Moral panic 2.0: white nationalism, convergence culture, and racialized media events
Sutherland, Ruari Shaw
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In the four decades since Stanley Cohen (1972) first theorised the ‘moral panic’, there has been immense technological change in the field of communications and media. Whilst Cohen’s original model relies on elite-driven mediated narratives, I argue that moral panics have taken on a memetic quality in the convergent and participatory mediascape. In other words: in an age of social media, moral panic discourses are increasingly open to contestation, reinterpretation, and recirculation by multiple actors and groups. In this thesis, I examine one such group – the web’s largest white nationalist (WN) forum, Stormfront. To do so, I trace three racialized media events as they circulate on and through the Forum. Here, I show how the mechanics of the moral panic have fundamentally shifted in the digital age. I explore the means by which Stormfront users exploit this semi-democratised mediascape in an attempt to ‘manage’ and exploit moral panics surrounding episodes of racialized violence. To this end, I explore the topologically entangled shuttling back and forth of ‘online’ and ‘offline’ lives and spaces to argue for a more-than-digital geography of computer mediated communication. Here, I show how the Forum’s ‘collective voice’ is often given expression through selective quotation by mainstream media surrounding racialized moral panics. This process of remediation, I argue, allows explicitly racist groups fugitive access to mainstream discourse, and turns mainstream media outlets into unwitting nodes in a white nationalist broadcast network. However, I argue that this public-facing process, opens WNs up to increased scrutiny, leading to strategic and contingent deployments of contradictory repertoires of race. In doing so, I examine repertoires of race in such WN interventions - highlighting their flexible and contingent construction of racialized categories in the negotiation of contemporary structures of feeling (Williams 1977; Anderson 2014). I contend that a digitally-inflected antiracism must attend to the contingent, translocal, and assembled nature of racism online if it is to be effective.