Inciting anger through Facebook reactions in Belgium: The use of emoji and related vernacular expressions in racist discourse
First Monday

Inciting anger through Facebook reactions in Belgium: The use of emoji and related vernacular expressions in racist discourse by Ariadna Matamoros-Fernandez



Abstract
This article uses the concept of ‘platformed racism‘ to explore the tension between how platforms afford and govern emoji, and how users appropriate them to engage in racist discourse. The paper takes the example of Belgian far-right political party Vlaams Belang’s use of Facebook Reactions to spread anger, and how audiences responded to this call by posting more emoji to express rage and engage in long-running racist tropes. Emoji are central elements of social media and its practices, and represent an opportunity to investigate the material politics of platforms and to explore their role in racist discourse.

Contents

Introduction
The appropriation of Facebook Reactions to incite anger
Vlaams Belang’s use of emoji to amplify Islamophobia
The use of benign and funny emoji in racist discourse
Emoji and ‘platformed racism’

 


 

Introduction

Sixty million emoji — small digital images used in online communication — are used on Facebook on a daily basis, a number that rises to five billion on Facebook Messenger (Cohen, 2017). Emoji and related vernaculars (e.g., emoticons, stickers, and the Japanese kaomoji) are crucial elements of social media and its practices (Highfield and Leaver, 2016), and are increasingly being taken seriously by politicians, the rule of law, and society at large. Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop (2013–2018) caused an odd diplomatic incident when she described Russian president Vladimir Putin with a red “pouting face” during an emoji interview with BuzzFeed (Ramzy, 2015). Also in Australia, a Unilever-owned firm threatened its employees with disciplinary action if they posted angry emoji on social media to express outrage against the company’s plan to cut their pay (Hannan, 2017). In fact, angry emoji could even be taken into account in a trial, since magistrates are gradually accepting these digital images as evidence in court (Greenberg, 2015).

The uses of emoji and what they represent matter. Although they are weighted to benign and funny performances, they can trigger discrimination (Dooling and Cuen, 2015; Miltner, 2015). The prosodic, lexical, and affective functions of emoji (Azuma and Ebner, 2008) have attracted scholarly attention, as have their material politics. Emoji and its derivatives can be used for phatic purposes, such as keeping a conversation friendly. Lim (2015) explains how LINE stickers facilitated warm communication between her and her travel agent in Taiwan, whom she did not know in person. They can also be used to reinforce feelings and states of mind conveyed in linguistic messages (Danesi, 2017; Walther and D’Addario, 2001). However, these little visual images and graphic signs are not just indications of emotions; they also work to express an illocutionary force. That is, the intended action performed through an utterance (Dresner and Herring, 2010). Emoji can signify playfulness, sarcasm or threats in a message, and their meanings are open to interpretation, with new meanings created by and between users.

As the uses of emoji have evolved, apparently mundane objects such as the eggplant emoji have come to signify masculine genitalia and to indicate sexual interest (Dooling and Cuen, 2015). This symbolism of the eggplant emoji has become so commonplace that people not only use it for benevolent online sexual flirt but as an online harassment proxy (Dooling and Cuen, 2015). It is common for women to receive unsolicited eggplant emoji in different digital spaces, a practice that is at its core “a symbolic representation of old fashioned masculinity and dominance over women” (Dooling and Cuen, 2015). Similarly, as we will see in this article, emoji can be used to endorse long-running racist tropes, amplify racist discourse, and reproduce privilege.

For instance, emoji are a standardised lexicon regulated by the Unicode Consortium, the U. S. body responsible for the emoji set. What ends up being represented as emoji has caused controversies around cultural diversity, race, gender, and sexuality (Broderick, 2013; Johnston; 2015; Verass, 2016; Wallace, 2016). Miltner (2015) has examined the lack of racial diversity and the stereotyping of other cultures within the emoji set prior to 2015. She argues that the racial homogeneity of emoji was not a consequence of deliberate racism but of the failure of the Unicode Consortium to recognise that emoji have a political element. By offering emoji in monotone, the Unicode Consortium reproduced privilege (Miltner, 2015). Yet when the Unicode Consortium updated the emoji set to introduce different skin tones, this materialisation of diversity was criticised for continuing to apply white frames on racialised others (Li and Sokol, 2015). As Li and Sokol put it, the change raised the question of “who gets to represent marginalized peoples and who gets to decide when that representation is enough” [1].

Current research has also addressed how emoji work to benefit the commercial logics of platforms. Stark and Crawford (2015) argue that although emoji enhance users’ creative engagement in digitally mediated communication, they also constitute data traces that can be quantified and monetized by proprietary platforms. These graphic forms are “a productive force that the market continually seeks to harness through the commoditization of emotional sociality” [2]. Facebook Reactions are an example of this logic too. In 2016, Facebook diversified its “Like” button to five emoji reactions to respond to posts: “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad”, and “Angry” (Krug, 2016), which was later implemented to react to comments (Bell, 2017). Facebook’s animated emoji reactions to posts do not correspond to exact emoji in the Unicode standard, but resemble these characters. The platform defined the new affordance as “an opportunity for businesses and publishers to better understand how people are responding to their content on Facebook” (Krug, 2016). This diversification of the Like button, as well as other transient reactions buttons such as the daisy for Mothers’ Day, or the rainbow button for Pride, allows the platform to better quantify social interactions and commodify this information in endless combinations (e.g., different emoji reactions in relation to the type of content or themes).

