No laughing matter: the use of online ‘fun’ as a tool for extreme speech
Social media platforms have become a powerful tool for far-right movements to spread extreme speech and ideology. They also present significant challenges for online regulation and moderation. One researcher, Sahana Udupa, a professor of media anthropology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, embarked on a project to explore the complex relationship between digital media and the political cultures of religious identities in India and its diaspora in the UK and Germany. Udupa’s ERC-funded project ONLINERPOL was inspired by her first monograph, an ethnography of news media and urban politics. During that work she observed major transformations in how people consumed and engaged with media. “The vast expansion of smartphones and cheap data plans revolutionised the scene,” she explains. “This shifting media scenario was a major infrastructural inflection point for historically shaped structures of power around religious and nationalist identities.”
Fun as a right-wing strategy
One of the most significant outcomes of Udupa’s research is her theory of “fun as a meta-practice” of online extreme speech. She discovered that right-wing actors strategically use fun to evade regulatory attention and content filters. “I was surprised by how vitriolic exchanges on online media are often experienced as enjoyment,” she says. For instance, fun allows for the formation of social bonds among users who share the same ideological positions. It is not about being funny but about trending the hashtag and making a mark in online discussions. In countries such as Denmark and Germany, online fun has allowed far-right activists to escape strict regulations around speech while deriving pleasure from clever twists of words, suggestive phrasing and coded language. “Fun lies in remediating memetic texts and infusing them with the splendour of pop cultural symbols – from Bollywood, Hollywood and regional cinema to folklore, local idioms and wordplays,” Udupa elaborates.
Together with fact-checkers
To understand the regulatory implications of fun and complex culturally coded expressions in relation to right-wing political cultures online, Udupa teamed up with fact-checkers, AI developers and ethnographers. After building a collaborative coding model to detect problematic speech, they developed the framework of ‘ethical scaling’ as a critique of AI. It highlighted the significance of community involvement in the imagination and development of technology. ONLINERPOL has contributed towards understanding how the internet has become a vital connective tissue of xenophobic and exclusionary nationalist politics globally. A recipient of the Francqui Chair in 2021 for her academic research in the area of extreme speech research, and a Fall 2021 Joan Shorenstein Fellow, Udupa has also drafted a strategy paper for UN Peacekeeping concerning the challenges presented by hate speech in the online space. Looking ahead, she plans to continue researching different dimensions of digital cultures and strengthening For Digital Dignity, a network of scholars and activists with a shared vision to foster enabling spaces of political expression online.
ONLINERPOL, fun, media, right-wing, political culture, religious identities, online regulation, extreme speech, global online cultures, India, social media, nationalist politics