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The digital ethnography of law

Studying online hate speech online and offline

Richard Ashby Wilson

The ethnography of social media is still a developing field, and the anthropology of online legal topics is even more incipient. This article charts a digital ethnography of the regulation of hate speech online by examining the infrastructure of social media platforms, the content of speech acts (including coded speech) and their offline effects. These three levels can be analysed using an adapted version of Erving Goffman’s heuristic model of backstage, onstage and offstage presentations of the self in everyday life. A digital ethnography of law implies both a qualitative and quantitative study of offline effects of online speech, including harmful consequences that are direct as well as indirect. On this basis, the article presents findings that, while it is difficult to identify direct effects of online hate speech on violence, show indirect effects including the silencing of dissent and an undermining of trust and cooperation in wider society.