The ambivalent illocutionary functions of emoji, their rigid cultural representations, and their technical standardization are an opportunity to examine the role of emoji in the manifestation, amplification, and governance of racist discourse on social media platforms. The way racist discourse is performed and negotiated on social media depends on a combination of participatory cultural practices and platforms’ technological affordances. Elsewhere, I proposed the concept of ‘platformed racism’ as a new form of racism derived from the libertarian ideology of Silicon Valley-based platforms and the specific cultures of use associated with them (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017). Platformed racism identifies platforms as amplifiers and manufacturers of racist discourse by means of their affordances and users’ appropriation of them. Platformed racism is also enacted by a form of governance that might be harmful for some communities, embodied in platforms’ vague policies and their ambivalent content moderation practices and processes (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017). The tension between how platforms afford and govern emoji, and how users appropriate them to engage in racist discourse, is the focus of this paper, which will be examined through the lens of platformed racism. In the rest of this article, I begin by describing the practice of appropriating Facebook Reactions to incite anger in relation to political communication. I then introduce the case study of the Flemish far-right political party Vlaams Belang and its appropriation of Facebook Reactions to amplify Islamophobia, as well as the audience response to it. I conclude with a theoretical discussion about the role of emoji in the shifting dynamics of racist discourse on mainstream social media platforms.

 

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The appropriation of Facebook Reactions to incite anger

Facebook Reactions have attracted scholarly attention as an avenue to quantify user engagement (Tian, et al., 2017), and to evaluate their impact on the shareability of journalistic content (Larsson, 2018) as well as the ranking of information in search engines (Badache and Boughanem, 2017). Over the past four years, I have been following the activity of different far-right groups and political parties on Facebook. Since Facebook introduced Reactions in 2016, these groups have appropriated this affordance to spread anger towards specific targets. The practice consists of overlaying a question to an image or a video — often a Facebook live video — and encouraging the audience to respond by choosing between two Facebook reactions, the “Angry” reaction typically being one of the options (see Figure 1). For instance, far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD, Alternative für Deutschland), which experienced an unprecedented success at the polls in the 2017 German general election (Mudde, 2017), used this practice on Facebook to attack its political opponent, Angela Merkel (see Figure 1).

 

Facebook Live video posted by AfD on its public page in which the far-right political party incites its audience to press Angry against Merkel
 
Figure 1: Facebook Live video posted by AfD on its public page in which the far-right political party incites its audience to press “Angry” against Merkel (screengrabbed by author, September 2017)

 

Political science scholar David Ost (2004) argues that anger “is built into politics through the everyday activities of political parties” to attract and retain their support [3]. He contends that the mobilisation of anger to channel citizens’ sentiments against a constructed ‘enemy’ is an everyday practice of mainstream politics rather than an emotion that sporadically bursts onto the political scene [4]. In the context of social media, which tend to privilege emotional responses to issues and debates rather than reasoned discourse (Yardi and boyd, 2010), platforms’ affordances such as Facebook Reactions facilitate the mobilisation of anger as a tool of power (Ost, 2004). By reappropriating Facebook Reactions to incite rage, political parties are persuading their audiences to perform anger by simply clicking at an angry-faced emoji. This practice simplifies the performance of inter-group antagonism common in other platforms (Evolvi, 2017), and is interesting from different perspectives. First, Facebook Reactions influence the News Feed (Krug, 2016) since, no matter which Reaction a user clicks on, Facebook interprets the move as an indication that people want to know more about that type of content (Krug, 2016). Clicking “Angry” to posts translates into a high probability that users will be shown more related content to those posts. Research has shown that there is a correlation between the “indignation effect” provoked by news and shareability; people on Facebook are more inclined to share what upsets them than what makes them happy [5]. Accordingly, the encouragement to react with anger to posts has the potential to trigger greater shareability for these posts. Second, the architecture of platforms largely responds to their economic interests (Helmond, 2015), and Facebook Reactions follow the same logic. “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad”, and “Angry” have the same impact on ad delivery as “Likes” (Krug, 2016), which allows Facebook advertisers to target audiences based on their emotional reactions to certain types of content (e.g., anti-immigration beliefs). In fact, the way Facebook builds automated categories based on users’ behaviour has involved the company in different public scandals in the past. Facebook allowed advertisers to target “jew hater” users (Angwin, et al., 2017) and to exclude participants by race (Angwin and Parris, 2016). Arguably, one of the most compelling pieces of evidence of the effectiveness of Facebook’s fine-grained user profiling is how Russian actors used the platform’s micro-targeted ads to influence the vote during the 2016 U. S. presidential campaign (Tufekci, 2017).

