Published on 10/02/2021
Online abuse understanding what is offensive, society matters podcast
  • Aston University linguistics lecturer Tamineh Tayebi discusses her work in new ‘Society matters’ podcast series
  • Research focuses on importance of language and why people are offended by certain words and phrases
  • Findings could be used to develop new ways to combat cyberbullying and online trolling

A linguistics expert who has analysed how people use language in online communications hopes her work will help combat hate crime and cyberbullying.

Tamineh Tayebi, a lecturer in forensic linguistics from the Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University, has researched offensive language on social media – including rape and death threats sent to MPs.

Tamineh spoke about her work in the third episode of a podcast series called ‘Society matters’ presented by journalist Steve Dyson, which focuses on the work of Aston academics.

She said she hoped that her findings on how and why people take offence at certain words and phrases could help develop new ways to combat cyberbullying and online trolling.

Tamineh said: “I have always been fascinated by the idea of why people take offence and cause offence, and how we understand what is impolite what is not, and I’m particularly interested in this issue in online communications.

“If we can better understand how the offender uses language and how the receiver of those messages, the victim if you like, understands offence, we can draw on these findings to prevent cyberbullying and hate crime.

“We know from research that not all offensive or swear words are always used negatively. It’s very common for people to use them among their friends. It’s about the use of the language in context.

“One thing that my research has shown is that impolite and offensive language is very much context-dependent. The language we use is not inherently polite or impolite, it’s about how we use it. It’s not just about what we say but it’s what we mean.

“I want to continue work on the same issues and topics so I want to explore the language of cyberbullying a bit more, to understand how people use language creatively for such malicious purposes of bullying online and how this knowledge can hopefully help us come up with preventative measures.”

In the podcast, Tamineh speaks in detail about a research project focusing on the online abuse received by politicians in the course of their work.

“One of the projects I’ve recently been working is the abuse that one of the Labour MPs, Stella Creasy, received for her views on abortion and how offensive that entire campaign got.

“There are a lot of other MPs who received death and rape threats over the years and the police got involved in that.”

Tamineh also explains how the use of emojis in online communications can help people avoid misinterpreting messages that are not offensive in themselves.

“Sometimes emojis may come in and help a bit by putting a smiley emoji or a heart emoji at the end of a sentence you may be able to mitigate the force of your sentence.”

Tamineh acknowledges that the era of global social media has made communication more difficult in the sense of having to be more careful about what we say online.

“As far as linguistics is concerned, the most important thing is the awareness of the power of language and the fact that the words we choose matter and mean things. It’s important not to take that for granted when we communicate and remember there is always somebody out there who might interpret the message differently.”

She added: “It may make communication very difficult, constantly being careful about what to say, but that’s the reality because with social media we are all communicating with people beyond the geographical boundary we live in.

“People in another part of the world may see things differently. That’s why we really have to be careful about the meaning of the things we say.”

▪ Episode 3 of the ‘Society matters’ podcast can be found on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Notes to editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long-established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive.

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