Social media conflict: Platforms for racial vilification, or acts of provocation and citizenship?

Johns, A., & McCosker, A. (2015). Social media conflict: Platforms for racial vilification, or acts of provocation and citizenship? Communication, Politics & Culture, 47(3), 44–54.


Open access: Yes

Notes: Citizen participation in digital platforms is not easy to grasp—it fosters dialogue and encounters with others but also hate speech, insults, and an increasing dismissal of those who think, feel, or look different. To explore this, Johns and McCosker rely on agonistic politics to explore racial vilification as possible sites of provocation and citizenship. By analyzing examples from YouTube set in Australia and New Zealand, the authors analyze civic discussions concerning race and racism. In this context, the authors argue that the objective of emphasizing the agonistic potential of online harm is to “move toward a notion of contested publics that might be able to accommodate – that is, not to celebrate, nor to eradicate – forms of passion and conflict, even where aggression and bigotry are involved” (p. 52). Following this line of thought, it is crucial to question whether simply removing harmful content dismisses the potential for agonistic politics—a mobilization of passions toward democratic ends.

Abstract: Although racism remains an issue for social media sites such as YouTube, this focus often overshadows the site’s productive capacity to generate ‘agonistic publics’ from which expressions of cultural citizenship and solidarity might emerge. This paper examines these issues through two case studies: the recent proliferation of mobile phone video recordings of racist rants on public transport, and racist interactions surrounding the performance of a Maori ‘flash mob’ haka in New Zealand that was recorded and uploaded to YouTube. We contrast these incidents as they are played out primarily through social media, with the case of Australian Football League player Adam Goodes and the broadcast media reaction to a racial slur aimed against him by a crowd member during the AFL’s Indigenous Round. We discuss the prevalence of vitriolic exchange and racial bigotry, but also, and more importantly, the productive and equally aggressive defence of more inclusive and tolerant forms of cultural identification that play out across these different media forms. Drawing on theories of cultural citizenship along with the political theory of Chantal Mouffe, we point to the capacities of YouTube as ‘platform’, and to social media practices, in facilitating ground-up anti-racism and generating dynamic, contested and confronting micropublics.

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