The mobilization of anger through Facebook Reactions is also interesting in that it enables us to explore how audiences respond to this call by using further emoji and related vernacular expressions. In general, emoji are weighted to benign and funny performances. Facebook offers 10 categories [6] of stickers [7] by default: happy, in love, sad, eating, celebrating, active, working, sleepy, angry, and confused (see Figure 2). These non-threatening and mostly cheerful vocabularies of affect are also visible in Facebook’s Meep stickers — also accessible by default — and in the emoji set supported by the platform. To circumvent emoji’s bias towards positivity, users appropriate these digital objects to give them another meaning. Innocent and light-hearted emoji, depending on the context and use, can convey and amplify, for instance, harassment practices as the case of the eggplant illustrates.

 

Sticker categories for comments offered by Facebook by default (left), Facebook's Meep Stickers (centre) and emoji's facial expressions (right)
 
Figure 2: Sticker categories for comments offered by Facebook by default (left), Facebook’s Meep Stickers (centre) and emoji’s facial expressions (right) (screengrabbed by author, September 2017).

 

 

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Vlaams Belang’s use of emoji to amplify Islamophobia

The Flemish far right political party Vlaams Belang was created in 2004 after its precursor, the Vlaams Blok, was outlawed for racism (Erk, 2005). As part of its new rebranding, the party positioned itself as a mainstream political alternative for a disaffected white working class, yet it maintained a strong anti-immigration and Islamophobic stance (Erk, 2005). Across Europe, anti-Islamic attitudes develop from existing patterns of racism (Fekete, 2004). These racist attitudes are typically rooted in historical conceptions of the nation, nationalism, and assumptions about who is entitled to decide who belongs within the national space (Fekete, 2004). In Belgium, politicians and the media constantly frame Muslims as a “threat” to national cohesion (Zemni, 2011), which, in turn, triggers “xeno-racist” attitudes towards them (Fekete, 2004).

This article draws on literature that considers Islamophobia to be a form of racism that depends on discourses that portray Muslims as inferior citizens and threats to Western values (Dunn, et al., 2007). This ‘racialization’ of Islam operates to protect the interests of certain identities over others (Dunn, et al., 2007), which aligns with the concept of ‘platformed racism’ as a form of racism that reinforces cultural privilege. Under the platformed racism lens, racist discourse on social media is amplified by platforms’ affordances and normalised by their policies and enforcement of rules. Platforms’ management of content, then, tends to sustain whiteness as a system of advantage based on race (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017).

Discrimination based on race, skin colour and national or ethnic descent has been outlawed in Belgium since 1981, and the incitement of racial hatred and hate speech is likewise illegal. The Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities, known as Unia, is the Belgian public institution responsible for fighting discrimination in the country. In its annual report from 2016, published in June 2017, Unia stated that 83 percent of the messages across all media that were reported as inciting racial hatred were posted on social media platforms and online forums. While in 2015 these messages mainly targeted refugees, in 2016 racial hatred was largely directed to “foreigners/Muslims and terrorists” on the grounds of race and religious beliefs [8].

Vlaams Belang’s public isolation (Erk, 2005) has forced the party to look for alternative channels, like the Internet, to set its agenda and spread hate and discrimination towards minorities, as other Flemish non-progressive reactionary movements have historically done (Cammaerts, 2009). Vlaams Belang’s content on Facebook, for instance, receives more engagement than the posts of the other major political parties [9] in Belgium (Lesaffer and Cattebeke, 2017). In order to explore Vlaams Belang’s mobilization of anger through Facebook Reactions and the audience response to it, I combined digital methods and qualitative analyses. I used the Netvizz [10] application (Rieder, 2013) to retrieve all the posts and user comments on the official page of Vlaams Belang [11] from 24 February 2016, when the platform introduced the emoji reactions, to 9 June 2017. The idea was to have enough data to observe the evolution of the “Angry” reactions on the page. The tool retrieved 944 posts for this period of time alongside the engagement [12] metrics for each post and comment. Figure 3 shows the increment of “Like” and “Angry” Reactions on the page during the period studied.

 

Evolution of Like and Angry reactions over time on the Vlaams Belang's Facebook page from 28 February 2016 to 9 June 2017
 
Figure 3: Evolution of “Like” and “Angry” reactions over time on the Vlaams Belang’s Facebook page from 28 February 2016 to 9 June 2017.

