Role of visuals in public policy debates about CRISPR technology in Twitter (PhD project - Eduardo Rojas Padilla)

The project studies the role of visualizations in the Twitter debate about CRISPR-Cas technology to identify how different people and institutions across regions and languages form networks describing CRISPR-Cas technology with views and images. The goal of the study is to understand how groups of actors online see new technologies and come together with shared positions about the type of policies that governments should adopt to support or restrict the applications of a novel technology.


The use of visuals in policy and political issues is omnipresent in public debates: a flaming faucet in the shale gas controversy; polar bears adrift on a tiny ice sheet in the Arctic; the visual campaign against GMOs; or the pair of scissors precisely cutting out a fragment of DNA, visualizing the potential genome editing capabilities of CRISPR-Cas technology.

Across the policy and political sciences, much is to gain by embracing the visual turn that Mitchell (1994) argued, and focusing on understanding how the visual influences social- and political life in modern societies. In the context of a fast-changing online media landscape, the role of visualization takes a different dimension for political and policy research. Empirical evidence indicates an intricate role of visualizations across policy sciences. For example, in the interplay between science, policy, and society topics range from visualizations framing GMOs as Frankenfoods in the 1990s, to understand how visualizations can help policies on climate change by conceptualizing adaptation policies better. Overall, scholarship in policy sciences would benefit from a better understanding of visualizations as influential elements in negotiating and framing policy in modern society, from negotiating governance of novel technologies to policy responses to climate change.


With the emergence of genome editing facilitated by CRISPR, a public debate emerged about the classification of CRISPR and the type of regulation that would require. The public debate centered around whether CRISPR produced GMOs or not. Differences are based on what the technology does during the plant breeding process. For some actors CRISPR is a process of genetic engineering that yields GM crops. Other actors argue CRISPR is a mutagenesis technique indistinguishable from traditional mutagenesis strategies used in plant breeding. This contestation makes CRISPR a case to study how (visualizations in) the framing of issues determines the regulation of the issue (Baumgartner et al., 2008; Fischer et al., 1993). It also allows to study what role visualizations play in coalitions of academics, NGO’s, industry and other actors played in defining CRISPR as an issue of GMO or non-GMO and the ramifications of these framing dynamics for policy decisions on novel food technologies.

Contestation of technologies are also reflected in the visualizations used in framing debates online (Bekkers & Moody, 2014; Bleiker, 2018; Clancy, 2016; Metze, 2018b). This framing process is undertaken by academics, science communicators and industries. This process is also by NGOs and governments in information processes where different actors coalesce to influence how the general public and regulatory agencies define and make sense of the issue which in this case would be the classification and regulation of CRISPR technology. Visual frames can be understood as condensed depictions, capable of packaging precise information, norms and sentiments highlighting particular understandings of an issue and solutions to that issue (Bekkers & Moody, 2014; Bleiker, 2018; Jasanoff & Kim, 2015; Metze, 2018b; Moody & Bekkers, 2018). Visual frames, in the age of internet, can mobilize across regions at great speed regardless of language or political barriers (Bleiker, 2018; Clancy, 2016; Doerr, 2017; Merz, 2010; Niederer, 2016). For example, some actors use visual framing to classify CRISPR as GMO referencing art. Other actors use visual framing to classify CRISPR as a new technology cutting DNA precisely.

Research on the influence of visualizations in public debates on decision-making is an incipient field of research in political and policy sciences (Bleiker, 2018; Metze, 2018b; Morseletto, 2017; Niederer, 2016, 2018; Rabello et al., 2021; Rogers, 2019; van Beek et al., 2020).
In this project, we develop the notion of Multimodal Online Discourse Coalitions (MODC), which are digital coalitions of actors that (un)knowingly share similar textual and visual framings in online settings. We build upon the discourse coalitions literature (Bulkeley, 2000; Hajer, 1993, 2002; Leifeld & Haunss, 2012; Metze & Dodge, 2016) that shows how groups of actors understand public issues and accordingly propose (policy) solutions to address these issues. We combine this with literature that studies the role of (online) visualizations in policy controversies (Doerr, 2017; Gommeh et al., 2021; Hendriks et al., 2017; Niederer, 2016; Pearce et al., 2019; Rabello et al., 2021; Rogers, 2019; Rogers & Niederer, 2020). In MODCs, visualizations together with text are objects of political meaning-making. They are visual resources that are part of the struggle of groups of (policy and political) actors to establish them as dominant discourses in public debates (see Discourse as Visual Language in Rojas-Padilla et al., 2022). Particularly, the multi-interpretability of visuals makes them play a role in opening up or closing down discourse coalitions.

The aim of this project is three-fold. First, we aim to make a conceptual contribution to understanding the theoretical role of visuals in policy and political sciences, and text in the evolution of online policy controversies. Second, we innovate a methodological framework that includes visuals and text in the empirical research of the emergence and evolution of policy controversies online across different geographical regions and languages. Lastly, we develop a policy brief to point out the relevance of MODCs for regulatory policy decisions about CRIPSR technology across different policy contexts.

In order to meet these aims, we combine Social Network Analysis tools with multimodal framing analysis (studying text and visual frames as part of the same communication package) of the CRISPR-Cas debate on Twitter between 2015-2019 in three datasets divided by language. We studied the controversy in Spanish, French and English, and performed a comparative MODC study taking as reference the different policy decisions on CRISPR technology taken in the EU (regulated as GMO), the US (no regulations needed) and Mercosur countries (potential room for regulations but not as a GMO) to contextualize the debates in policy contexts.