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Manufacturing Hate 4.0: Can Media Studies Rise to the Challenge?

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Abstract

This article reflects on the growing scourge of hate speech and its propagation via digital social media networks. It discusses how media studies has drawn attention to salient aspects of online hate speech including technological affordances, communication tactics, representational tropes, and audience response. It argues that insights from media studies are vital for unpacking the societal impact of the media and indeed for tackling a destructive force such as online hate speech. It further encourages media studies scholars to engage vigorously with colleagues in and across other disciplines to forge interdisciplinary research collaborations to address pressing societal issues. It urges media studies scholars to connect with the realms of industry, policy making, and civic society to ensure that the public discourse on the challenges of digitalization and mediatization is academically informed, evidence-based, and finely balanced.
https://doi.org/10.1177/1527476420918825
Television & New Media
2020, Vol. 21(6) 602 –607
© The Author(s) 2020
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DOI: 10.1177/1527476420918825
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Article
Manufacturing Hate 4.0:
Can Media Studies Rise
to the Challenge?
Sun Sun Lim1
Abstract
This article reflects on the growing scourge of hate speech and its propagation via digital
social media networks. It discusses how media studies has drawn attention to salient
aspects of online hate speech including technological affordances, communication
tactics, representational tropes, and audience response. It argues that insights from
media studies are vital for unpacking the societal impact of the media and indeed for
tackling a destructive force such as online hate speech. It further encourages media
studies scholars to engage vigorously with colleagues in and across other disciplines
to forge interdisciplinary research collaborations to address pressing societal issues.
It urges media studies scholars to connect with the realms of industry, policy making,
and civic society to ensure that the public discourse on the challenges of digitalization
and mediatization is academically informed, evidence-based, and finely balanced.
Keywords
hate speech, media studies, racism, advocacy, audiences, representations,
interdisciplinary research
The Rise of Manufacturing Hate 4.0
With digitalization coursing through every realm of our lived experience, media as
content, conduit, and companion has never been more salient or encompassing. One
critical challenge emerging from this intensively mediatized milieu is the fomenting of
hate by bad actors disseminating hate speech via digital social media platforms. As
populism and identity politics are on the upsurge in many parts of the world (Fukuyama
1Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore
Corresponding Author:
Sun Sun Lim, Professor and Head, Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Singapore University of
Technology and Design, 8 Somapah Road, Building 1, Level 4, Singapore 487372, Singapore.
Email: sunlim@sutd.edu.sg
918825TVNXXX10.1177/1527476420918825Television & New MediaLim
research-article2020
Lim 603
2018), the fight for hearts and minds has bled into digital platforms that can swiftly
connect people to ideas, and ideologues to followers.
Indeed, in the wake of social media, the steps involved in spreading hate speech are
remarkably easy. Simply take one racially charged social media post, add a sprinkling
of likes and shares, then layer on a litany of toxic comments. Following which, torch
the volatile mixture with an algorithm that draws eyeballs and clicks. That is the sim-
ple formula for Manufacturing Hate 4.0. These everyday ingredients and steps for
producing hate speech are well within the grasp of ordinary media consumers via
platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit.
The emergence of these pervasive digital information infrastructures has made the
indiscriminate propagation of hate speech an increasingly potent threat that demands
concerted action, both individually and societally. This is where academe, and indeed
the discipline of media studies, can champion, amplify, and answer the clarion call for
a robust societal response to such growing ills. In our prevailing information land-
scape, media is the crucial intermediary between people and corporations, citizens and
states, and individuals and collectives. Practitioners, policymakers, and the polis are
struggling to grasp exactly how media mediates these very relationships and media
studies can shed considerable insight on the full spectrum of issues, including and in
particular, hate speech.
Online Hate Speech: Highlights from Media Studies
Research
The length constraints of this article prohibit me from offering a comprehensive cover-
age of media studies research on online hate speech, but these have been well-reviewed
by Anat Ben-David and Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández (2016) and Samuel Merrill
and Mathilda Åkerlund (2018). Commendably, media studies scholars have been
quick to bring their analytical energies to bear on this vexing problem, helping to iden-
tify, label, deconstruct, and critique the production and reception of online hate speech.
I will showcase a strategic selection of research to offer readers a sense of how they
have illuminated diverse aspects of hate speech, thereby advancing our collective
understanding of this nefarious trend.
