Tag Archives: social media

Why are social networking sites so reluctant to ban hateful users?

The right to free speech is not an excuse for turning a blind eye to online aggression.

Picture of Donald Trump giving a speech

Social networking sites have been both the heroes and villains of the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting loved ones across Tiers and time zones while simultaneously providing a safe haven for fake news and hate speech.

This latter is perhaps best illustrated by none other than the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, whose tweets following the presidential election have been widely condemned for inciting the January Capitol riot, which led to the deaths of five people.

While Trump is the most eminent figure to have been banned by the social media giant, he is by no means the first. In November 2018, the Canadian journalist Meghan Murphy was banned permanently from Twitter for hateful speech towards transgender people. Murphy’s response was to launch a legal dispute contesting her right to free speech.

When right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins suffered a similar fate in June 2020, BBC News drew comparisons between Hopkins and Trump, but commented that ‘leaving such tweets up in the public interest is an exception Twitter makes for world leaders – other accounts like Ms Hopkins’ risk being suspended when they break Twitter’s rules.’

Is the right to free speech, even if it constitutes hateful abuse, really in the public interest? And, if so, will it always take a riot to prompt social media giants to act?

Social media – a censorship free zone?

We have no problem identifying aggression or unacceptable conduct in real life. When it comes to social networking sites, however, the boundaries seem more blurred.

A lack of clarity and universality when it comes to bans is certainly not helping, as more than 70% of Americans, and more than 80% of Republican-leaning voters, believe that social networking sites intentionally censure opinions they do not agree with. Even scholars in Law and Ethics disagree on what constitutes harmful speech and whether such forms of speech should be restricted.

When Meghan Murphy accused Twitter of stifling her right to free speech, she tapped into the heart of the issue that is tying Twitter’s hands. Does permanently removing an individual from a social media platform stifle necessary debate? In the interests of avoiding a repeat of Capitol Hill, it is essential that we clarify the boundaries between free speech and hate speech and/or the processes necessary to define acceptable speech.

Consensus and consistency

One concern for social networking sites is the public backlash they might receive for ‘no-platforming’ controversial speakers. In the first study to model the factors that influence the acceptance of restrictions on free speech by social media sites, we find that users closely scrutinize how social networking sites handle controversies arising from political debates. Findings from our research show that observers of online aggression make trade-offs between free speech and the desire to punish aggression. Our findings show that, while observers of social media interactions dislike aggression and are willing to see it punished, the rhetoric of free speech is systematically employed to justify aggression that come from the observer’s own political side. In other words, free speech concerns are leveraged to foster partisan interests. .

The importance of preserving public trust means that social media sites should evaluate each banning case cautiously. In circumstances where banning an individual is inevitable because of high levels of online aggression, it is essential that the sites justify their decision to observing users and explain why the ban should not be interpreted as a limitation to users’ right to free speech.

The controversy that currently surrounds social media bans highlights the need for wider and more transparent discussions on what kind of speech should be restricted on social media, especially when it comes to political debates. Embedding rules against online aggression into public policy, rather than relying on the discretion of tech giants, would be one way to ensure a consistent approach to banning decisions. A clear policy, with buy-in from users, could prevent scepticism around bans that emerges from inconsistently and unfounded application of censorship.

We have seen the deadly consequences that can result from online aggression. Policy makers must exercise their power to make sure there are no safe spaces for hate speech.

Professor Paolo Antonetti, Professor in Marketing at NEOMA Business School and Dr Benedetta Crisafulli, Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management are co-authors of the paper “I will defend your right to free speech, provided I agree with you”: How social media  users react (or not) to online out-group aggression recently published by Psychology & Marketing.


To trust or not to trust: the role of social media influencers in corporate crisis communications

Dr Benedetta Crisafulli, Lecturer in Marketing, shares the findings from her latest research in collaboration with Professor Jaywant Singh, Dr La Toya Quamina and Dr Melanie Tao Xue.

Zoe Sugg, social media influencer

As anyone with an Instagram account will know, social media influencers (SMIs) play a prominent role in modern day marketing. Over two thirds of multinational brands plan to increase expenditure on influencer marketing within the next few years, with global spending in the area expected to reach $15 billion by 2022. 

Despite the enthusiasm from marketers to partner with SMIs, scholarly evidence on the efficacy of such a practice remains sparse. Is it always wise for brands to employ SMIs to get their message across? What about the role played by SMIs in corporate crisis communications? Our study entitled ‘To trust or not to trust: The impact of social media influencers on the reputation of corporate brands in crisis’ looks into whether brands would be wise to employ SMIs during times of corporate crisis. 