 

Among the top 10 posts on the page that received the highest number of “Angry” reactions, six were pictures in which the party had appropriated Facebook Reactions to incite anger (see Figure 4). This anger was mobilised mainly toward immigrants and Muslims, which aligns with Cammaerts’ (2009) findings of Flemish extremists expressing “anger” and “repressed anger” towards foreigners in online forums [13]. The post [14] that received the highest number of “Angry” reactions was a picture posted in March 2017 with the overlaid question: “Should the start of the academic year be adapted for the sake of the Islamic Sacrifice Feast? NO or YES” (see Figure 4). The political party encouraged the audience to choose the “Angry” Reaction for “no”, or the Like button for “yes”. The second-most popular [15] post by number of “Angry” reactions, published in May 2017, followed the same aesthetics but asked the following question: “Should policewomen be able to wear their headscarves during service hours? What do you think?” (see Figure 4). Marwick and Lewis (2017) explain how far-right movements — which for them comprises trolls, white nationalists, the ‘alt-right’, men’s rights activists (MRAs), gamergaters, and the like — have developed a tactical use of platform affordances and social media participatory practices to mobilise their audiences and boost their agendas. Political actors in mainstream western politics of the far-right, such as the Vlaams Belang, are picking up on these techniques to exploit their constituents’ disaffection and to propagate Islamophobic ideas. Vlaams Belang’s appropriation of Facebook Reactions to incite anger is a technique of “attention hacking” (Marwick and Lewis, 2017) to increase the visibility of its posts. In addition, the party’s strategy to guide and encourage people to be angry at Muslims responds to propagandistic ends that are amplified by Facebook’s technical infrastructure.

 

Top two posts that received more Angry Reactions in Vlaams Belang's Facebook page
 
Figure 4: Top two posts that received more “Angry” Reactions in Vlaams Belang’s Facebook page (screengrabbed by author, June 2017).

 

At the same time, far-right tactics for getting organised online are being adopted by ordinary users, and these tactics can also be articulated through the use of funny emoji. The next section describes the uses of emoji and related vernaculars in the comments of the two posts that attracted more “Angry” reactions on the Vlaams Belang Facebook page during the period studied. Facebook users posted emoji and related vernaculars in comments to emphasise their rage and to engage in long-running antagonistic practices: From faces throwing up and crying out loud, to cats exclaiming “aargh” and defecating pigs (see Figure 5). I conducted a textual analysis of the use of these emoji vernaculars as a response to Islamophobic posts and to calls for anger.

 

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The use of benign and funny emoji in racist discourse

Audiences responded to Vlaams Belang’s call for anger by using further emoji in their comments [16] and also by posting Facebook stickers [17]. In general, emoji and stickers were used to emphasise rage and opposition to Muslims, to perform sarcasm and irony, and to engage in long-running antagonistic practices.

 

User comments of Vomit and Angry stickers posted in response to Vlaams Belang's incitement of anger towards Muslims on Facebook
 
Figure 5: User comments of Vomit and Angry stickers posted in response to Vlaams Belang’s incitement of anger towards Muslims on Facebook (screengrabbed by author, May 2017).

 

Users accompanied their comments with angry-related emoji to express their opposition and rejection to Muslims. One user commented:

No Muslims should be allowed to work in the police force. That is asking for problems. But yes, such request is talking to a wall. Just as when we opened our borders and admitted all those refugees. 😠 [18]

In this comment, the angry face was used to emphasise the user’s opposition to open borders and multiculturalism. Along similar lines, users posted stand-alone angry emoji and stickers in comments to convey related states of rage and irritation: From cats with the exclamation “aargh” to dogs in threatening gestures and outraged face expressions (see Figure 6). In one comment, one user wrote: “Man oh man, if they would just not assimilate!!!,” and accompanied this comment with an animated sticker depicting one of the characters of Rovio Entertainment’s video game franchise Angry Birds, which animation showed a cartoon of a bird exploding of anger (see Figure 7).

 

Stickers to express rage posted as comments to Vlaams Belang's call for anger
 
Figure 6: Stickers to express rage posted as comments to Vlaams Belang’s call for anger.

 

 

User comment in response to Vlaams Belang's post in which the user included an angry sticker that worked as an intertextual reference to a character from Rovio Entertainment's video game franchise Angry Birds
 
Figure 7: User comment in response to Vlaams Belang’s post in which the user included an angry sticker that worked as an intertextual reference to a character from Rovio Entertainment’s video game franchise Angry Birds (screengrabbed by author, June 2017). The animated sticker ends with the bird exploding from anger, which is not captured in this screenshot.

 

Users also found in other emoji vernaculars more dramatic ways to convey anger. A sticker repeatedly used as a response to Vlaams Belang’s call for rage was the “vomit sticker” (see Figure 8). Vomiting as a reaction to racial difference has been exploited in satirical TV shows. British TV series Little Britain’s character Maggie Blackamoor, who embodies the stereotype of conservative ‘little England’ in the figure of a racist and homophobic old woman, often vomited on stage every time she ate food made by a non-white person or met people from different ethnicities (Linder, 2016). The show ridiculed with hyperbolic humour Maggie’s normative English white identity and exposed it as “grotesque” [19]. As Lindner (2016) argues, “non-comprehension as a form of xenophobia is replaced by the physical reaction of vomiting” [20]. Users on the Vlaams Belang page also translated their xenophobia in the ugly reaction of vomiting.

