Online Vitriol: Advocacy, Violence, and the Transforming Power of Social Media

deadline for submissions: 
May 15, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Sara Polak / International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture

Online Vitriol: Advocacy, Violence, and the Transforming Power of Social Media

Conference at the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, Giessen, Germany

Wednesday June 29th – Saturday July 1st, 2017

For whom:

  • Researchers in the fields of (digital) culture and media, and related fields
  • Professionals dealing with online advocacy and social media presence of their organization
  • Journalists and others confronted with online violence
  • PhD and MA students in culture and media studies


Conference aim:

1)      To employ our collective knowledge, experience, research and intelligence to arrive at a conceptual and practical understanding of the medial and cultural dynamics of online vitriol.

2)      To create “A Rough Guide to Online Vitriol: Dealing with Violence and Activism on Social Media in Theory and Practice” (working title). To be published in the MediaMatters series of Amsterdam University Press (tentatively)

While Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was already famous for its successful use of social media (e.g. for acquiring small donations), Twitter as a politically transformative medium and style of communication has reached new heights only recently, with the election of obsessive tweeter Donald Trump as a historical turning point. Clearly, social media platforms give rise to a diverse range of discourses and communication styles. This conference wants to understand the power of social media, not only – as it has often been perceived – as a democratizing medium, but also as a powerful vehicle for politically driven bullying and violence. Relevant to people, organizations, and other agents across twenty-first-century society, this topic is increasingly studied from a range of disciplines and perspectives. Virtually everyone has to deal with social media and the discourses it enables and produces. But while the technology exists and seems at first sight intuitively accessible, the agency, dynamics and ethics of social media platforms are not yet well-understood.

‘Trolls for Trump’, online virus ‘scares’, fake news – social media discourse has become a formidable, yet elusive, political force. This conference wants to begin to address some of the issues around the power of online vitriol, by studying discourses, metaphors, media dynamics, and framing on social media. What is it? How does it work? What does it do? And how can it be addressed or countered?

 To fruitfully question the political impact of contemporary communication structures and discourses, the conference has an unusual format. It avoids the traditional presenter/audience dichotomy. Instead, it works towards producing a book for academics and professionals confronted with social media violence, provisionally titled “A Rough Guide to Online Vitriol: Dealing with Violence and Advocacy on Social Media in Theory and Practice”. The conference combines academic theorizing with perspectives from professionals active in media, communication, the public sector and journalism, so as to arrive at conceptually rigorous and useful conclusions to guide our own and our organizations’ use of social media.

Possible topics

Bringing together media and communication specialists from various professions (e.g. public sector, press, NGOs) and cultural and media studies students and scholars, the aim is to create crosspollination between theoretical approaches from cultural and media studies on the one hand, and practical challenges and experiences ‘from the field’ on the other.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Privacy and surveillance through social media platforms
  • Liveness and online temporalities
  • Clickbait as political activism
  • Interpreting retweets, likes, profile clicks and other platform-specific messages
  • The impact of different platform structures and changing algorithms on what can be expressed
  • ‘Communicative capitalism’ and the dynamics of Twitter virality
  • Dynamics of trolling and reporting
  • How ‘new’ are online communication practices?
  • Framing narratives and ideals in a potentially hostile environment


The conference is free of charge. However, we ask that, during the conference, all participants agree to be offline, and try to be fully present and contemplative.

We invite you to come to the conference, essentially with one or a few relevant case studies prepared, and a critical argument or problem you find important. However, in the interest of looking ahead to possible synergies, please submit a proposal for a paper or chapter you would like to be involved in writing, are writing, or would like to see written. 

We welcome proposals from scholars and professionals in the listed fields, as well as related areas of specialization. Please submit a 300-word abstract and a short biography (100 words) to Sara Polak (, Rahel Schmitz (, and Ann-Marie Riesner ( by April 24th, 2017.