The agenda-setting power of satire in the EU

Plenary session week 51 2014 in Strasbourg – Meps showing their support to the victims of the Paris terrorists attacks – Je suis CHARLIE © European Union 2015 – source:EP

By Raphaela Kessler

An attack on a French satirical magazine, the Turkish president suing a German satirist, a Ukrainian satirist becoming president, a satirical party in the EU Parliament – all these events show the power behind satire. The influence of satire on our political thinking and actions leads to the following thesis: satire has an agenda-setting power in the EU.

General information about agenda-setting

“The political agenda is the set of issues that policymakers give serious attention to”. Agenda-setting is a meaningful process, as it leads to important policy decisions. It is either a deliberate choice or a response to outside events. Three different types of agendas are highlighted in literature: the political agenda, the media agenda, and the public agenda. As the names indicate, the agendas are distinguished by the way politicians, the media, and the public pay attention to the agenda. 

The agenda-setting process in the EU

While the agenda-setting process on a national level is complex, it is even more complex and subtle on the EU level. The topics in the EU are as heterogeneous as the EU itself, and policymakers need to filter all this information. Agenda-setting in the EU is a big trade-off between various interpretations and perspectives of current events. This makes it a major target for global actors, parties, business sectors, and other interest groups who engage in the battle of narratives and try to put their topic at the top of the political agenda. 

The agenda-setting process in the EU has a constitutive structure. The European Commission includes an issue in the annual work programme, expert groups are formed, and the results of the work are likely to lead to a proposal (with sometimes a Green Paper and a White Paper as intermediate steps). These steps are preceded by social discourse, which takes place on different levels and channels. One channel for processing events and political issues is satire. Satire combines serious with unserious content by humorously presenting political content. It differs from the reporting of traditional news because it uses a simple and provocative language. In the following article, I present four reasons why satire has the power to affect the political, media, and public agenda.

Four arguments for the agenda-setting power of satire 

Firstly, the literature shows that political satire has been receiving more and more attention in the last years and should therefore be considered as a serious player in the political arena. Recent events in Europe like the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit, or the Russian invasion create a breeding ground for anxiety. The uncertainty and fear surrounding these events lead to an increased demand for news and explanations. People try to find a way to deal with a big amount of negative information. It attacks our mental health to be exposed to bad news every day. Therefore, it is not surprising that people consume information in a humorous way. At the same time, the satirical content reaches a high speed of dissemination in the digital public sphere. Memes for example spread like flash mobs through society. The aggregation of discourses then results in the basis of the public agenda.

Secondly, it has been proven that satire has a learning effect on consumers. This was shown by a study on satire about the trade agreement between the EU and the United States, the so-called Transatlantic Trade Investment and Partnership (TTIP). Satire contextualises current events in an everyday language and arouses interest in complex issues and in democracy itself in a humorous way. Interest generates knowledge and knowledge is the first step toward public agenda-setting. Besides positive effects, there are also negative impacts. The digital world is open to journalists and scientists as well as amateurs, and especially satire is a communication tool for everyone. Due to this, it is a great challenge to differentiate between true and false content.

Thirdly, another research about differences in online engagement between satire, regular news, and partisan news shows that satire encourages more user-content interactivity on social media platforms. The user thus goes from being a passive consumer to an active agent. In the agenda-setting process, this can have a positive effect as the concerns of society can be interpreted more precisely. The most liked and commented “infotainment” sets a trend and determines in a way the media agenda. A prime example of the linking of politics and satire is the discussion about Article 13 in the EU. The law on upload filters would particularly affect satire because it often reuses copyrighted material. The debate about Article 13 has been satirised a lot and triggered a high level of interaction on the platform Reddit.

Fourthly, James E. Caron’s definition of satire implies that satire has a clear political intention: “Satire entails a critique based on an implicit or explicit (ethical) value […] entails a potential metanoia, a change in thinking, perception, or belief […].” This leads to the conclusion that there is always a certain intention behind the humorous contributions. A negative example is the satirical portrayal of Ukraine by Russia as a supposed enemy. Russia uses satire as a propaganda machine and, thus, also exerts partial influence on the political opinion of the EU population. On the other hand, satire and its freedom of art can be used, especially in countries without freedom of speech, to circumvent censorship and express opinions that are controversial or critical of the government. Aleksei Semenenko, for instance, collected the satirical portrayal of Putin in Russia and its consequences in his book. Another example is the satirical political party in Hungary “The Two-Tailed Dog” (Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt). Their aim is to parody the political life of the EU state in order to draw attention to its grievances and corruption. Furthermore, in the last European elections, a German satirical party “The Party” (Die Partei) won two seats in the parliament with 900 000 votes. These examples show that the values of satirists can be taken into parliaments and thus develop political agenda-setting power.

Conclusion: Satire is a political entity

To conclude, this article discusses the topic of the agenda-setting power of satire in the EU and points out four different arguments. It can be shown that satire is much more than just a joke to laugh about. The power of satire should not be underestimated by the EU, because the content often has clear ethical aims. Russia’s portrayal of Ukraine in a satirical way shows that parody can paint a clear image of the enemy, which can set the propaganda grounds for a war. Nevertheless, this type of political communication also has a positive effect: it revitalises political discourse and more people participate in the agenda-setting process. And that is what counts in a democracy: participation to make policy for all the people. Political satire can be seen as a counterbalance to other interest groups in the arena of agenda-setting. Whether positive or negative, the arguments show that satire is not only a communication tool but a political entity.