Will the #hashtag destroy or reconstruct our communication?

A look into what could potentially be more dangerous than a “terrorist” attack

by Kaori Kohyama, Beatrix Lim, Liming Chew

In Japan, talking about politics in a public sphere is almost as taboo as sex. This unwritten culture, in turn, contributes to the neglect of hate-speech flowing both online and offline in the name of freedom of expression.

Our previous article unraveled the mechanisms of online racism and misogyny in Japan and Germany, highlighting the historical and sociocultural backgrounds as well as the characteristics of social media functioning to facilitate hate-speech.

As previously discussed, counter-movement has a potential in combating hate speech, especially online. Given the pandemic and the difficulty of going out on a street to protest, the question is then, is cyber-demonstration another “new normal” when joining democracy?

#Connective Action–where fiction and reality meets

“There is the term ‘Connective Action’ as opposed to ‘Collective Action,’” explains Dr. Schäfer, a Political Scientist and Japanologist currently teaching at Erlangen-Nuremberg University in Germany.

He continues that in contrast to Collective Action where people protest based on ideology, Connective Action (in this case) uses a hashtag to oppose a certain policy or political agenda. There is no ideology behind a hashtag movement, or no base structure to it.

To make any social changes, do we really need a “leader” to follow or ideology to be based on? Dr. Schäfer casts doubt on the sustainability of Connective Actions, pointing out the ultimate outcome it may bring to the public sphere. 

Photo by THE LEADS ASIA

“Looking at this movement from a critical perspective, I would say it’s a one-time, snapshot movement that dissolves as soon as something takes place, not bringing any major change to the political discourse. People join Connective Action to gain something out of it, which is publicity and attention. In the hashtag movement of the prosecutor’s office law in Japan, there were TV stars, actors, all kinds of famous people using the hashtag. Individuals had their own interest using the hashtag, which is to get attention because everybody thinks you are doing something great to use it.” 

Liberal Democracy can only function when there are deliberation and dialogues among the citizens, forming the collective will. Through Connective Actions, however, people will not generate any consensus beyond such instant and sentimental judgments based on personal preferences.

“Phatic Communication”changing or destroying our dialogue?

According to Dr. Schäfer, the problem of today’s communication lies in the way social media’s infrastructure and architecture are built. Citing anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, Dr. Schäfer introduces the term Phatic Communication to describe a form of communication that is extremely formalized, and often non-verbal.

Illustrating with the example of a small village, he first explains that the term is fundamentally based on the idea that “the action of greeting a person on an everyday basis sustains the formation of a community,” such that “if you forget to greet somebody, they will get angry and immediately exclude you from the community.” 

Just like the simple act of waving and greeting can be integral to communal living in this small village, clicking a button to give affirmative or negative feedback is at the core of the infrastructure of Social Media. 

Photo by THE LEADS ASIA

“The communication on Social Media is very phatic, with the instantaneous reacting functions such as ‘Like’ and ‘Retweet’. In this way, our communication today has become so fluid and instantaneous. Therefore, what is beneath hashtag movements is a superficial network that constantly changes, evolves, and collapses.” 

On the other hand, Dr. Schäfer concedes about the effects of cyber-demonstration which can alter political decision-making processes. 

“Especially for Japan where anonymity on social media is very important and people are hesitant about voicing your opinion in public, this kind of movement could be a catalyst for further movements. Having this shared-experience of winning a ‘battle’, may potentially make them see themselves as more of a political person.” 

Politics, however, is usually much more complex, Dr. Schäfer claims. “It takes time to understand the discourse, contexts, and make your own opinion out of it. [Politics] is about discourse, negotiation, and building consent through communication.”

The effectiveness of counter-movement on social media is therefore limited under certain conditions. “It only works if the problem is simple. In this case, everybody could easily grasp the significance of this law and its impact of changing it. A very simple problem, with a simple solution. And people joined it by tweeting with hashtags, clicking the retweet button, ‘liking’ other tweets which make them feel [like they had] contributed.”  

Excessive humor, deconstructed communication

Another issue that social media has generated socio-technologically is the excessive adherence to humor and irony in everyday communication. This trend is evolving to the extent of hurting people on a daily basis. 

