What is your dissertation about?

“It’s about digital vigilantism: online shaming, doxing and cancel culture. I studied how people get offended by certain behaviour or speech and then feel the need to expose and punish those people. I am part of a comparative research project and my research focuses on China.”

Is digital vigilantism different in China then, for instance, in Western Europe?

“There are a lot of similarities actually, like the fundamental mechanisms and human nature. The differences are how the state is involved in the process and the underlying values. So, in the West the people that are getting cancelled are mostly conservative and right-wing, such as sexists. In China they are targeting people who are not patriotic enough, or who say critical things about China. But also women that supposedly don’t behave ‘womanly’ enough, because they have a lot of sexual relationships with different men. I actually encountered a group of Chinese men that target Chinese women who date foreign guys. It’s all pretty scary.”

How is the government involved?

“All of our social media accounts are linked to our cell phone numbers, that are linked to your ID and all of that information is accessible to the government. Everything you say online is traceable, for either the government or social media platforms. Some vigilantes have access to citizens’ personal information, because they work in the government or have the hacking skills. But there is no obvious direct link between the vigilantes and the government. My research shows the governments influence is more subtle, by shaping the morals and values, as well as shaping how platforms work.”

What other important conclusions did you draw?

“Digital vigilantism forms an assemblage, which means there is no strict organisation, hierarchy or rules. It’s quite chaotic and messy. and a dangerous trend. But we don’t want to forbid it altogether because you want to be able to hold someone accountable. If a group is disadvantaged, vigilantism is probably the last resort they have. Therefore, it’s more important to improve digital literacy and empathy so that people know the severe consequences and don’t use these methods carelessly.”

In Western countries there’s a debate about anonymous accounts on social media. What is your take on this?

“I don’t think that non-anonymous accounts will help this situation at all, because the government or legal system will not be able to pursue hateful comments. It’s very tedious and would require too many resources. Even if you know who the person responsible is, you might not want to pursue a legal procedure. I don’t think that is a solution in itself. Furthermore, if accounts are verified and linked to you, you hand out information that could be used to dox you.”

Is it difficult to do research on subjects that the Chinese government might take offense of?

“The thing is that I sometimes feel that the Western media portray China in a stereotypical manner and simplify how things work there. I’d like to bridge that gap. In my research I try to be as nuanced and neutral as possible. I am always aware that the Chinese government could be watching me and my parents still live there. Therefore, I’m always careful with my words, but that does not mean that I censor them. It helps that I don’t intent to work in China.”

What did you like best about your PhD?

“I liked a lot actually. I’m a curious person, fascinated by the way people interact and the weird things that happen online. Being able to make a living out of my interests is really great. I also really enjoyed teaching. What I found more difficult is that there’s almost never a moment of rest. Research and teaching were always on my mind and the teaching load could get overwhelming at times. I tried to balance that with hobbies like bouldering and triathlon training. Before the pandemic I did a lot of pole dancing, that was very liberating.”

How did you end up in Rotterdam?

“I did my bachelor studying in China at a university affiliated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I didn’t find my calling there, so I switched from English and International Studies to Communication studies. At first, I looked for a PhD position in North America, but after I met my Swedish boyfriend and we had a long-distance relationship, I applied for positions closer to him. Also, this job description felt like it was meant for me.”

I read in your acknowledgements that it was sunny when you applied.

“Yes, it was November 2016 and a very sunny day, it felt like The Netherlands were trying to impress me.”

Did you enjoy the city?

“It’s a good combination of nature, like Kralingse Bos where I spend a lot of time, and the cultural life like theatre and film and good food. I was very happy with the Chinese supermarkets. There are a lot of things I love about the Netherlands”, laughing, “but the one thing that I can’t get used to is the food!”

Malte Dewies 1022-008 – Levien Willemse

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