 

Facebook's vomit sticker
 
Figure 8: Facebook’s vomit sticker.

 

Within Facebook’s limited selection of stickers to convey anger and hate, the vomit emoji has become a good option to express strong feelings of disgust, repulsion, and aversion. When Michel Temer took over the presidency of Brazil after Dilma Rousseff was impeached, users who disagreed with the change flooded the Facebook pages of the Federal Government with vomit stickers (Autran, 2016). The protest, known in Brazil as the “vomitaço”, reached such a degree that the Brazilian Government requested Facebook the option to ban vomit stickers to appear on comments (Autran, 2016). The platform, though, answered that it did not yet have a solution to this practice (Autran, 2016). For now, Facebook allows users to apply automatic filters to hide spam and comments that contain words that page owners have previously selected and blocked. Users can also activate a ‘profanity filter’ in the comments of their pages, which relies “on the most commonly reported words and phrases marked offensive by the community.” (Facebook, How can I proactively moderate content published by visitors on my Page?). Similarly, page owners can disable the option for others to post images and videos in the comment threads of their posts. However, users cannot deactivate the option to allow others to post emoji on their pages.

The uses of emoji, in turn, have an impact on Facebook’s algorithmic shape of sociality. In 2016, the platform had to fix its sticker search algorithm since it was showing the vomit sticker as the result for the queries “liberals” and “feminism” (Yeung, 2016). The fact that the algorithm matched the vomit sticker to represent “liberals” and “feminism” is an indication of the contexts in which people were using the emoji and how the platform tagged these practices (Yeung, 2016).

Other emoji uses, depending on the context, might turn these apparently innocuous digital objects into controversial speech acts. Take, for example, one sticker that accompanied a comment to Vlaams Belang’s post asking: “Should the start of the academic year be adapted for the sake of the Islamic Sacrifice Feast?” One user wrote: “NO, we don’t have to assimilate to them, they have to assimilate to us. They would NOT do that for sure, full stop, amen, out,” and accompanied the comment with an image of a humanoid baseball holding a bat (see Figure 9). The image is non-threatening per se; however, within the context of being a response to an explicit call for anger, one possible interpretation would be to read it as being tacit threat to a targeted group.

 

Sticker of a humanoid of a baseball ball holding a bat posted as a comment to Vlaams Belang's post
 
Figure 9: Sticker of a humanoid of a baseball ball holding a bat posted as a comment to Vlaams Belang’s post.

 

Alternatively, users responded to Vlaams Belang’s call for anger by commenting with crying-related and sad emoji. Although the majority of these emoji were used to accentuate sadness towards a perceived ‘loss’ of Western cultural values in Belgium, sad emoji were also used in sarcastic contexts. Take the following two comments under Vlaams Belang’s post asking whether schools should accommodate to Islamic religious celebrations:

Shame that it has gotten so far. Belgians have nothing to say anymore in their own country. Every day we become more and more powerless in the face of Islam. In no time they will have taken over everything and we’ll have to follow Islamic laws. What a shame!! I was never racist, but that’s over 😟

But obviously there should be Eid al Fitr, Shabbath and Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), Jom Kipoer (Day of Atonement), Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), Shmini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Assembly), Simchat Tora (Day of Celebrating the Torah), Pesach (Easter) and Shavuot (Festival of Weeks), on the 15th of February the remembrance of the death of Buddha by the Mahayana-Buddhists. For a small number of Buddists this festivity takes place on the 8th of February, ... All religions are allowed in Belgium, so we should celebrate them all and should limit the school time of our children to a minimum ... (see Figure 10)

While in the first comment the sad emoji works to highlight the user’s feeling of helplessness towards a perceived ‘Islamization’ of Belgium, the second comment is sarcastic, and the sad sticker — an intertextual reference to the character ‘Sadness’ from Disney’s movie Inside Out — reinforces the user’s contempt (for a detailed exploration of the uses of emoji to highlight particular emotive states see Danesi, 2017).

 

User comment in response to Vlaams Belang's post in which the user included a sad sticker that worked as an intertextual reference to the character Sadness from Disney's movie Inside Out
 
Figure 10: User comment in response to Vlaams Belang’s post in which the user included a sad sticker that worked as an intertextual reference to the character ‘Sadness’ from Disney’s movie Inside Out (screengrabbed by author, June 2017).

 

People also posted stickers as stand-alone comments of animal cartoons desperately crying, heart-broken (first and second stickers in Figure 11) and faces expressing anger and resentment (see third sticker in Figure 11).

 

Stickers showing being heart broken, anger and resentment
 
Figure 11: Stickers showing being heart broken, anger and resentment.

