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Sunday, 31 July 2016 15:12

Disrupting the trolls

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By Verica Rupar, Associate Professor at the School of Communication Studies, AUT, New Zealand.

Standing up against antisemitism in Europe has never been an easy task. In the age when a number of tectonic changes are shaking the nature of public communication, when people get the news from their social feed engineered by Facebook, and in the age when facts do not work – as PR strategists behind Trump and Brexit campaigns claim –  monitoring media discourse seems likely to get limited results. “Not at all”, says Giulia Dessi, the coordinator of “Get the Trolls Out”. This project uncovered examples and provides insights into the use of antisemitic rhetoric that not fully reveal patterns, trends and resonance in society, but are sufficient to take action against antisemitic talk.

One has to read the Media Monitoring Highlights and the Ousted Trolls of the Month published on this website to realize how right she was. The 290 ‘antisemitic incidents’, registered by the team of 10 monitors in almost a year, indeed brought to the light examples of hate, misinformation and abuse. It provided evidence of disruption of public space by mainstream and alternative media, national and local news outlets, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Periscope, and on individual and group blogs. 

Identifying antisemitic discourse, aimed to engage young people around the importance of fighting antisemitism, would not be possible if the monitors haven’t spent days and nights scanning digital and analogue world, finding examples of antisemitic discourse in texts, images, videos, comments and messages that hurt and strike at the very idea of tolerance and democratic society based on respect for the equal dignity of all human beings. To be effective in recognising discrimination in media, full attention has to be paid to politicians and public figures as well as non-governmental organisations and journalists, to officials as well as random haters on Twitter because the discriminatory nature of talk has to be detected before proposing appropriate action. 

What has the study found? In all countries whose media were monitored – in Belgium, France, Greece, Hungary, and the United Kingdom – trolls with anti-Jewish messages revealed the face of power shift of the links between media and public domains. It has been said that the Internet enabled free expression in all its forms, but this monitoring project has proved that it also opened multiple channels of discourse radically changing the interaction between citizens and public figures. 

In the June’s Troll of the Month example, the president of the urban transport workers’ in Thessaloniki, Greece, denied that he said “God created the Jews by mistake, who afterwards killed Jesus Christ” and  “unfortunately Hitler did not finish his work” by digging a deep hole with an attempt to clarify the statement by saying “God made Jews and they crucified Christ. Majorities crucified Christ just as they burned Copernicus". It did not go without public outcry. Challenging antisemitic discourse became part of the wider debate that included officials who loudly distanced themselves from the union leader. Revealing exploitation of antisemitism in political discourse acknowledged the social importance of revealing hate speech. In a longer run, it is hoped to decrease public support for discriminatory talk as many of columns, readers’ comments, and discussions on social media certify. 

The media monitoring part of the “Get the trolls out” project brought a number of other important insights into the ways antisemitic discourse enters the public space. Trolling, traditionally seen as deliberative act to set out to waste people’s time and energy, in the case of spreading anti-Jewish sentiment involves aggressive campaigning on social media, stereotyping, posting misinformation and misleading claims, ranging from light provocative behaviour to outright abuse. 

The highlighted cases put at the forefront the consequences of simplified political discourse that shifts responsibility for the rise of social anxieties onto the section of the society stereotyped and stigmatised as being historically different. Sometimes the offence has been subconscious, sometimes it comes from ignorance but in many cases they target the Jewish people consciously and purposefully turning the social media into a ‘virtual shouting matches’. 

Conspiracy theories about the attacks in Brussels and Paris fuelled the Twittersphere with poisonous talk, stigmatising Jews for all the wrongdoings of the world. These tweets differ in content and scope but they build a fertile ground for extremism across Europe. Some were produced by people hidden behind pseudonymous with only 40 followers, but some got the audience of thousands. Previous research shows that troll tactics for disrupting online debate include digressing from the topic, manipulating sensitivities within the group to trigger emotional responses, shocking people by poking fun at sensitive or taboo topics and just being aggressive for the sake of it (Hardaker, 20101). The usual answer “don’t feed the trolls” might indeed work in the case of a randomly picked up abuse with no audience but hardly can work as a response in the case of widely known antisemites in the blogosphere.

Things get even more complicated with the legacy media. While the social media operate in the world where the more you try to get something off the Internet, the more you fuel everyone’s interest in it, print, television and radio easily turn individuals’ hate speech into the institutionalised one. Media coverage of actions such as “Burning of a Jew” as a part of Easter celebration in Greece or a flyer about Jews inventing Holocaust in Glasgow carry a potential to either fuel the antisemitic discourse or to discourage it. Editorial responsibility for republishing derogatory statements is enormous as numerous decisions of the press councils and broadcasting standards authorities demonstrate. 

Cases collected in the “Get the Trolls out!” project might be scattered but they function as a repository of examples and responses to antisemitic discourse in Europe at the beginning of the 21st century. Unveiling the trolls in mainstream and social media unpacked the discriminatory nature of antisemitic talk but it also generated a number trolls-disrupting actions that carry a potential to support and assist activists, policy makers and journalists in countering antisemitism in the future.

1. Hardaker, C., 2010, Trolling in asynchronous computer-mediated communication: From user discussions to academic definitions Journal of Politeness Research. Available online at http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/4980/2/Hardaker,%20C.%202010.%20Trolling%20in %20ACMC.pdf  

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