One notable study identified the phenomenon of platformed racism, focusing on
technological affordances (Matamoros-Fernández 2017). Highlighting a high-profile
Australian race-based controversy that generated considerable racist activity on
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, the author discovered key characteristics of platform
affordances that served to encourage and inflame racism among users. Namely, she
found that these platforms’ protection of humor in their policies facilitated and encour-
aged the circulation of overtly racist memes, videos, and racist comments. Twitter’s
sensitive media filter that was designed to enable content uploaders to label content as
potentially disturbing or inappropriate, such as sexually explicit material, was misused
by some users as a tool to conceal hate speech or avoid being flagged. Furthermore,
the platforms’ tools for users to like and share racist content served to escalate racism
604 Television & New Media 21(6)
because YouTube’s and Facebook’s recommendation algorithms generated similar or
even more bigoted content, thereby amplifying hate speech and discrimination.
In the same vein, a Europe-centered study revealed the practice of platformed antag-
onism, uncovering the communication tactics used in systematic hate speech campaigns
orchestrated by bad actors. Johan Farkas et al. (2018b) coined the term platformed
antagonism to describe the use of fake identities in social media platforms to discredit
particular ethnic, cultural, or religious groups. They studied fake Muslim pages on
Facebook, purportedly by Muslim extremists living in Denmark who were plotting to
rape and kill Danish citizens. These pages further claimed that these extremists were
also agitating to dismantle institutional structures and transform Denmark through the
imposition of Islamic sharia law. The authors found that by spreading such combative
posts, images, and videos, these fabricated pages quickly triggered thousands of user
comments and shares. Although some readers questioned the veracity of these pages
and reported them to Facebook, the majority continuously echoed the antagonistic dis-
course pitting Muslims against Danes. The anonymous page administrators were also
careful to delete comments suggesting that these pages could be fake. Farkas et al.
(2018a) argue that this systematic construction of hostility between Muslims and Danes
through the use of visually arresting and emotive content effectively normalized antag-
onism. They depicted these two groups as being fundamentally incompatible with each
other, thereby sowing discord and legitimizing discrimination.
Another significant piece of research concentrated on representational tropes, delv-
ing into the egregious practice of using humor to disguise hate speech. Robert Topinka
(2018) analyzed content on participatory media that camouflaged racist and nationalist
views with dark humor. Participatory media include platforms such as Reddit,
YouTube, and Tumblr that allow for the uploading and sharing of user-generated con-
tent. He collated and studied user-generated images and posts based on the photograph
of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who became the tragic face of the Syrian refugee
crisis of 2015 when his body washed up on a Turkish beach. Topinka found that this
poignant image of Kurdi was widely repurposed and ridiculed in a community of
interest within Reddit. The specific subreddit r/ImGoingToHellForThis had over five
hundred thousand subscribers and claims to mock political correctness in the interest
of promoting free speech. Posts on this subreddit are patently and unabashedly racist
and nationalist. In response to Kurdi’s death, many posts made light of his demise.
Using macabre humor, they denigrated immigrants from the developing world and
poked fun at refugees. In so doing, these posts used humor to mask what were funda-
mentally racist and nationalist views. “[C]loaks including humour and visual remedia-
tion can provide cover if not sanction for such discourses . . . [and] reproduce one of
the most dominant and destructive political trends of our times” (Topinka 2018, 2066).
Perhaps, the least researched aspect of hate speech, likely due to the challenge of
soliciting individuals’ opinions on such an ethically fraught issue, is that of audience
response to these divisive views. A multicountry study involving respondents from
France, Italy, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom undertook a primarily qualita-
tive approach, conducting 149 face-to-face interviews with professionals and social
media users. Besides analyzing content on social media, online newspapers, and
Lim 605
discussion forums, Olga Jubany and Malin Roiha (2016) also probed young social
media users’ experiences with hate speech. Disturbingly, they found a heightened nor-
malization of hate speech online with many interviewees seemingly apathetic, dis-
missing hateful remarks as jokes, playing down their impact or justifying hate speech
through the lens of freedom of expression. Others did feel sad and indignant, but
attributed hate speech to individual immaturity or group norms. The overriding lais-
sez-faire attitude translated into inaction and noninterference in the face of hate speech,
with some individuals held back by fears of retaliation should they take action. Yet
others would take less confrontational approaches of dealing with perpetrators of hate
speech by blocking or deleting them from their social media accounts, or to simply
“unlike” pages or leave groups where they encountered hate speech. Indeed, most
tended not to report hate speech to platforms because they did not believe that concrete
action would be taken against the culprits.
