When Research Attacks, Part One Million

July 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

I defended my dissertation in June and was blessed with the curse of excellent committee feedback. Since then, I’ve been scrambling to make all requested changes before depositing the manuscript (hopefully) by the end of the month. One of the trickiest revision suggestions came from my advisor Carol Stabile, who said that my RIP troll chapter, which considers the behavioral and rhetorical overlap between Facebook memorial page trolling and sensationalist mainstream disaster coverage, needed more specific examples of the media’s decidedly ghoulish (if not outright trollish) coverage of 2010’s rash of teenage suicides.

So I reread all the articles and rewatched all the news segments about so-called “bullycide,” which according to the media was the reason our teenagers kept dying. Subsumed by this framing was the sinister figure of the memorial page troll. In more extreme cases, these trolls (or as they were still called in the U.S., “cyberbullies”) were further condemned as time-traveling demons somehow capable of attacking a teenager’s Facebook memorial page AND convincing the (already dead) teenager to kill themselves.

Particularly disturbing (though there is much to say about the RIP trolls themselves, I am for the moment tabling the question of the trolls’ culpability and instead am focusing on the media’s role in propagating the moral panic surrounding cyberbullying and teen suicide) was the frequency with which the media would show a screencap of some outrageous statement or image and then decry the awful trolls who posted it. This was some pretty gristly X-rated shit, including one image of a dead teenager with her head photoshopped through a noose, and yet there it was on my MSNBC.

My basic argument was that, by sandwiching troll-made content between excessively sentimental coverage of the suicides themselves, these outlets were no better than the trolls they condemned. Just like trolls, the media harnessed audience distress for their own personal gain. In the trolls’ case, that gain came in the form of lulz. In the media’s case, gain was measured in terms of advertising revenue. Either way, both groups benefited from personal tragedy. That these particular tragedies were teen suicides only complicated matters, as there is a direct and directly observable relationship between sensationalized suicide coverage and increased suicide rates, particularly within younger demographics. In short, media engagement with memorial page trolling wasn’t just cynical and hypocritical, it was deeply irresponsible—challenging the assumption that trolls were the only villains in this story.

This put me in a strange ethical position. On one hand, I wanted—and in fact needed, given the seriousness of my claims—to provide concrete evidence of the media’s homologous relationship to memorial page trolling. On the other hand, by (re)republishing those images on the same grounds that the media first republished the trolls’ images, and with a similar ethical objective, no less, I risked replicating the same sensationalist logic that characterized the media’s response to RIP trolling (and the RIP trolls’ response to the media’s response, and the media’s response to the trolls’ response to the media’s response, ad infinitum nauseum). Initially, I justified my inclusion of the more sensationalist screencaps on the grounds that at least I wasn’t making any money off my research—until I realized that I was, at least indirectly. But even if I never saw a penny for my efforts, I would accrue a certain amount of social capital for having written about the subject. I would, in other words, benefit. This concern went beyond the facile –and fallacious– assumption that because what the media posted and what I posted looked alike, the behaviors really were alike. My concern was that the desired outcome –essentially to rustle my audience’s jimmies, in the name of shaming the object of my critique– was in fact identical. I’d like to think that I was publishing the images for “good” reasons, but I suspect they did as well.

That’s all, I don’t have a conclusion. And I will be using one or two of the images in my dissertation. My actions may be problematic (it’s hard to avoid engaging in problematic behavior; the waters are muddy on all sides), but unlike sensationalist media, at least I’m taking responsibility for what I’m choosing to do.

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