“Hate speeches are discursive articulations aiming to inhibit rights to freedom and equality in the other” (Taricco y Torres, 2019 in Díaz Hernández, 2020).
Ethnography is transformed when it comes into contact with the digital space. We know that digital space translates and simplifies our world, but: What does it translate and how does it?
These and other questions emerged as we conducted a case analysis on how hate messages about a Colombian politician circulate on Twitter. We wanted to understand, from spaces and communities built in the digital world, and social networks logics: What about hate? How it behaves? How is it transformed and into what? How does it circulate and for what? The outcome of the process were some findings and other questions that make valuable this research.
Social networks transform the interactions we make as a society, contact with the other changes its meaning. It is reduced to a like, a repost, a comment. Expression and interaction are limited. Social networks are a ‘there’, a parallel world, a bound-transgressing world.
The work team was attended by two social science professionals and a visual artist. As digital ethnographers, we decided to approach without being seen, without influencing the object of study. Social networks display a sea of information; when using a qualitative approach, you have to choose where to start. As in offline approach, we let ourselves be guided by curiosity, those aspects that intrigued us.
We wanted to find out how hate messages circulate on Twitter. We decided to observe Daniel Quintero Calle, the mayor of Medellín (second largest city in Colombia, located in the department of Antioquia, whose citizens call themselves paisas). Resignation of most the members in the board of directors of EPM (Empresas Públicas de Medellín), after he accused them of corruption, placed him in the eye of the storm.
EPM, an emblematic institution for Medellín and the whole country, it is a city owned utility supplier. Apparently, some of its former board members were closely related to Grupo Empresarial Antioqueño (GEA), a private emporium. Their resignation caused several worries to the people. Twitter became the ideal virtual setting to disseminate them and, of course, to spread their insults and degrading words, too.
Scrutinizing this public role of the mayor, we also found concerns related to his personal facet: Daniel Quintero has been accused of sexual assault. He used words that could be also considered aggressive to respond these messages against him. Unintentionally, or not, fanning the flame. Virtuality is a space where private and public lives seem to intermingle; their boundaries, although fuzzy offline, become more blurred online. Public behavior becomes personal and personal life, public.
Political partisans, ordinary citizens, journalists, feminists and many more take part… It seems that discussions taking place and being reproduced on Twitter will never end. To unravel this tangle, we investigated theory on the subject, we analyzed chains of tweets, we followed cases and people, we posed open questions by email to city residents, we collected images from Twitter and other social networks, we watched videos of sessions of the city council, and we consulted newspapers. Bearing always in mind that our research focused on studying the logic of Twitter and its ways of spreading these explosive feelings.
Valiente Martínez (2018) refers to hate speech as an amalgam of expressions that try to characterize people as non-normal, it is difficult to live with them. They exceed freedom of expression because they intend to harm. He quotes Waldron (2012) to indicate that hate speech seeks to undermine dignity, even dehumanize.
We found that the major was defined by many as “indecipherable”, so much so that the country’s main political magazine, Semana, called him that on its August 15, 2020 cover. The magazine used the term to indicate that the politician represented a confusion, a mystery, since those on the right saw him as a leftist and those on the left as a rightist. Therefore, we decided to call our ethnography work that.
Findings show us that hateful messages may be associated with the fear of change by the citizens of Medellín, unease of departing from the status quo, and denote a power confrontation with the national capital: Bogotá. Twitter, as a digital platform, amplifies and distorts this fear, it is used to attack before they “attack me” and to write without premeditation, as if we were in an eternal state of shock, reaction, and offense.
One of the difficulties of the project was defining who the participants were. It was something that we wanted to establish from the beginning. An advantage of ethnography is that adjustments can be made along the way, so it was decided that solving the question about who are the subjects involved in the circulation of hateful messages was part of the findings. The following image shows the actors who tend to emit hateful messages caused by disagreeing with the mayor’s decisions on public companies and by his vision of the region.
Resulting information was presented in two products: a Web page and a podcast. The previous images are part of the former. These products made the presentation and socialization of the results dynamic and multi-sensory. The home page was as follows:
The construction of the Web page (developed in Wix) we used graphic, hearing and textual elements that were meaningful. For example, we use Twitter’s blue color and the red color (normally associated with aggressiveness). We developed a tab titled “survey”, where we present to the visitor the appearance of a poll inspired by a tweet towards Daniel Quintero.
