Humor that harms? Examining racist audio-visual memetic media on TikTok during Covid-19

Matamoros-Fernández, A., Rodriguez, A., & Wikström, P. (2022). Humor That Harms? Examining Racist Audio-Visual Memetic Media on TikTok During Covid-19. Media and Communication, 10(2), 180–191.


Open access: Yes

Notes: Overall, this paper emphasizes how humour is rewarded by platforms in the attention economy—even as it obscures violence towards others. In this context, content moderation around violence is (almost) impossible to achieve under current models, as they lack historically contextualized approaches. Indeed, this paper notes that those in power have traditionally used humour to dehumanize marginalized people; it is used to silence and discriminate against them. The platform economy is expanding upon the dehumanization by humour.

Interesting quote: “[Humor] s a critical tool people use as a relief mechanism to deal with everyday life and to speak truth to power, but it can also be used to silence and discriminate” (p. 180)

Full abstract: During times of crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, digital platforms are under public scrutiny to guarantee users’ online safety and wellbeing. Following inconsistencies in how platforms moderate online content and behavior, governments around the world are putting pressure on them to curb the spread of illegal and lawful harmful content and behavior (e.g., UK’s Draft Online Safety Bill). These efforts, though, mainly focus on overt abuse and false information, which misses more mundane social media practices such as racial stereotyping that are equally popular and can be inadvertently harmful. Building on Stoever’s (2016) work on the “sonic color line,” this article problematizes sound, specifically, as a key element in racializing memetic practices on the popular short-video platform TikTok. We examine how humorous audio-visual memes about Covid-19 on TikTok contribute to social inequality by normalizing racial stereotyping, as facilitated through TikTok’s “Use This Sound” feature. We found that users’ appropriations of sounds and visuals on TikTok, in combination with the platform’s lack of clear and transparent moderation processes for humorous content, reinforce and (re)produce systems of advantage based on race. Our article contributes to remediating the consistent downplaying of humor that negatively stereotypes historically marginalized communities. It also advances work on race and racism on social media by foregrounding the sonification of race as means for racism’s evolving persistence, which represents a threat to social cohesion.

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