Confirmed keynotes & abstracts

Dr. Sarah Kendzior (freelance journalist)

Trump, Trolls, and the Truth: Digital media in the era of “alternative facts”

The election of Donald Trump showed how digital media can be used by hostile state and non-state actors not only to influence public opinion through propaganda, but to challenge the very notion of “truth” itself. Propaganda tactics that have long been utilized in former Soviet republics – bombarding users with ceaseless lies and innuendo; surveilling audiences to tailor messages to their disparate political leanings; employing bots and trolls to create the illusion (and eventual reality) of a political mob – were used to great effect throughout 2015 and 2016. A weakened US news media, economically hurting for over a decade, lapped up the propaganda for ratings; a disillusioned US citizenry that was already losing faith in institutions proved malleable to the digital onslaught. Today Americans are trying to discern between fact and fiction under a government that both lies pathologically and lacks transparency. As citizens seek veracity, they also rely on social media for organization and mobilization, struggling in the midst of this propaganda morass to rebuild political trust. This talk will review key events of the election and Trump’s rule and contextualize them within broader debates around truth, trust, and digital politics worldwide. The speaker, Sarah Kendzior, is an anthropologist who started out studying digital media in authoritarian Uzbekistan, only to see these same tactics used in her home country. She will also address potential solutions to this problem based on her experiences in democratic and authoritarian states.

Sarah Kendzior is a journalist and anthropologist. She has a PhD from Washington University and is currently a columnist at the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail and the Dutch media outlet De Correspondent. Kendzior is based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Prof. dr. Frans-Willem Korsten (Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society)

Vitriol as an attack on culture: the logic of surplus value and the aestheticizing of the political

I would like to define vitriol first by means of a historical comparison, in comparing current uses of vitriol with their abundant use in the 17th century Dutch Republic. What has remained the same is that the brutal use of vitriol is aimed at closing down the radically open nature of the political domain (Republican in the 17th century sense of the term, democratic in the 21st century sense of the term). What is new is that in our days vitriol is an iconic expression of value under capitalism. It concerns forms of expression that are not so much cultural in that they are forms of self-articulation or self-actualization. Rather they celebrate the victory “of the desire for possession over that of enjoyment” (Marx,  ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’). One key characteristic of online vitriol is its speed, its desire and ability ‘to go viral’, which is both a symptom of and an analogy to, or perhaps a straightforward expression of capitalism’s strategy of creating surplus value. Considered in this context online vitriol is not concrete or meaningful, at least not in the sense of what one could call a semantic use value. Its value consists in forms of exchange, and under capitalism this exchange is speeded up, in the process of which surplus value is created. The speed in vitriol is not coincidental, that is. It is needed to create a form of surplus value, that, in this case, materializes as discursive possession. As such it is the opposite of what Agamben defined as ‘pure language’, the language of a community to come. It is, rather, a form of perverted cultural capital that grants the masses expression, while “on no account granting them rights” (Walter Benjamin, epilogue to ‘The Work of Art…’, 121). Just as fascism once, surplus vitriol now has as its logical outcome the aestheticizing of political life and this, in consequence, has to lead to war, whether it is discursive in nature, or bodily, military.

Frans-Willem Korsten holds the chair by endowment ‘Literature and Society’ at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication and works at the department of Film and Literary Studies at the University of Leiden. He published on a republican baroque, theatricality and dramatization, and works on the interstice now between art, literature and law with a focus on the limits of legal systems.

Dr. Daniel Trottier (Erasmus School of History, Culture, and Communication)

Visibility as Vitriol: Exploring User-led Shaming

Digital media enable citizens to persecute fellow citizens as a parallel form of social and criminal justice. While serving as denunciative acts against perceived offences, the way this denunciation is practiced through digital platforms can stigmatise targets through unwanted and unanticipated public exposure. This presentation examines digital vigilantism (DV) as warranting conceptual and empirical scrutiny. DV refers to practices in which citizens are collectively offended by other citizen activity (ranging from mild breaches of social protocol to terrorist acts and participation in riots), and respond through coordinated retaliation on digital media, including mobile devices and social platforms. Digital media enable a weaponised mode of visibility in which users source and publish the targeted individual’s personal and relational details, often resulting in harassment, death threats, and other harms.

Drawing on exemplary cases in several national contexts, as well as earlier scholarship on online (self-)policing, this presentation considers cultural factors surrounding DV, in relation to embodied vigilantism. Of particular importance is the role that shaming plays as a mobilising force, notably in underscoring tensions in citizen-state relations: while DV may serve to contest state monopolisation of violence and criminal justice, state branches and the press utilise shaming practices to mobilise populations against targeted individuals, which may contribute to DV campaigns. This presentation concludes by addressing methodological and ethical challenges associated with research about mediated and ephemeral social practices.Daniel Trottier is associate professor of digital media. He considers social media use by police and intelligence services, and policing on social media.


Daniel Trottier is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He is leading a five-year research project on citizen-led surveillance practices on digital media. Daniel is the author Social Media as Surveillance (2012, Ashgate), Identity Problems in the Facebook Era (2013, Routledge), and co-editor of Social Media, Politics and the State (2014, Routledge).