Digital hostility, subjectivity and ethics: Theorising the disruption of identity in instances of mass online abuse and hate speech

Cover, R. (2023). Digital hostility, subjectivity and ethics: Theorising the disruption of identity in instances of mass online abuse and hate speech. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 29(2), 308–321.


Open access: No

Notes: In this paper, Cover deals with mass violence on digital platforms, especially examining how they disrupt the processes of subjectivity and identity formation. Here, the author argues that we ought to move from an individualistic reading of violence to a cultural one, which he then illustrates by two processes: the pile-on and cancellation. In the pile-on, we see a model of violence in which the individual disappears, resulting in “the massified group presenting hostility, shaming, humiliation, hate, call-out or demands for cancellation en masse are no longer countable (or accountable) as individuals” (p. 314). In the cancellation, a subject is targeted by a pile-on and considered non-belonging, an ungrievable being. These two cases, Cover argues, invite us to critically reflect less between the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ violence and more about the role of the masses in its execution. As such, this article invites us to develop an ethical approach “that is attentive to the harms hostile behaviour does the very subjectivity of the user who is victimised or made vulnerable in online settings” (p. 318), where we recognize the vulnerability of all subjects.

Abstract: The experience of hostility, hate speech and adversarial behaviour in everyday online spaces has increased substantially in recent years, with known health and mental health outcomes for users. This paper argues that due to the ‘massified’ form of contemporary hostility experienced in the internet ‘pile on’, a new framework for understanding and remedying hostility is required. This paper draws on Judith Butler’s theories of identity to present an account of digital hostility as cultural and as having a negative effect on the identities and selfhood of users. It discusses the impact of the online pile-on, shaming and the ways in which hostility positions victims as ungrievable subjects. The essay recommends new ethical approaches grounded in the recognition of subjects as vulnerable, arguing that cultural ethics approaches are valuable not only as public pedagogies but for development of technological solutions and moderation interventions to help prevent hostility and hate speech.

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