These four salient aspects of online hate speech that media studies research has
drawn attention to—technological affordances, communication tactics, representa-
tional tropes, and audience response—offer much insight into the problem. As the
digital landscape becomes increasingly complex with the growing application of arti-
ficial intelligence (AI) and Big Data, broadening its reach through expanding indi-
vidual, corporate, and state involvement, the factors that allow hate speech to run riot
will only multiply. Media studies scholars must therefore concentrate their attention
on both media and audiences to analyze “mediatization and datafication precisely by
recognizing rather than erasing audiences’ relation to both the everyday lifeworld and
the public world of citizen action, regulatory intervention, and the wider society”
(Livingstone 2019, 170).
Conclusion
As it stands, today’s information infrastructures make it difficult to contain hate
speech. Emboldened by anonymity, fueled by interactivity, and powered by mass con-
nectivity, online hate speech can sweep through communities swiftly and insidiously
if left unchecked. A fleeting like, a casual share, a throwaway comment—all these
micro actions can come together in a digital patchwork to create a tapestry of hostility.
Social media and participatory platforms have made it all too simple to produce and
spread hate speech. Insights from media studies are thus vital for demystifying the
societal impact of the media, and indeed for tackling a scourge as destructive as online
hate speech.
Furthermore, such multidimensional wicked problems are most effectively under-
stood and addressed through an interdisciplinary lens. It is thus imperative that media
studies scholars engage vigorously with colleagues in and across other disciplines to
forge research collaborations that help to address pressing societal issues. For exam-
ple, Lim and Bouffanais (2019) argue that stemming the spread of disinformation
through an online social network can be addressed by network science and complex-
ity theory. Experiments on collective decision-making by artificial robot swarms sug-
gest that carefully calibrated perturbations can be introduced to trigger prosocial
606 Television & New Media 21(6)
responses by the network to tackle threats. Such scientific approaches, combined
with social science insights, may offer innovative solutions to what are fundamen-
tally sociotechnical issues.
Above all, media studies scholars should also connect with the realms of industry,
policy making, and civic society to ensure that the public discourse on the chal-
lenges of digitalization and mediatization is academically informed, evidence-based,
and finely balanced. We cannot surrender authority for our communication to tech-
nological infrastructures, even as hard-wired algorithms increasingly rob us of our
agency. A great deal more must be done to overhaul our information infrastructures
so that problems such as hate speech and online disinformation are minimized, if not
obliterated, and media studies can play a pivotal role in this urgent effort.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.
References
Ben-David, Anat, and Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández. 2016. “Hate Speech and Covert
Discrimination on Social Media: Monitoring the Facebook Pages of Extreme-right Political
Parties in Spain.” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016): 1167–93.
Farkas, Johan, Jannick Schou, and Christina Neumayer. 2018a. “Cloaked Facebook Pages:
Exploring Fake Islamist Propaganda in Social media.” New Media & Society 20 (5): 1850–67.
Farkas, Johan, Jannick Schou, and Christina Neumayer. 2018b. “Platformed Antagonism: Racist
Discourses on Fake Muslim Facebook Pages.” Critical Discourse Studies 15 (5): 463–80.
Fukuyama, Francis. 2018. Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for
Recognition. London: Profile Books.
Jubany, Olga, and Malin Roiha. 2016. “Backgrounds, Experiences and Responses to Online
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Lim, Sun Sun, and Roland Bouffanais. 2019. “From Senseless Swarms to Smart Mobs: Tuning
Networks for Prosocial Behaviour.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 38 (4): 17–19.
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Matamoros-Fernández, Ariadna. 2017. “Platformed Racism: The Mediation and Circulation of
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Author Biography
Sun Sun Lim is Professor and Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore
University of Technology and Design. Her research seeks to uncover the intricacies of the rela-
tionship between technology and society. Her latest book is Transcendent Parenting: Raising
Children in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2020).
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Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition
  • Francis Fukuyama
Fukuyama, Francis. 2018. Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. London: Profile Books.
Backgrounds, Experiences and Responses to Online Hate Speech: A Comparative Cross-country Analysis
  • Olga Jubany
  • Malin Roiha
Jubany, Olga, and Malin Roiha. 2016. "Backgrounds, Experiences and Responses to Online Hate Speech: A Comparative Cross-country Analysis." Online Report. https://www.rcmediafreedom.eu/Publications/Reports/Backgrounds-Experiences-and-Responses-to-Online-Hate-Speech-A-Comparative-Cross-Country-Analysis.