Extreme speech online: An anthropological critique of hate speech debates

Pohjonen, M., & Udupa, S. (2017). Extreme speech online: An anthropological critique of hate speech debates. International Journal of Communication, 11, 1173–1191.

Link: https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/5843

Open Access: Yes

Notes: In this article, Pohjonen and Udupa argue that the concept of hate speech has been rendered useless due to its tendency to flatten context—that is, it does not allow to ground the multiple ways online vitriol exists within community values. They outline two case studies exploring online vitriol in India and Ethiopia to advance their argument. As a result, they propose the concept of extreme speech as an anthropological qualification to hate speech where what people do with the media is centred. Extreme speech, they argue, implies two analytical moves. First, researchers must recognize the ambiguity of online hate speech in context. Second, researchers must recognize the spectrum of practices within historical normative borders. In their conclusion, they note: “the textured nature of online abuse and invective language belies the presuppositions of umbrella concepts such as hate speech as well as the celebratory discourse of online subversion. . . . the diverse online practices defy easy categorizations that could be mapped onto a bipolar field of acceptable and unacceptable speech.” (p. 1186)

Abstract: Exploring the cases of India and Ethiopia, this article develops the concept of “extreme speech” to critically analyze the cultures of vitriolic exchange on Internet-enabled media. While online abuse is largely understood as “hate speech,” we make two interventions to problematize the presuppositions of this widely invoked concept. First, extreme speech emphasizes the need to contextualize online debate with an attention to user practices and particular histories of speech cultures. Second, related to context, is the ambiguity of online vitriol, which defies a simple antonymous conception of hate speech versus acceptable speech. The article advances this analysis using the approach of “comparative practice,” which, we suggest, complicates the discourse of Internet “risk” increasingly invoked to legitimate online speech restrictions.

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