Global Digital Media Cultures and Extreme Speech

International Workshop at LMU Munich to examine the rise of extreme speech and hate speech in global digital cultures.

International Workshop at LMU Munich

Convened by

Sahana Udupa, LMU Munich &MattiPohjonen, Africa Voices Foundation

22 – 24 February 2017

Recent political upheavals in Europe and the US have once again highlighted the paradoxical nature of contemporary digital communication. The celebratory discourse of digital technologies’ potential for openness and democracy is now eclipsed by the “dark side” of new media as a platform for promoting hate speech, fake news, terrorism, misogyny and intergroup conflict. Researchers are confronted with a new lexicon of communicative tactics: ecosystems of fake news; disinformation campaigns; coordinated troll attacks; and targeted hacks aimed at influencing elections. Calls to monitor, legislate and remove hateful and violent online speech have also reinvigorated older legal, political and philosophical debates on the boundaries of accepted civility and legitimate forms of political communication. The negative forms of online speech, it is widely argued, threaten the taken-for-granted freedoms commonly associated with digital media cultures across the world and bringing about what some critics have called a “post-truth” society.

Despite this heightened sense of urgency, these concerns are, however, by no means new or limited to the Western world. A cursory glance of many examples from the “global South” reveals a long-standing anxiety about the dangers of unbridled speech in situations where it can provoke ethnic and religious conflict, mass violence and social unrest.

Legal stipulations to prevent hate speech on grounds of religious harmony and national security are routinely invoked to regulate online media in India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. In Myanmar, social media has been used widely by Buddhist groups to ignite violence against its Muslim minority. In all the cases, digital media have also evolved into vibrant forums for political participation and counter-speech.

The aim of the Global Digital Media Cultures and Extreme Speech workshop is to examine these paradoxes of contemporary digital communication from a critical-comparative perspective rooted in ethnography. By defining online vitriol as “extreme speech”, we depart from the dominant legal definitions of “hate speech” and narrowly constructed terrorism talk. As a form of digital culture, “extreme speech” pushes the boundaries of legitimate speech along the twin axes of truth-falsity and civility-incivility, raising critical questions about some of the taken-for-granted assumptions of communication and political participation. “Extreme speech” serves to reinforce differences and hatred between groups on grounds of religion, race, political ideology and gender, often with the overt intent to intimidate and agitate target groups and individuals. Yet, its ambivalent nature in certain contexts could also provoke challenges to established hegemony. “Extreme speech” thus foregrounds an approach to digital cultures as forms of situated practice (i.e. what people do that is related to media within specific cultural contexts) in order to avoid predetermining the effects of online volatile speech as vilifying, polarizing or lethal (Pohjonen and Udupa 2017).

Invited scholars working on digital cultures across the world will gather at the picturesque island of Frauenchiemsee in Bavaria to discuss the latest empirical findings, methodologies and theoretical frameworks to understand “extreme speech” online. Over two days of presentations and discussions, the participants will explore the different mediatized contexts of digital use, and cultures of digital exchange and securitization, to examine what this dramatic rise of volatile speech means for democratic dialogue and participation across the world. In Ethiopia, for example, following a series of violent protests and killings, the government has declared a state of emergency and made political commenting on Facebook illegal under the pretext of preserving peace. In India, social media is replete with acrimonious abusive exchange in political debates.

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