Understanding anti---immigrant hate speech on social media

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Social Sciences


This study aims to improve sociological understandings of online anti-immigrant hate speech as a form of racism. Recent years have seen a proliferation of racist language online, with a 2014 study finding 10,000 uses of English racist and ethnic slur terms daily on Twitter alone (Bartlett et al., 2014). This phenomenon is undertheorised (Daniels, 2012: 705), and with no knowledge of what drives online racism, governments struggle with its policy implications. This study fits with Manchester's commitment to impactful, theoretically informed, empirical research, as it aims to provide policy recommendations regarding the spread of racism online. It will also contribute to the Department of Sociology and CoDE's leading research on the causes and effects of racism.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000665/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1940776 Studentship ES/P000665/1 01/10/2017 30/12/2020 Natalie-Anne Hall
Description This project sought to understand how Facebook was used by non-digital-native Brexit supporters to engage with pro-Leave and related right-wing, right-wing populist and nativist content, and the significance of this engagement to their social and political lives. In doing so it aimed to shed light on the complex nexus between the recent phenomenon of support for Brexit, long-standing discontents with ethnic and religious diversity and liberal social change, and the evolving role of social media platforms in our political lives. The novel methodology for the study combined multiple semi- structured interviews with a cohort of 15 pro-Leave Facebook users, with one-month- long observations of their Facebook Wall activity. This allowed the study to take an interpretive approach that gave voice to participants' experiences, while simultaneously contextualising these in an immersive, ethnographic fashion.
The findings, reported in the doctoral thesis, revealed that the logic of the Facebook platform both afforded and encouraged participants to become politically engaged in ways that made them feel valuable and in control, within a socio-political context that they experienced as devaluing and disempowering. Elements of this logic found to play a role included Facebook's global connectivity, its algorithmically-driven automation, its emphasis on sharing, and its role as an alternative news provider. This combined with the crystallising issue of Brexit to mobilise existing grievances among participants. Participants accounted for their pro-Leave stances by avidly drawing on narrative templates provided by the content in their online milieus, and interpreting them in light of their lived experiences. These narratives cohered around a metanarrative that a global agenda exists that is deliberately facilitating or forcing 'left-wing' social change from above, to the detriment of 'normal' people like 'us'. This metanarrative conceived of power in similar ways to both conspiracy theories and populism, and employed frames of entitlement and demonisation that were culturally racist, nativist and Islamophobic. Finally, contrary to 'post-truth' claims that a shift towards privileging emotions over facts is behind Brexit and other contemporary mediated right-wing, right-wing populist and nativist phenomena, participants were extremely preoccupied with facts and demonstrating factful-ness. This was despite their experiences of, and narratives around, social media use also being highly emotive, reflecting the way in which emotions and rationality are not mutually exclusive. Overall, the thesis reveals that behind participants' use of social media was a desire to redefine claims to political knowledge while also reclaiming their own status as valued and empowered citizens, which was experienced as lost within an increasingly cosmopolitan and liberal society.
Exploitation Route I invite future studies to adapt the method employed here to investigate political social media use in relation to other groups and contexts. Sociological research that focuses on the experiences and meaning-making of individuals has the potential to generate understandings that will be invaluable in mapping the path to reconciliation in divided societies.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice

Description In the context of recent concerns around the role of the internet in disinformation and radicalisation, the unique insights of my research have the potential for significant policy and societal impact. I have already begun to disseminate my research findings and publicise my innovative method via numerous conference presentations and three journal articles under review. In particular, sharing my methodological innovation in this way will allow the method - which bridges online and offline experiences on the UK's most popular social networking site, Facebook, and will also outlive changes to platform architectures as it does not rely on any process of automation - to be adapted and used by other researchers. Because of the success of this method and networks I have built with researchers in the field, in 2020 I was asked to act as Research Consultant on a large-scale AHRC-funded project 'Reframing Russia: From Cold War to Information War', for which I applied a condensed version of the method for Facebook followers of Russia's international broadcaster, RT. I independently generated empirical data consisting of 26 interviews alongside immersive observations on Facebook, the findings of which contribute to a project book currently under preparation, alongside two sole-authored journal articles, one of which has already been accepted for a special issue of Digital War. The critical findings of my research are also set to have significant impact on academic scholarship as they challenge recently popular concepts like 'post-truth'. In 2020, I co-authored a book chapter based on the theoretical framework of my research in the Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Racisms, edited by Professor John Solomos. The high profile of this volume and its editor will ensure this chapter is well-read and well-cited in the field. My research has also had international impact. In 2019 I was a visiting scholar at Tokushima University in Japan for six weeks where I presented my research in both English and Japanese at two events, as well as gave an invited lecture to undergraduate students. On this visit I successfully began to forge links between the sociology of the far-right in the UK and East Asia, producing a collaborative conference paper with Professor Naoto Higuchi for an international conference, a co-authored book chapter in his forthcoming edited volume on the significance of the internet to the radical right in Japan, and a comparative conference paper I will deliver at the European Association for Japanese studies in August 2021. The visit also led to discussions with Professor Igor Saveliev, also based in Japan, about producing a co-edited volume about diversity in Japan later this year. I have also disseminated my research outside of academia. In January 2020 I presented some of my findings in a public talk in Manchester City Centre, to an audience of around 40 people, which was 'Highly Commended' in the University of Manchester Sociology Public Engagement Prize 2020. Furthermore, I have published two academic blog posts. In 2018 I worked as Research Assistant on the project 'Older BAME health and social care in Greater Manchester', co-authoring a report aimed at informing health and social care policy in Greater Manchester. During my visit to Tokushima I also spoke with Professor Higuchi to members of the media investigating online hate speech on two occasions. In 2019 I attended training on 'How to Maximise Policy Impact' run by representatives of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and Greater Manchester Combined Authority. This training informed me of the various avenues through which researchers can connect with parliament and local authorities in order to contribute their research to policymakers, and will be extremely useful for disseminating my research findings going forward. A proposal is currently under consideration with Bristol University Press for a monograph from the doctoral project. Academic study of political social media use, across a range of disciplines such as sociology, politics, anthropology, and media studies, will benefit from the availability of the full findings of my research through the monograph. It will allow dissemination of my findings to policymakers and third-sector organisations working in areas such as online radicalisation and the harms of social media use. Bristol University Press, who are currently considering the monograph proposal, explicitly favour accessible language, the expounding of research implications, and impact beyond academia, and this monograph will be written in an academically rigorous while accessible way. My research findings will inform the interventions designed by these committees, departments and organisations by helping them to better understand the everyday contexts within which individuals engage with problematic political content online, and the nuanced ways this is related to broader socio-political context, and thus have implications for strategies such as online censorship or de-platforming. Those within social media companies working in the growing area of ethics and public policy will also benefit from the dissemination of my research findings in the accessible monograph format, facilitating the development of more ethical platforms. The application of my findings by these policymaker, third-sector and private-sector actors has great potential to reduce the harm of political social media use on society and democracy. Finally, I have successfully secured a 3-year postdoctoral research position at Loughborough University, where the skills and insights I learned from this studentship will be put to use.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Other
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description 'Humanitas Brew' public engagement event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A public engagement initiative run by the researcher development programme, Humanitas Brew aims to bring Humanities postgraduate researchers (PGRs) and early career researchers (ECRs) to local pubs, cafes and restaurants to share their research with the public. I partnered with colleague Neema Begum from the Politics Department to present our research on understanding the Brexit referendum at the Britons Protection pub on 29 January 2020.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020