You enter the podcast from the Wep Page ‘home’. It begins with the reading of some tweets, such as one that describes the mayor as inept and invites to revoke him. It continues with the opinion of some citizens of Medellín. For example, a 50-year-old business consultant said that “the mayor only creates an atmosphere of mistrust.” At the end, there is a dialog between the three researchers. Some important conclusions are:
- “Hate exhibits several forms. It spreads rapidly and finds a place in digital media; we are less sensitive to the other in the network”.
- “Hate is something visceral, It is a way of defending yourself from the difference because you belong to a group. I feel that in order to hate Daniel Quintero, haters have to identify him with a group, that’s why they start talking about the left or the right. It’s a kind of prejudice. “
- “When you are treating someone badly, it is because one see something reflected in that person that bothers you about yourself.”
- “Twitter is like an emotional garbage dump. People go to Twitter, looking for the trend of the day. Whichever it is, they write for or against. People come in to insult for pleasure, for sport. Those who come in to insult, many times, do not even know why they are insulting”.
In the image gallery of the website, the following taken from Twitter appears, in which a senator, from the same region, publishes on August 28 a figure emulating the movie Star Wars with a series of politicians related to her party. This political party is that of the current national government and is led by former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (also a native of Medellín). Daniel Quintero Calle (elected as independent from the political parties) answers, highlighting that she had used some figures associated with the “dark side”:
We can reflect on the jumps that happen among social networks. It is powerful to observe how cultural references of entertainment, such as Star Wars, come replenished of meanings, such as “the dark side”, and they evolve when are shared through these montages on Twitter. The image, the meme, seems to have a thousand branches, it transmutes with each share, like and response.
In these times of confrontation and discrimination (between ethnic groups in Spain, the United States and Colombia, for instance) social networks should be thought of as a tool that helps to reflect, that seeks ways of union. It could start by promoting responsible use, by calling each user to think if his or her comment is a constructive one. Now, some people claim that society also needs places to vent, and it could be said that Twitter represents something between a confessional and a bar. In any case, it is difficult today to think about life without the Internet, without instant interaction, without the immediate availability of others.
Analysys of collected data with the gaze of ethnographers, allowed us to understand the context in which hate messages against Daniel Quintero (and those he sends) move. We were aware that studying the messages would reveal findings about the digital and about this social network, but we also wanted to turn up to the opinions of citizens to better understand the context. The information was changing, new actors intervened that made the dynamics circulate like the messages themselves. A point was reached where new events were consistent with established trends. Presenting results by graphic and audio media enriches the ethnography and arises from an interaction between creativity and the social sciences.
Digital ethnography is a powerful tool for the analysis of current public figures. In this case, a revealing approach on the dynamics of communication to and from the mayor and perceptions on him was achieved. Digital ethnography proves to be a helpful way to get closer to organizations, institutions and collective imaginaries that are built today, to provide useful information about their problems and concerns.
- Díaz Hernández, M. (2020). Discurso de odio en América Latina. Derechos digitales.
- Valiente Martínez, F. (2018). El discurso del odio: la justificación de lo injustificable. En langa Nuño, C. y Ballesteros Aguayo, L. (Ed.). Movimientos populistas en Europa: la actualización del discurso totalitario en los medios de comunicación actuales y su repercusión en la opinión pública. España: Egregius.
Marcela Navia Núñez owns Infocaribe, a company dedicated to marketing research in Barranquilla (Colombia). For 24 years she has developed multiple researches to support decision-making processes of companies in different sectors such as furniture and real estate. She has extensive experience in applying the ethnographic approach to detect consumer needs. Her interests include theater, storytelling and the news. She has a bachelor in psychology from Universidad de la Sabana, graduate studies in marketing and statistics, and an MBA from Universidad del Norte.
Martha Botero Ángel. Founder and Director of Tulpa Consultores; business administrator and anthropologist. I consider myself a cultural “mediator” between the business world and its environment. I believe in the importance of respect for all living beings. Therefore from Tulpa we aim to generate knowledge for a more humane and sustainable world. I am Colombian, and perhaps because of the context of conflict in which we have lived since I was born, I defend the otherness: the diversity of ideologies, worldviews, thoughts, and beliefs.