 

The second common trend in the use of emoji in this case study was to indicate playfulness, irony, and sarcasm, although in some cases this was ambivalent. For example, one user posted the mischievous glee emoji in a comment to indicate a playful intent:

Why would they wear a headscarf here? They are not wearing it in Morocco or Turkey 😝😝😝. Everything that is not allowed in their home country, we have to allow here. Maybe we should be the ones emigrating.

In this comment, the laugh-related emoji and the irony contained in the phrase “maybe we should be the ones emigrating” are a type of illocutionary force (Dresner and Herring, 2010). They indicate a playful intent in a comment that is xenophobic in nature. Positive emoji are often used ironically in a negative context rather than representing straightforward reflections of people’s feelings (Tian, et al., 2017). The irony in the comment also works to dramatize the constructed narrative that Muslims will overrun Belgium to the point that non-Muslims will have to “emigrate”. Previous research has documented how perpetrators of online abuse often use cues such as Laughing Out Loud (LoL), smiley emoticons, “ha”, and wink symbols to mitigate their hurtful messages (Madlock and Westerman, 2011). Within Internet subcultures, anger, and antagonism are commonly articulated through Laughing out Loud at your adversary. Trolls often justify their aggressive behaviour online by arguing that they do it ’just for fun’ (Milner, 2013; Phillips, 2011). In the Vlaams Belang’s case, users reacted to the political party’s call for anger by engaging in the ritualised online practice of LoLing at your adversaries through the use of stand-alone laugh-related stickers (see Figure 12). Laugh as reactionary anger can turn innocent emoji — e.g., ’tears of joy’ emoji — to cruel symbols of mocking and glee at others’ misfortune or marginalised situation (Wilkinson, 2016).

 

Laughing out Loud Stickers posted as comments to Vlaams Belang's posts
 
Figure 12: Laughing out Loud Stickers posted as comments to Vlaams Belang’s posts.

 

Another practice used to perform opposition to Muslims was the appropriation of the pig emoji. Users commented on Vlaams Belang’s posts with stickers of pigs in various performative gestures: from pigs crying and playing to pigs defecating (see Figure 13). Historically, Islamophobia has weaponised pork to antagonise Muslims (Hay, 2016). According to Islamic law, the consumption of pork is forbidden (haram), and food, as a signifier of identity, has been recurrently used as a tool for attacking a religious community (Sedacca, 2016). Under the conviction that “pork is to Muslims as a crucifix or garlic is to vampires” (Mathias, 2017), Western Islamophobia has engaged in different porcine hate acts. These range from throwing pig’s heads and bacon against mosques (Hay, 2016) to covering bullets with pork grease in the belief that Muslims will not enter heaven if they are shot by such ammunition (Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2016). Even U. S. President Donald Trump engaged in this conspiracy theory when he repeated the fabricated story of a U. S. general who dipped bullets in pig’s blood to execute Muslims (Diamond, 2016). The act of posting stickers of pigs on the comments of Islamophobic posts draws on this long tradition of porcine-related anti-Islam practices and contributes to the weaponising of pork to antagonise Muslims (see Figure 14).

 

ig stickers used as comments in Vlaams Belang's posts
 
Figure 13: Pig stickers used as comments in Vlaams Belang’s posts.

 

 

The first comment in this comment thread shows a pig sticker in response to Vlaams Belang's post Should policewomen be able to wear their headscarves during service hours? What do you think?
 
Figure 14: The first comment in this comment thread shows a pig sticker in response to Vlaams Belang’s post “Should policewomen be able to wear their headscarves during service hours? What do you think?” (screengrabbed by author, May 2017).

 

The way users appropriated emoji in the Vlaams Belang’s case gave these objects another meaning in the context of Islamophobic discourse. However, the folkloric dimension of emoji pertaining to much of online expression, is ambivalent (Phillips and Milner, 2017). Phillips and Milner (2017) argue that digital media affordances amplify the existing ambivalence of folkloric expression, which makes it especially difficult to understand meaning and intention in digitally mediated spaces. This ambivalence, though, is also an invitation to critically examine emoji from a cultural studies perspective. Emoji are embedded in broader cultural practices that inform their uses, and this contextual understanding is crucial in order to investigate the shifting nature of race and racism online (Nakamura and Chow-White, 2012).

 

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Emoji and ‘platformed racism’

Emoji and related vernacular expressions are key elements of public communication online. Like every other form of interaction, social media practices associated with emoji are monetized by platforms and affect the algorithmic shape of sociability in these spaces. The early uses of emoticons as indicators of the tone and intention of a message, and as signs of affect, still prevail today with emoji and its derivatives. However, as participatory culture on social media evolves, emoji use has gravitated to uglier practices. I have argued that the way Facebook affords emoji, users’ reappropriation of them, and the platform’s governance of this type of content can enact platformed racism (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017). Through the Vlaams Belang’s case, this article has shown how everyday racism on Facebook manifested through different uses of apparently benign emoji, which was amplified by the platform’s affordances and lack of regulatory mechanisms.