“There has always been sexist and racist humor. But before, it was mostly restricted to homosocial, informal ‘bar-talks’, namely amongst people, at least the majority of them, tacitly agreeing that these jokes are wrong. But on social media, every joke can be taken out of the context, and transgressive, harsh, and discriminatory comments are shared with a sense of cynicism, traveling across much larger groups of people.”

Continuing, Dr. Schäfer adds that, “with the ability to move beyond time and space, humour today on social media is something totally different from its conventional role as social glue’. Rather, it can become [something] very offensive to people beyond the peer group that shares a certain kind of humor.”

Photo by Keira Burton on Pexels.com

These changing traits of communication today has not only contributed to a rise of hate-speech and discrimination, but could also be seen as an emerging threat to human history, Dr. Schäfer warns. 

“The space where you can communicate with people beyond your echo-chamber is weakening. What we are about to lose is a culture of communication, of political debate, of arguing, of having different opinions, created with a lot of energy and passion over the last two centuries.” 

Taking European Union as example, Dr. Schäfer explains that it was built in an attempt to foster close communication amongst nations after the two wars, which devastated the whole region. By building a transnational institution larger than the Nation-State, materializing ‘European peace’ through mutual understanding was at the core of this foundation. 

“I grew up with this idealist view of the European Union in which I can travel to any country, using the same currency. Now there’s Brexit happening, and a lot of right-leaning politicians are risking to destroy the European Union, just for the sake of winning an election. It’s just their strategy to maintain their own political power through endangering the culture of communication.” 

What’s potentially more dangerous than a terrorist attack?

Inspired by xenophobic and racist discourse in cyber space, what was limited to verbal online sphere has been transforming into hate-speech in public sphere and physical attacks in Germany, Dr. Schäfer explains.

He highlights the increasing physical attacks on politicians, such as the one on the mayor of Cologne a few years ago. This mayor was known to be a strong advocate for pro-migration policy.

“Usually we say, ‘okay, it’s only the far right-wing terrorist lunatics,’ but when you look at the information these people digested to take the action, a large part [of it] is coming from social media and other platforms on the Internet, which is very similar to Netouyo structure in Japan.”   

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

While the barbarization of online communication resulting in physical violence is certainly of grave concern, Dr. Schäfer suggests that there is something more important at stake. “Far more important than actual violence that have already been taking place, is the way political discourses are changing drastically towards being more radical and outspokenly racist. Today, it is ‘okay’ to say things you couldn’t publicly say 20 years ago, without being held accountable.”

“This normalization of radical language becoming more and more widely accepted, represents a new dimension of the problem. Mainstreaming of transgressive language and radical positions might be even more critical than one or two physical attacks in the long run,” he says.

“Indifferent curiosity” in the culture of Phatic Communication

When the circulated inflammatory contents result in negative consequences, social networking platforms are the ones legally held accountable. However, can we really assert that we, as individuals do not bear any responsibility in transforming the online radical discourse over the years?

Instigated without thinking — this image of “thoughtless and incapable citizens” might be the ideal in a capitalist society where enthusiastic consumption without deliberation will be the driver of economy.

Immersing into this culture of Phatic Communication on social media by circulating what could significantly agitate the society with no motivation to delve into the facts but with curiosity, however, is leading straight to a phenomenon known by some as bottom-up totalitarianism.

At the very least, gradual shifts in our daily communication in the digitalized world imperceptibly limiting our freedoms, are worthy of greater focus from the society. 

(Photo: Thomas Bergner)

Prof. Dr. Fabian Schäfer | Fabian Schäfer studied Japanese Studies, Philosophy, and Journalism (1997–2003) at the University of Leipzig. In 2008 he received his doctorate from the University of Leipzig with a dissertation on “The Origins of Media and Communication Studies in Prewar Japan: Early Theoretical Approaches to the Press, Journalism and Public Opinion, 1920–1937”. 2005–2012 he worked as a Lecturer (Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) at the East Asian Institute at the University of Leipzig. He was a doctoral fellow of the Japan Foundation at the University of Tokyo (2004–05), a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (2008), and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leiden (2009-10). In 2012–2013 he was a Senior Researcher (Oberassistent) at the URPP Asia and Europe at the University of Zurich. Since 2013 Fabian Schäfer has held the Chair of Japanese Studies I at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. 

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