Abstract: This article reflects on the discursive representation, legal, and practical challenges of locating, classifying, and publishing citizens’ views of the EU in digital media discourse. We start with the discursive representation challenge of locating and identifying citizens’ voices in social and news media discourse. The second set of challenges pertains to the legal, regulatory framework guiding research ethics on personal data but also cuts across the academic debate on what constitutes “public” discourse in the digital public sphere. The third set of challenges are practical but of no less consequence. Here we bring in the issue of marketisation of the public sphere and of the digital commons, and how these processes affect the ethics but also the feasibility and reliability of digital public sphere analysis. Thereby we illustrate that barriers to content analysis can make data collection practically challenging, feeding dilemmas with data reliability and research ethics. These methodological and empirical challenges are illustrated and unpacked with examples from the Benchmark project, which analysed the extent to which citizens drive EU contestation on social and digital news media. Our study focuses on UK public discourse on a possible European Economic Area solution, and the reactions such discourse may have triggered in two EU-associated countries, Norway and Switzerland, in the post-Brexit referendum period 2016–2019. We thus take a broad European perspective of EU contestation that is not strictly confined within the EU public sphere(s). The case study illustrates the research process and the emerging empirical challenges and concludes with reflections and practical suggestions for future research projects.
Keywords: citizen participation; digital content; EU contestation; methods; research ethics; social media