When crisis hits 

Highly negative events such as corporate crises emphasise the ‘bad’ character of big brands, putting their reputation at stake. Whether it’s a potentially harmful ingredient in our make-up, or using our data for profit, crises shake our trust as consumers and can damage our relationship with a brand. 

In this study, we were particularly interested in how a brand’s ingratiation response to the crisis, whereby customers are reminded of the brand’s past goodwillworks in minimising negative responses, and whether the presence of an influencer improves or rather worsens the brand’s efforts. We asked consumers to evaluate a corporate crisis situation and consequent crisis response from the brand alone, or from the brand and an influencer. 

Social media influencers: hindrance or help? 

There is thus far evidence to suggest that SMIs boost consumer engagement with a brand. However, we find that, like salespeople, SMIs can be seen as acting out of their personal financial motives, and solely in the interests of the brand. This is especially the case in the event of corporate crises.  

Far from passively absorbing the marketing content that surrounds them, consumers are often aware of persuasive attempts from brands and actively resist these. From a very young age, consumers develop what is known as persuasion knowledge. Such knowledge allows them to identify and resist persuasive attempts at manipulating their behaviour. Our findings suggest that consumers overwhelmingly interpret the contribution of an influencer in crisis communications as a persuasive tactic of the brand to try and make consumers believe that the crisis is not as bad it seems. Such an attempt iperceived as manipulative, thus rejected. 

What does this mean for influencer marketing?  

Our study suggests that influencer marketing might not be as effective as claimed by previous research and highlights the need to exercise caution in the use of SMIs during crisis communications. Brands, therefore, need to be particularly wary of involving SMIs in any attempts to bolster reputation in crisis communications.  

The study also suggests practical ways in which companies can think of engaging SMIs to support brands during crisesWe find that an effective way for SMIs to support a brand in crisis is by making the genuine, values-driven motives behind the brand-influencer partnership known to consumers. Consumers are more likely to respond positively to messages which are dictated by motives of altruism. 

The citation for this study is Singh, Crisafulli, Quamina & Xue (2020). ‘To trust or not to trust’: The impact of social media influencers on the reputation of corporate brands in crisis. Journal of Business Research (In Press).

Further information: 


Female Genital Mutilation and social media

Dr Christina Julios, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Geography discusses the research that has informed her new book on the changes in anti-FGM campaigning over time.

Against a backdrop of over 200 million girls and women worldwide affected by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I have explored changes in anti-FGM campaigning over time, while considering the various ways in which anti-FGM activists engage with Internet-based technology. In doing so, tensions between online and offline anti-FGM efforts have been exposed, raising questions about their effectiveness to bring about social change. My new book, Female Genital Mutilation and Social Media draws on twenty-one fieldwork interviews with anti-FGM activists, frontline practitioners and survivors both in the UK and abroad, highlighting the opportunities and challenges they face.

I was interested in examining the many polarised debates surrounding the practice of FGM, which include arguments rejecting FGM in all its forms as a violation of human rights; those justifying it for cultural, religious and aesthetic reasons; as well as those advocating the ‘medicalisation’ of FGM in clinical settings. Within the context of online gender activism, I have unveiled attempts to silence women’s voices in virtual public spaces through the spread of ‘cyber-misogyny’ and ‘online abuse. I have also considered the potential drawbacks of online mobilisation including, so-called ‘clicktivism’ or token activism together with ‘technological determinism’, which may undermine the importance of offline participation.

In order to illustrate the extent and diversity of online anti-FGM activism, I examined various key global online campaigns aimed at eradicating FGM. Featuring social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, they include: the UN’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, the WHO’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Programme, The Girl Generation, The Guardian’s End FGM Global Media Campaign and the Massai Cricket Warriors’ campaign. In addition, I documented ten case-studies illustrating the work of prominent international anti-FGM campaigners. In the first instance, my book depicts five African-led narratives from celebrated activists, namely: Efua Dorkenoo OBE, Waris Dirie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jaha Mapenzi Dukureh and Leyla Hussein. The volume also features five international accounts from FGM survivors I interviewed for the book including: Mama Sylla, Chairwoman of La Fraternite Gineenne (Ginea); Masooma Ranalvi, Convenor of We Speak Out (India); Farzana Doctor, Member of We Speak Out (India); Fatou Baldeh, Trustee of Dignity Alert and Research Forum (DARF) (Edinburgh, UK) and Mariya Taher, Co-founder of Sahiyo and Member of U.S. Network to End FGM/C (USA).

The book’s methodology comprises analysis of primary data from the twenty-one interviews, including written personal narratives submitted via an online questionnaire, as well as content analysis of relevant materials on leading social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In addition, I engaged in documentary analysis of a wide range of secondary sources including, official publications, parliamentary debates, legislation, scholarly books and journals, newspaper articles, grey literature, online films and documentaries. Such an array of sources and narratives provides a rich picture of the complex phenomenon of anti-FGM online activism in the first academic study of its kind.