First, by design, emoji are influenced by cultural assumptions that can discriminate and reproduce privilege (Miltner, 2015). The emoji vocabularies that Facebook affords, which respond to its economic interests (Stark and Crawford, 2015), influence the kind of sociability that is performed on the platform. For example, the design of Facebook Reactions, which is constrained to five fixed emotional categories, reduces the options to show disagreement to the clicking of the “Angry” reaction. Facebook is reluctant to afford a “dislike” button and has privileged emotion-centred engagement. However, being angry at something is not the same as disliking content. To improve the negative emotion and viral outrage that thrives on Facebook, researcher Jonathan Albright suggested that Facebook could opt to implement “trust emoji” or “respect-based emoji” if the platform wanted to (Manjoo and Roose, 2017). Platforms’ advertising-focused design has uneven consequences for different users, and these choices tend to discriminate historically marginalised or underrepresented groups (Bivens, 2015; Angwin and Parris, 2016).

Second, platform-specific cultures of emoji use can lead to antagonistic practices that are amplified by platform affordances. Vlaams Belang’s use of Facebook Reactions is the first example. By reappropriating this feature, Vlaams Belang fuelled hate towards Muslims, which makes Facebook Reactions a powerful tool for mainstream politics to channel anger towards a proposed ‘enemy’ (Ost, 2004). This practice attracted user engagement to Vlaams Belang’s islamophobic posts, which Facebook rewards with more visibility (Krug, 2016). In addition, Facebook Reactions have the same impact on ads as the Like button (Krug, 2016), allowing Facebook advertisers to target audiences based on their opposition to certain types of content (e.g., anti-immigration beliefs).

Other Facebook-specific cultures of use associated with emoji are those derived from users’ creative engagement with these small digital images. New practices such as the “vomitaço” in Brazil work as political tools of protest that emulate trolling practices for social purposes. Similarly, in June 2017, the LGBTIQ community in Australia and its allies flooded the Facebook page of former liberal senator Cory Bernardi with rainbow flags emoji and pride-themed stickers after he made homophobic declarations (Clift, 2017). Both cases illustrate vernacular creativity in digital media (Burgess, 2007) for pro-social ends. However, as observed through the Vlaams Belang case, the uses of emoji can serve to amplify hate towards certain communities and reinforce long-running racist practices. Users responded to Vlaams Belang’s call for anger by posting further angry-related emoji and stickers, with the vomit sticker being a popular and recurrent choice to express disgust towards Muslims. Vomit as a cultural trope to convey xenophobia has been explored before (Lindner, 2016). What is new is how Facebook interprets the uses of emoji and turns certain cultures of use as normative. Facebook’s reliance on automation to govern social interactions has led the platform to recommend the vomit sticker for the queries “feminism” and “liberals” in the past (Yeung, 2016). The field of Web search studies has extensively documented how algorithms reproduce societal biases (Zimmer, 2009), and emoji should not be overlooked in terms of how their uses influence platforms’ algorithms.

In the Vlaams Belang case, users also engaged with broader Internet tropes such as LoLing at your adversaries and sarcasm to cloak discrimination (Milner, 2013; Phillips, 2011). Irony and sarcasm were mediated through laugh-related and sad emoji, which turned these innocent and cheerful emoji into cruel tools of mockery at others’ marginalised situation (Wilkinson, 2016). The contextualisation of these uses was crucial in the reading of these emoji. However, social media practices with emoji trade in ambivalence, as do other forms of online expression (Philips and Milner, 2017). Stickers such as a humanoid baseball ball holding a bat are benign images but they become problematic when read as being responses to incitements of anger towards a targeted group. Similarly, users’ appropriation of cheerful pig stickers to show opposition to Muslims reinforced the long-running practice of weaponising pork to antagonise people of this faith.

The memetic use of originally harmless images can turn them into hate symbols, which is illustrated by the transformation of Pepe the Frog into an alt-right icon (Gilbert, 2017). The negative uses of this cartoon have influenced the meaning of the frog emoji, which is no longer just an image to represent an animal but used as a hate symbol (Emojipedia, frog face emoji). Contextualizing emoji uses on social media within broader cultural practices, as the pig and the frog emoji illustrate, is crucial for understanding the shifting nature of race and racism online. Meaning, after all, is always collective, social, and constructed.

Third, the new cultures of use associated with emoji require new platform governance mechanisms. Facebook users can proactively moderate comments on their pages by blocking words and turning on the profanity filter. However, it is not possible to automatically ban certain emoji or stickers from appearing in comments. Similarly, Facebook users can stop others from publishing photos and videos on the comments of their posts, but the option to disable emoji and stickers on comments is not available either. Social media platforms react in an ad hoc fashion to content moderation issues (Gillespie, 2018), and it will probably be a matter of time before Facebook implements an emoji filter, as well as the option to switch off emoji and stickers on comments. However, Facebook’s lack of options to minimise certain uses of emoji reinforces the platform’s historical disdain towards its content moderation responsibility [21].

