associated
with three elements: (1) ‘autonomy’; (2) ‘unity’; and (3) ‘identity’ (Smith
1991: 73). These elements that make a nation also call for active participa-
tion of members of a nation to unite around common goals and destiny in
their homeland (Smith 1999: 333). However, it should be recognized that a
nation and its associated attributions and aspirations are abstract notions
that need to be materialized. A nation is an ‘imagined community’ commonly
incarnated in human form (Baron 1997: 105) as a signifier of aspiration and
identification. On social media, the figure of the country’s leader, Sheikh
Tamim Al-Thani, was used to imagine and personalize national autonomy,
unity and identity. This is evident in the attributes associated with Tamim
Al-Thani through both visual representations and textual forms. The multi-
plicity of images portraying him as strong, courageous, content, determined
and benevolent reflect the kind of nation imagined: one that stands with
strength and determination against a blockade, and thus promises dignity
and victorious glory.
Unless divisions within a country are reconciled, it is not possible to
achieve a powerful national unity and solidarity capable of countering an
external threat. In a tribal culture such as Qatar’s, where tribes and lineages
have always been a significant element in the political and social structuring
of the society, it is common practice for individuals to be divided into ‘inferior’
and ‘superior’, with the latter claiming purity of blood and origin (Doumato
2004). Furthermore, the strength of tribal identity and the amplified politi-
cal function of tribes are considered among the most significant reasons for
the lack of strong nationalist ideology in the Gulf Arab states because ‘the
tribal-political do not crystallise as nation’ (Kostiner 2016: 221). The empha-
sis on ‘Qatar is our tribe’ reveals that users communicated the urgency of
the situation in a bid to circumvent existing differences and to signify that
‘being Qatari’ supersedes all other identities. Thus, asabia, which denotes the
bond of belonging in a tribalist structure, is transcended to national identity
in the discourse produced and circulated in the tweets. Palmer states that
‘constant reinforcement of belonging is the basis for both nationalism and
web participation’ (2012: 122). Twitter therefore provided users the space
and the tools to create, publish and circulate a collective national identity
and affiliation when the blockade threatened the sovereignty of Qatar. The
power of nationalism relies on the circulation of shared symbols that evoke
shared symbols and values. The abundance of reference to national symbols
and cultural practices in the tweets (e.g. Qatari flags, falconry and traditional
dances) reflected how Qatari national identity is (re)produced and articu-
lated. Equally important, the prevalent use of the pronoun ‘we’ in most of the
hashtags and the tweets explicitly reflects a unified position. The use of the
pronoun ‘we’ as ‘national we’ is one of the most significant words employed
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in relation to the discursive construction of nations and national identities
(Cillia et al. 1999: 163).
Along with the forging of a strong ‘we’ that is essential in the imagination
of a single unified nation, the presence of ‘friends’ becomes a convincing indi-
cator of a nation’s strength. The tweets in the data set demonstrate that users
rarely referred to the blockading countries or any other nations that failed to
support Qatar. The emphasis was instead placed on the presence of many
‘friends’ supporting Qatar, with the wide circulation of symbols belonging to
those nations to index a transnational solidarity with Qatar.
A further interesting tactic employed by Twitter users at this time was to
change their user name to ‘Qatari’ and to use the iconic drawings of Tamim
Al-Majd as avatars (or digital profile pictures). Avatars, due to their capacity
to spread with extreme rapidity in the digital age, are new forms of symbolic
references capable of communicating to the world an individual’s identifi-
cation and sense of belonging to a particular community (Gerbaudo 2015).
It could be argued that the use of the Tamim Al-Majd painting as an avatar
on a Twitter profile and replacing first (or tribe) names with the word ‘Qatari’
enabled the owners of the tweets in the data set to express a strong sense
of belonging to this ‘super-family’ called Qatar – a country united around its
leader.
Finally, the exploratory content cloud analysis of the complete data set
employed to identify prominent emerging individual words confirms that the
expressions of unity and solidarity place the leader, Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani,
at the core and connect love for ‘the homeland’ and ‘God (Allah)’ for the good
of ‘Qatar’. These findings support the emerging themes found in the sample
data. The data from the tweet corpus show that the circulation of the hashtag
reflected the ways in which users demonstrated their resilience to the
blockade.