Female Genital Mutilation and Social Media is now available from Routledge.


Social Media, Protest and the Arab Spring

Blogging about new research just published in the journal Media, Culture & Society, Dr Tim Markham asks whether, when it comes to social media and political uprisings, we’re just seeing what we want to see.

social-media-1430522_1920When I travelled to Cairo last April, one of the first things I did was to visit Tahrir Square, scene of some of the most evocative and stirring events of what came to be known as the Arab spring of 2011. Not much was happening, and the banners and flags I spied at the opposite corner turned out to be knock-off Manchester United merchandise. It’s not uncommon for visitors to be met with encounters of extraordinary serendipity (“You’re from Nottingham? My cousin is a student there!”) as an opening gambit in the tourist trade, and I was quickly identified as yet another politics junkie and deftly plied with implausible yet seductive tales of intrigue and pending drama to soften me up for the inevitable invitation to buy something or other. Much has happened in Egypt since, but it was a useful reminder that revolutions are rarely a matter of unstoppable momentum or constant mayhem, and that the politics we identify in them isn’t lofty and abstract but the stuff of everyday life and work. I was in town to interview journalists at the newspaper Al-Ahram, who displayed all the bravery, cynicism, determination and frustration you’d expect. For them too political principles were heartfelt but rooted in routine, and when I asked one reporter how much things had changed for her over the previous two years, she captured this nicely by responding “Oh, I’m still optimistic but mostly I’m just busier”.

An awful lot has been written about the Arab spring (it’s okay to use this phrase in Cairo – everyone does, though it’s lathered in irony) by journalists, activists and academics, and much of it has been freighted with a combination of ideology and wishful thinking. Yet my trip wasn’t an attempt to scythe through the fictions swirling through academia and the twittersphere to get at the real truth of the Arab spring. Not really. It was part of a broader project aiming to better understand how we think about protest, political change and the role that different kinds of media play. Most commentators, whether western or Arab, seemed to agree that something unique was building in the Middle East a few years ago, but the way we talked about it reveals as much about us as it does about events on the ground. Specifically, the problematic picture that emerges from my research is one of fragile political shoots that need to be protected – not only from new forms of political authoritarianism or extremism, but also from mainstream media in the form of western corporate behemoths and regional broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, collectively characterised as clumsy or conspiratorial depending on personal preference. And not only from media but from ivory tower political analysts – Arab and western alike – deemed naïve, patronising or arrogant. For me, this is where it really gets interesting.

As for the media, as hard as it is to credit these days most journalists are well-meaning, and few wake up with a burning desire to delegitimise political dissent or to portray citizens of distant nations as backward, uncivilised or simply ‘other’. But there’s a prominent and longstanding argument in academia that individual intentions count for little when the whole media industry is programmed to churn out certain truths. That’s without reckoning, however, with what quickly became the only game in town for pundits and profs alike: the irresistible rise of social media. Now, we know of course that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all played a part, and there’s certainly a great deal of interest in the possibilities that these platforms open up, going on the number of articles winging about on academia.edu and many of the PhD proposals we receive (not that I’m complaining – keep them coming!). But too often it’s assumed that there’s something about social media – their perceived structurelessness, their apparent lack of hierarchy – that is naturally geared towards generating a new, dynamic, weightless form of politics, one that is preferable to the familiar sclerotic, decadent kind we increasingly look on with contempt.

There is a danger here of seeing what we want to see, not helped by the tendency to use biological and ecological metaphors to encapsulate the essence of social media, and then to let these metaphors (waves, viruses, organisms, ecosystems) act as a substitute for methodical, dare I say dry, analysis. Likewise there’s a predilection in the academic literature for creative, imaginative acts of dissent, and for reading something radical into seemingly apolitical things like, in one instance, dressing scruffily. Here, there’s talk of protest cultures emerging like fragile life forms that need to be nurtured, and not smothered by the strictures of conventional politics.

As much as I like the idea of living in a world where these ways of thinking about social media and protest ring true, it’s a world based on a fantasy of structurelessness – the idea that a more progressive, more authentic politics will emerge organically and spontaneously once we’ve stripped away the tired institutions and paradigms of politics, media and academia. But that’s not how it seems to the journalists at Al-Ahram, nor to the unfashionable band of activists and academics, myself included, who maintain that politics is a slog, and it often lacks the poetry we’d like to find in it.

The original article was published in Media, Culture and Society vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 89-104. You can also read it on academia.edu. Dr Tim Markham is Reader in Journalism and Media in the department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @TimMarkham.