New cultures of use attributed to certain emoji also open the door to revise Facebook processes and rules. The uses of emoji in racist discourse highlight Crawford and Gillespie’s (2016) critique of Facebook’s flag as an insufficient mechanism to tackle controversial content. As they argue, the governance of controversial content on the platform requires a greater emphasis on providing spaces for contestation and public deliberation (Crawford and Gillespie, 2016), especially when racist and other discriminatory practices are often highly context- and culture-dependent. Social media practices with emoji also complicate definitions of what should be considered racist or sexist discourse and, as such, what is and is not acceptable speech. Instagram banned the eggplant emoji hashtag after users appropriated it to signify male genitalia and to post content that violated the platform’s strict policy on nudity and sex (Griffin, 2015). On Facebook, the uses of pig emoji and vomit stickers have the potential to be among discriminatory practices on social media. However, the potentially harmful effect of these practices has yet to be negotiated between users and platforms. For now, some prominent Muslim figures are reacting with irony and humour to the use of pig emoji to antagonise them (Quezada, 2016). In the negotiation of the meaning of these practices, Facebook could benefit from practices of listening (Dreher, 2009) to undo the cultural privileges embedded in the platform’s design, norms, and processes.

In sum, this paper has explored how everyday racism towards Muslims in Belgium manifested on Facebook as a combination of certain cultures of use associated with emoji and platform affordances. With racism online being increasingly mediated through the visual (Everett, 2012; Milner, 2013; Nakamura, 2014), trading in ambivalence (Phillips and Milner, 2017), and normalised by platforms (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017), emoji are an opportunity to understand the shifting dynamics of race and racism online. The study of emoji is also an invitation to reflect on the new challenges of platform governance in relation to visual content, hate speech, and content moderation. End of article

 

About the author

Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández is a Lecturer in Digital Media in the School of Communication at the Queensland University of Technology, and member of the Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC). She holds an M.A. from the Digital Methods Initiative, University of Amsterdam, and a B.A. in Journalism from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Her research explores the entanglement between technology and users’ practices in the cultural dynamics of race and racism online.
E-mail: ariadna [dot] matamorosfernandez [at] qut [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Emma Baulch, Jean Burgess, and Ehsan Dehghan for their feedback on earlier versions of this article. Special thanks to the DMRC colleagues too for the endless conversations about emoji over lunch. My gratitude to Bernhard Rieder too for developing Netvizz, a tool that has been crucial for my research. Netvizz will be soon no longer available due to Facebook’s latest API restrictions, which unfortunately limits independent research.

 

Notes

1. Li and Sokol, 2015, paragraph 14, emphasis from the original.

2. Stark and Crawford, 2015, p. 2.

3. Ost, 2004, p. 230.

4. Ibid.

5. Larsson, 2018, p. 338.

6. Here I focus on vocabularies of affect offered by Facebook by default, although users can actively buy or download a wider range of libraries of emoji and related vernaculars.

7. Facebook rolled out the possibility to insert stickers in comments in 2014 (Mccants, 2014).

8. Unia, 2017, p. 21.

9. Vlaams Belang’s Facebook page had 83,341 likes as at September 2017.

10. Since May 2016, Netvizz allows to extract Facebook reactions for posts on pages. The tool also provides an URL for each sticker posted in a comment.

11. https://www.facebook.com/vlbelang/.

12. Engagement is the sum of Facebook Reactions, Comments, and Shares.

13. Cammaerts, 2009, p. 15.

14. The post received: 591 Likes, 550 Loves, 50 Wow, 101 Haha, 47 Sad, 16,237 Angry, 3,024 comments, and 708 shares. Post link: https://www.facebook.com/vlbelang/photos/a.250080321504.135804.56605856504/10155105350231505/?type=3&theater.

15. The post received: 1,044 Likes, 16 Loves, 47 Wow, 300 Haha, 42 Sad, 14,296 Angry, 2,084 comments, and 258 shares. Post link: https://www.facebook.com/vlbelang/photos/a.250080321504.135804.56605856504/10155302614291505/?type=3&theater.

16. Around 13 percent of the comments in the two posts with more ‘Angry’ reactions contained emoji.

17. Three percent of the comments in the two posts with more ‘Angry’ reactions contained stickers.

18. All the comments presented in this article were translated from Dutch to English by a native Dutch speaker.

19. Lindner, 2016, p. 330.

20. Lindner, 2016, p. 332.

21. At the time of writing, Facebook was rapidly revising various aspects of its governance in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, such as the disclosure of its content moderation internal guidelines. However, these changes are out of scope for this paper’s case study.

 

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Editorial history

Received 8 August 2018; accepted 9 August 2018.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Inciting anger through Facebook reactions in Belgium: The use of emoji and related vernacular expressions in racist discourse
by Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 9 - 3 September 2018
https://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9405/7571
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i9.9405





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