Media anthropology: Defending dignity in a digital world

20 Aug 2020

LMU anthropologist Sahana Udupa studies the sociopolitical impact of digital media, with a focus on the dynamics of extreme rhetoric on online platforms. She has already received two prestigious grants from the European Research Council for her work.

Aufnahme von Sahana Udupa in einem leeren Hörsaal.


“Whether I like it or not, I sometimes feel as if I’m carrying a radar system around with me, which detects problematic developments,” Sahana Udupa says, and splays her hands to depict an array of antennas. As Professor of Media Anthropology at LMU, she studies the influence of diverse digital media on social communication and behavior, and is often confronted by the ugly and misanthropic side of online communication – disinformation and hate speech, although she views the second of these terms with a significant degree of skepticism. “Hate speech is used in the context of regulation, it implicitly refers to a particular normative approach,” she says. “I remain skeptical about the use of ‘hate speech’ as a category, because labeling the various kinds of vitriolic exchanges on online media as ‘hate speech’ does nothing to enhance understanding of its origins and cultural variations.” She therefore prefers to employ the broader term ‘extreme speech’.

From journalism to research

Sahana Udupa comes from India, and the media fascinated her even before she began her career as a journalist. Indeed, her ongoing interest in media is still an integral part of her research, which combines elements of the fields of anthropology and communications science. Upon completion of her PhD degree at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, Udupa moved to Germany to continue her studies at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Multireligious and Multiethnic Societies in Göttingen. “I hadn’t planned to come to Germany. The usual destinations for students from South Asia are the UK or the US. But after I finished my dissertation, there was a fantastic opportunity at the MPI.”

An attractive academic environment

Following a stint at the Central European University in Budapest, she obtained her present post at LMU in 2017. Her decision to return to Germany was motivated largely by two factors. Her young son wanted “to return home” – but the quality of the academic environment drew her particularly to Munich. “People really appreciate and accept conceptual thinking here. They’re ready to give ideas time to form and evolve. You are not expected to turn your science into something that is immediately translatable. This culture of reflection and meticulous analysis is a real luxury,” she explains.

Collaborative research

In Munich, Udupa and her team are analysing the worldwide increase in extreme language as part of their ONLINERPOL project, which is supported by an ERC Starting Grant. In particular, she and her team investigate how online media have revitalized and repurposed the political instrumentalization of differences in religion and national allegiance. Global collaboration is an indispensable component of her research. “Collaborations are important because today’s research topics are closely interconnected and they unfold on a global scale. And additionally, exchanging ideas is tremendously helpful for research.”

Cultural variations in modes of online expression

For example, in a comparative study on how extreme online speech is employed in different societies, she collaborates with research institutes in India, the Philippines, the US, South Africa, Denmark and the UK. This is the only feasible way to uncover general trends and trace the influence of cultural and historical differences – such as the experience of colonialism and its effects on the development of markets and the definition of national boundaries.

A new trend: online ‘fun’

One of the latest trends that has caught the attention of Udupa and her colleagues is a type of online ‘fun culture’, which consists in the propagation of ostensibly jocular remarks that are intended to denigrate members of specific groups. “If you object and point out the implications, the response is ‘oh come on, you just don’t get the joke!”’ In this way, the protagonists create a collective experience that binds them together in opposition to their target groups, and they can evade regulation and sanctions by claiming that their remarks are nothing but ‘innocent fun’.

Contributing to debates at the highest level

Perhaps Udupa’s most significant collaboration is a recent one with the “Academic Network on Peace, Security, and the United Nations”. This body was set up in 2019 at the request of the UN by the New York-based Social Science Research Council (SSRC), an independent research agency which promotes research in the social sciences. Together with a other partners, her group has contributed to a report on the relationships between extreme speech, disinformation and conflict prevention. Collaborations with such institutions like this one are especially important because they provide opportunities to influence the debate at the highest level. – An invitation from the SSRC enabled Udupa to speak with representatives of the UN’s member states.

An online tool for fact checkers

Sahana Udupa also takes a special interest in another group of people – the fact checkers who take on the vital and onerous task of checking the veracity of statements made in online media, either on behalf of commercial firms or independent groups. It is their job to identify problematic content and where appropriate delete it – and they are therefore a major element of Udupa’s research. She recently interacted with fact-checkers working in the Philippines, for instance. Many fact checkers possess a wide range of cultural knowledge but lack sufficient resources to handle the enormous mass of data they have to deal with. With the aid of a Proof-of-Concept grant from ERC, Udupa and her team are now developing on open-source tool (dubbed “AI4Dignity“) to help fact-checkers to cope with the demands made upon them.

Thinking outside the box

The idea is to make use of machine-learning techniques to detect (potential) instances of extreme speech and false information. The tool will also enable users to reconfigure search parameters to take account of local cultural norms and idiosyncrasies. This feature should facilitate the classification of images, for instance. Udupa is collaborating with information scientists and specialists in computational linguistics. “It’s vital to be able to think outside the box, and be willing to transcend disciplinary boundaries,” she says. “Luckily, there are several supportive units at LMU. It’s like an ocean. The more you seek the more gems you find. You just have to know which unit to approach – and then I am very persistent!”

Empathy and social responsibility

Her approach is to deepen scholarly analysis by incorporating experiences and positionalities of researchers, and extending an empathetic understanding even for sensitive topics such as extreme speech. In this sense, empathy with the victims of online abuse is vital but it is also important to understand what motivates people to engage in extreme speech. One can be confronted with rude and offensive statements anywhere and at any time of the day. Their effects are severe because they emerge unexpectedly – at places where you would have least expected. Udupa therefore regards the phenomenon not only as part of a research project. She believes that she has a responsibility to draw it to the attention of the general public. “This is one of the aims of my project, to bring this into the public sphere. That’s a social responsibility. And that’s why I keep my radars on. Just as a society has to have doctors to diagnose and treat illnesses, our task is to look closely at social problems and their causes. That’s precisely why universities are important: They provide spaces in which diverse voices emerge and get heard.”
Monika Gödde

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21 Sep 2020

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