Towards a Critical Approach to Digitally-Mediated Discursive Practices of Gender-Based Hostility

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  1. 1. Eleonora Esposito

    University of Navarra

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As an interactive, pluri-directional and multimodal realm, the cybersphere is characterized by the incessant production and sharing of information content, with an ever-growing number of bottom-up discourse formations and disseminations (KhosraviNik and Unger 2016). One of the most significant and complex drawbacks of this unprecedented proliferation of user-generated content, and the so-called democratization of access to symbolic recourses, is the acutely increasing incidence of online hate or cyberhate. Hostility is a complex social, cultural and psychological phenomenon: motives behind people’s hate are various, different and often obscure, and the fluid and widely unregulated nature of the cybersphere seems to have added to further complicate an already thorny matter.
One of the key scholarly assumptions on the issue is that social media affordances seem to act as a force multiplier, both in terms of sheer quantity and vitriolic quality of interactions. Both social psychologists and criminologists have attempted at sketching haters’ underlying motivations and strategies by drawing on psychological theories and research. These studies have provided useful insights into how some features inherent to Computer Mediated Communication - e.g. perceived anonymity (Joinson 2003) and physical separation (Weisband and Atwater 1999) - contribute to trigger social practices online - e.g. dishinibition and de-individuation (Thurlow et al. 2009), polarization (Wallace 2016) and mob dynamics (Citron 2009). As a result, the recognition of strong psychological features in antisocial behaviours like hate speech is basically entrenched in the differences between face-to-face communication and online interactions. One of the dangers of relying on these scholarly interpretations is the relatively straightforward establishment of a cause-effect relation between the affordances of the participatory web and practices of hostility online, highlighting the role of the digital medium and downplaying socio-political structures and power hierarchies.
This paper advocates a Social Media Critical Discourse Studies (SM-CDS) approach to online hostility. As “a socially committed, problem-oriented, textually based, critical analysis of discourse (manifested in communicative content/practices)” (KhosraviNik 2017: 586), SM-CDS deals with discourse as its central object of analysis: it is not only interested in what happens in the media per se as a closed loop but also in how it may shape and influence the social and political sphere of our life worlds and vice versa. Such an approach would deliberately steer away from media determinist accounts as well as from universalist understandings of social media effect: communication is to be regarded as a human endeavour, irrespective of the sophistication of the medium used. Despite difficulties in demographic and geographic accounting of online communities, macro-contextual aspects, including materialities of sociocultural categorizations (class, ethnicity, gender, age, dis/ability, agency, cultural capitals, as well as cultural positioning, stereotypes, power structures, histories etc.) are to be carefully taken into account and not to be distilled “into a bland cybernetic metaphor” (Couldry 2012: 117).
In particular, this paper focuses on gender as a source of hate in its own right which has not received sufficient institutional and academic attention. While the dangers and risks of the digital world are well acknowledged, we still lack a clear grasp of what it actually entails being a woman navigating the cyberspace, and which specific threats and troubles this journey can bring about. In approaching online gender-based hostility, we would always start from the assumption that any online form of gendered violence replicates and extends the gender and power relations that pre-exist digital communications technologies and vice versa. Digital misogyny is to be regarded as a purposeful discursive strategy to maintain a gendered asymmetry of power by threatening, discrediting and ultimately silencing women in a way that it has historically regimented (Butler 2009). The domain of online misogyny as a digital discursive practice would be, therefore, conceptualized at the intersection of digital media scholarship, discourse theorization and critical feminist explication, with audacious interdisciplinarity (KhosraviNik and Esposito 2018) and substantial intersectionality (Lykke 2010) representing the epistemic way forward.
This paper presents a number of epistemological considerations in relation to digital media, discourses of hostility and critique, grounded in the results of a multi-lingual pilot study conducted in the context of a project funded by the European Commission (H2020-MSCA-IF-2017). The study investigates phenomena of online misogyny (such as gender-based hate speech, rape threats and image-based sexual harassment), against highly visible, political and institutional female figures in Europe. More specifically, it maps the multimodal discursive strategies of online hate against women in the public sphere by collecting and analysing a corpus of user-generated comments on Social Networking Sites (namely, Youtube and Twitter) from three different linguistic landscapes and political cultures in Europe, namely Italy, Spain, and the U.K.
In order to locate abundant relevant foci of data, the preliminary phase has been characterized by a digital ethnographic stance (see Androutsopoulos 2008). Criteria of inclusion encompassed: degree of digital presence, critical ‘moments’ or events of particular relevance or visibility, as well as overall number of views, likes and comments, (regarded as indices of audience attention and likely to yield a high occurrence of polarized content. The selection of case studies has been also guided by the typology of online sexual harassment by Powell and Henry (2017), to include instantiations of: a) gender-based hate speech; b) rape threats; and c) image-based harassment.
The multimodal nature of data has called for an integrated methodology, encompassing: 1) Corpus Linguistics tools (Baker and Egbert 2016), for a quantitative identification of linguistic patterns (e.g. key-keywords, collocations and semantic prosody); 2) Critical Discourse Analysis, for a close qualitative and critical analysis mapping the vast number of discursive strategies and rhetorical devices through which online misogyny is realized, in four different heuristic levels of context (Reisigl and Wodak 2001). 3) Visual Content Analysis, for a multimodal analysis of the videos containing image-based harassment by means of the four-layered framework proposed by Rodriguez and Dimitrova (2011).
Emerging results in all the three linguistic and socio-political contexts in exam are showing:
1) From a more ‘micro’ linguistic perspective, the different degrees of formulaicity and creativity of the multimodal discursive strategies of online hate. This is in line with the already demonstrated algebraic and tediously predictable quality (see Jane 2017) of digital misogyny, but also highlights digital creativity as an integral part of mob dynamics and mentality online, often resulting in an ever-escalating competition to produce the most abusive content.
2) From a more ‘macro’ social perspective, the profoundly intersectional nature of online gender-based hostility. In particular, the analysis points toward the interaction of mutual and intertwined factors both triggering and stoking hate such as: class, race, gender identity or behaviour, age as well as feminist activism.
These results contribute to a more in-depth understanding of gender-based hostility against women in politics as an extremely multi-faceted and multi-layered phenomenon, where gender is not the only factor at play. They also call for the further integration and development of the concept of Digital Intersectionality (Noble and Tynes 2016), which would allow to further question the organization of social relations embedded in digital technologies and foster a clearer understanding of how power relations are organized through them.

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO