Communicative aggression contextualized: Multiple roles of aggressive content in political discourse on the Russian Youtube

Svetlana Bodrunova, Ivan Blekanov, Anna Litvinenko


Today, aggressive verbal behavior is generally perceived as a threat to democratic quality of public discussion (Cortese 2006), as well as to integrity and rationality of online discussions (Badjatiya et al. 2017). Several works, though, have dragged attention to controversial relations between freedom of speech and hate speech (Dorsett 1996; Cammaerts 2009) and to the possible use of offensive language in positive sense in discriminated communities like LGBTQ (Davidson et al. 2017). We argue that aggressive speech may play multiple (both positive and negative) roles in the dynamics of online discussions. This might be especially true for restrictive political and legal environments like Russia where obscene lexicon is prohibited by law in registered media and the political environment does not give much space for voicing discontent. Using the concept of communicative aggression (Sidorov 2018) and building on today’s works on multi-class detection of toxic speech (Badjatiya et al. 2017; Park&Fung 2017; Georgakopoulos et al. 2018), we define five classes of communicative aggression relevant to political discussions, including humiliation, threat, call for aggressive action, radical political expressions, and obscene language. We collect data by crawling and use BERT-assisted deep learning and manual cross-checks to detect communicative aggression. By analyzing a 3-month networked discussion on the Moscow city parliament election on 22 political accounts on Rutube, we show that certain types of aggressive speech are productive for the dynamics of the discussion and bear substantial protest messages, while obscene speech also delineates politically relevant cultural groups like rap listeners or creative elites. We reconstruct the discussion graphs and trace the co-development of the overall discussion and that around the aggressive speech, thus showing whether the aggressive content spurs or slows down the flow of the discussion. We further reflect upon the roles of various types of aggressive content in unfolding, maintaining, and ebbing of the networked discussion and add to the understanding of the roles of communicative aggression in online communication.

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