The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Discourse Analysis of Internet Trolls?: the whys and hows of analyzing online content*

June 2, 2014

Online mediums can be perceived as attracting wacky ranters unrepresentative contributors and exchanges and, therefore, forums or chats are often treated as if they do not provide an effective picture/sample of political discourse. But since over 80% of Americans are online, 66% of American adults have engaged in civil or political activities with social media, and about half of those who visit discussion groups post/contribute, isn’t this an interesting- and increasingly relevant- medium for a discourse analysis? Why cut out such a vast political resource? What is different about ‘doing’ a discourse analysis of online content? How would you even start such an analysis? And, why aren’t those like myself- who blog and engage in political discussions as part of my daily/weekly activity- doing more to treat online content as part of what we consider to be ‘legitimate’ political discourse? Well, I think it comes down to methodology. Here is a very brief intro to some of the opportunities and challenges to conducing a discourse analysis of online content (PS getting students to do such an analysis is a great assignment).

1. What makes a discourse analysis of online content different from an analysis of printed text?
First, (and probably somewhat obvious) online material uses multiple modes of expression, including emoticons, hyperlinks, images, video, moving images (gifs), graphic design, and color. This multimodality adds complexity (and, I argue, richness) to a discourse analysis- but the researcher must be aware of how particular signals are used, (for example, ‘iconic’ or popular memes or gifs (like feminist Ryan Gosling or the Hilary Clinton texting image begin to take on particular meanings themselves). Second, online content is unstable, instant, and edited in ways unavailable to print (even the use of striking through signals ‘editing’/alternative meaning/irony etc- but this requires interpretation). Also, articles, conversations, and posts, can be published, responded to, retweeted, then retracted or edited all within a few hours. Readers are not always aware of the editing process (nor of the editing that may take place vis a vis website moderators). This means it is difficult to get a fixed ‘picture’ of public discussion on a particular topic. Third, when users choose to be anonymous, user names or avatars can sometimes signal meaning. Maria Sindoni points out that one’s avatar can signal location or ideological position (ie DeepSouthPopulist, FeministFlyGirl, MarineVet2014).

2. How do you ‘do’ a discourse analysis of online content?
Conducing a discourse analysis of online content doesn’t need to be that different from other types of discourse analysis. One needs to establish parameters, identify themes within the content, and conduct an analysis, using representative examples to help illustrate the conclusions. However, establishing parameters can be tricky (and daunting)- one could choose popular/frequently shared posts/articles on a particular topic; analyze posts or comments within a particular time frame; or even focus on one ‘iconic’ article or post and the discussion that ensued (Foreign Policy’s feature ‘Why do They Hate Us‘ is a great possibility). Basically, as with any discourse analysis, the key it to be clear and consistent on establishing the sources. But even after establishing parameters, there can be some further challenges. For example, some posts garner hundreds of comments. How is it possible to analyze these? This leads to another methodological question:

3. What do you do with comments like “you are a d*ckhe@d”, which are more frequent that you might think?
There is no getting around it- doing a discourse analysis of online content involves sifting through troll droppings and verbal insults in order to filter through the ‘actual’ political contributions. And conducting such a filter is not necessarily clear or objective. Researchers need to make common sense decisions about what should simply be removed from the selection (links to porn, posts that cover an entirely separate topic, etc).

Are you convinced? Have you used online content as part of a discourse analysis?

*For all you grammar fans (I know how much you love my posts)- here is the debate on using apostrophes with ‘whys’ and ‘hows’.

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.