National identity, like other identities, is a constructed phenomenon,
rather than being fixed and unchanging. The findings of this study align
with the research conducted by Iveson (2017), Yadin-Segal (2017) and
KhosraviNik and Zia (2014) that demonstrate that social network sites are
instrumental in the (re)construction of national identities. The analysis of
tweets in the data reaffirms that digital media generated a space to spon-
taneously solidify Qatari national identity and maintain unity in the midst
of the blockade.
6. CONCLUSION
The recent blockade of Qatar ignited rituals of solidarity where an affective
upsurge of national identity played a key role in resisting the blockade both
online and offline. The overwhelming social response to the blockade in Qatar
has been one of unity among nationals and residents alike. Digital media envi-
ronments emerged as the major sites of expressing and performing national
identity and solidarity. This study demonstrates that national identity and soli-
darity was articulated, manifested and mobilized through various textual and
visual forms on digital media platforms during the first days of the blockade
as a means of resistance. The study also shows that the hashtag statements
were embraced as national unity slogans, and were used to amplify national-
ist sentiments. The majority of the tweets analysed in this study indicate that
users channelled their energies into: (1) displaying feelings of strength, resil-
ience, dignity and pride; (2) publicly denouncing presumed differences within
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the Qatari society; and (3) consolidating a national identity and unity around
Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani. The crisis and the subsequent pleth-
ora of digital media activities, therefore, forged the persona of Sheikh Tamim
Al-Thani as part of the national identity of Qatar.
This study has sought to understand the expressions and strategies used by
online publics in the face of an external threat. The findings, however, cannot
be generalized as the data set originated from public tweets published with
certain hashtags and from a specific social network site within the first two
weeks of the blockade only. Nonetheless, the study illustrates strongly that
digital media technologies are bound to play a significant role in the context
of contemporary Gulf societies. Furthermore, it proposes that the examina-
tion of data and connections that are produced through digital media has the
potential to offer insights into the contentious politics of the region.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This research was funded by the Qatar University Internal Grant Programme,
grant number CAS-2018-54. Their support is gratefully acknowledged. Any
opinions, findings and conclusions expressed in this article belong to the
author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Qatar University. The author
would also like to thank Ms Sara Salmeh for providing valuable cultural
insights about Qatar and for her feedback on the accuracy of the English
translations of the Arabic tweets.
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CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Nurgul Oruc is a Ph.D. candidate in the Gulf Studies Programme at Qatar
University. Her research focuses on the intersections of digital media, politics
and society. She is the recipient of Qatar University’s 2018 Graduate Student
Excellence in Research Award. She has previously studied at Northwestern
University School of Communication.
Contact: Qatar University, P.O. Box 2713, Doha, Qatar.
E-mail: n.oruc@qu.edu.qa
https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1265-5656
Nurgul Oruc has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was
submitted to Intellect Ltd.
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... To answer this research question, this article followed Oruc's (2019) suggestion and conducted a qualitative content analysis on Sina Weibo posts regarding the celebration of the National Day in China which was posted on October 1, 2019. This represents the seventieth year of China under the rule of the CCP; therefore, the Chinese government arranged a series of activities to celebrate this achievement with the highlight being a military parade. ...
... Nationalism, as a word, was first mentioned in 1409 (Kecmanovic 1996); Many scholars further elaborated on the definition of nationalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Friend and Thayer 2017). However, due to the complex and multi-dimensional nature, the definition of nationalism differs depending upon how scholars define the nation as a community (Oruc 2019). Anderson (2006) defined nationalism as a sense of belonging to an imagined community. ...
... Thus, Özkırımlı (2000) posited that language, history, and ethnicity are significant elements to construct a sense of nationalism; however, it is difficult to include all elements. Hence, nationalist discourse is a salient factor for examining the various forms of nationalism (Özkırımlı 2000), which serve as a common denominator (Oruc 2019). Therefore, Özkırımlı (2000) argued that there are three common features of nationalist discourse: national interests are the most important; the nation is the only legal agency to rule; and the significant differences between them and us. ...
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