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May Day meeting at Götaplatsen in Gothenburg
The traditional May Day meeting at Götaplatsen in Gothenburg is once again canceled.
Photo: Johan Wingborg
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Digital May Day celebration a challenge for the organizers

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For the second year in a row, the pandemic prevents public rallies on 1 May. Instead, May Day is celebrated digitally. But important aspects are lost and the digital format places other demands on the speakers, according to researchers at the University of Gothenburg.

“Reaching out with political messages is in principle still possible online, but it is a disadvantage for the groups that would otherwise be out demonstrating not to be visible in urban space”, says Mattias Wahlström, Senior Lecturer of Sociology, who has studied people's motives for taking part in May Day public rallies.

According to Mattias Wahlström, May Day has both an outward and a more internal significance. Externally, it is a way for unions, parties and organizations on the left to be seen, show strength and reach out with their messages. Internally, many participants in May Day demonstrations experience that they are energized by gathering together with like-minded people and that it is an opportunity to meet friends and acquaintances.

Difficulty in recreating social aspects

With the celebration now taking place digitally, outsiders may come across quotes from the speeches in the newspaper. But unlike a demonstration through the city, an online event is not something you just happen to come across.

“And as for the internal significance of the demonstrations, it is difficult to digitally recreate the social aspects of the demonstrations, even though the internal cohesion can to some extent be strengthened when people, for example, post pictures on social media”.

Orla Vigsø, Professor of Media Studies agrees with Mattias Wahlström.

“The entire social aspect and the positioning in releation to outsiders and opponents is lost. Admittedly, it is easier to click on a link than to walk in a rally through the city, but an important part of the May Day celebration is to show others that ‘we are many”, he says.

The speech a supporting part

The Social Democrats, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation and the Left Party are inviting participants to the digital live broadcasts on social media, which celebrate May Day. Just as during a traditional physical celebration, the speeches of, among others, the party leaders are a key part.

According to Orla Vigsø, the digital format will place other demands on the speakers.

“Of course it will. Without a live audience, they will not get the immediate reactions they are used to. It is also not possible to give hour-long speeches, they must be more condensed. It is important to write a script that takes this into account and that not only appeals to the sense of community among the people, who usually stand in front of the speaker”.

Advantages and disadvantages

Barbro Wallgren Hemlin is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Swedish and Chairman of the Rhetoric Center at the University of Gothenburg. She emphasizes that the basic advice looks the same, regardless of whether the speaker is in a large square with hundreds of listeners or has some form of digital broadcast.

But she agrees that the digital format is a challenge.

“You have to influence, convince, engage and maybe even fire up people, regardless of the situation. However, this is probably tricky digitally, as that extra ignition can be difficult to achieve if there is no direct interaction between the speaker and the audience. Both speakers and audiences are affected by the spatial proximity. If the speaker feels a response from the audience, the speaker grows and it can sparkle and crackle”, she says.

At the same time, there may be an advantage to speaking digitally, as the speaker can then create an intimacy to the audience that you do not have the opportunity to do if you appear live in the podium in the main square.

“It can be used. It will be a different kind of speech, but it can be just as good”, says Barbro Wallgren Hemlin.

No long-term consequences

None of the researchers believe that the digital celebration will become a continuing tradition. Nor that it would have any consequences for May Day if the rallies were held digitally for two years in a row.

“In the short term, it could possibly have slightly negative consequences for opinion formation and membership recruitment for the parties on the left wing. In the long run, I do not think that this break will result in any major consequences. Historical experience shows that where the May Day tradition has been interrupted, for example in several countries during the Second World War, it has been resumed with renewed energy when permitted again”, says Mattias Wahlström, Senior Lecturer of Sociology.

BY: Thomas Melin, +46 73−404 2021