It has been an exciting and productive year for Northeastern student Brooke Stanley, who is studying Political Science and Communication Studies. She has been working alongside Northeastern alumnus Seth Queeney, whose interests also lie in political communication, to research the intersection of rhetoric and style, exploring how people argue and the words they choose when doing so. In exploring this theme, which was originally for a capstone course taught by CAMD Professor Michael Hoppmann, they began looking at niche groups that use unique language to express their ideology; one group that stood out was the “Incel” community, an online subculture whose members believe they have been left behind in the sexual hierarchy. Brooke and Seth’s collaborative research culminated in a paper entitled “One Pill, Two Pill, Blackpill, Bluepill: The Future of Language Creation in the Incel Community,” which was accepted to this year’s National Communication Association Conference (NCA) and awarded a Top Paper designation. Brooke also spoke about her research at the Eastern Communication Association (ECA) conference and will be presenting the paper, which she has continued to improve and add to, on the Top Undergraduate Papers Panel at the NCA Convention in November.
Brooke first worked with Professor Hoppmann on a Dialogue of Civilizations the summer after her freshman year at Northeastern. They studied the Holocaust and the creation of human rights documentation and legislation in Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. This experience was what ultimately encouraged Brooke to take his Contemporary Rhetorical Theory capstone, where the bulk of her research began. In this class, Brooke and Seth (then a student) took a deep dive into the Incels’ digital presence, particularly on the group’s largest and most popular discussion board. After pulling every fifth thread over the course of two week of discussion, they manually coded each one to find how many new words were used on the site that could be attributed to the Incel community.
“One of the most interesting parts of the community, in my opinion, is their creation of new language,” said Brooke. “Incels have made numerous terms in the creation and spread of their ideology. As such, my research partner and I wanted to analyze the community to see how much language they were creating and how.”
In examining their samples, they found 621 new words created by this community that were used a total of 5,049 times in just that two week period. For example, the term “chad,” used to describe successful, attractive, wealthy, and charismatic men, has entered mainstream language, especially in the format of memes. Brooke and Seth looked at their language formation habits, the types of words they were creating, and how much overlap their terms had in root or in their entirety with terms used by the alt-right.
“We found the sheer number of terms created and used shocking due to how disorganized the community is (members rarely, if ever, meet, and they have no dictionary to describe their language) and because of how it contradicts typical habits of groups that split off from the outside world linguistically,” explained Brooke. “What usually happens is a group will stop evolving with the outside world (think of groups like the Amish) and continue to use outdated terminology. The Incels, however, evolved in hyperspeed, creating new language as fast as they could, almost like a petri dish. There are so many angles to look at this community from, be it a purely linguistic perspective to show a case study in such an abnormal linguistic community, a security perspective on how to prevent mass attacks, a psychological perspective on how to help young men that feel left behind by society or socially isolated so they never reach the point of joining communities like this, a media perspective on how we moderate discussion boards and platforms, so on and so forth. As such, I intend to continue to do research on this group and groups like them throughout the rest of my undergraduate experience on through my Masters and Ph.D.”
For now, Brooke is enjoying sharing her work with others – and listening to and incorporating feedback. At the the Eastern Communication Association (ECA) conference, one highlight of being a presenter was having the opportunity to sit down with academics and scholars who not only shared their own research, but also provided their perspectives on hers.
“My experience at ECA was absolutely phenomenal. I had never had a chance to present at a conference like that, and just preparing for the conference with my professors was a great learning experience. I got personalized feedback on how to make an effective presentation, how to cut back my loads of information into a palatable and fifteen minute package, and how to get the audience engaged with my content,” Brooke described. “I loved having a chance to stand in front of a group of my peers and academics in the communication field to discuss my research, and for the first time feeling like I wasn’t writing for a grade, but instead to make a real impact upon the body of knowledge we have in the world. As such, I cannot wait to go to NCA and take what I learned and apply it in a larger setting.”
In addition to the upcoming NCA conference, Brooke is also working on a directed study with CAMD Professor Matthew Nisbet, Communication Studies, exploring the polarization of college campuses and how certain types of political communication – especially that involved with the free speech riots or speaker bans seen throughout college campuses – have started to push conservative thought out of universities. This is just another example of how she is combining communication with political science.
“The combination of Political Science and Communications has given me the perfect level of flexibility in my time at Northeastern,” said Brooke. “I feel that in Communication Studies, many of my courses involve discussing political events, speeches, and propaganda throughout history that the Political Science side of my degree gives me an excellent basis of knowledge and framework to discuss this media through. As such, much of my research sits at the intersection of politics and how it is communicated.”
She hopes to continue exploring the field of communication, particularly the manner in which different people structure their speech.
“I love analyzing the way those communication patterns form, considering how someone outside the community can be socialized into it, and what communities have to do to break down that barrier to communicate across groups,” Brooke concluded. “So much is changing in the realm of communication with the growth of social media and the internet, and getting a chance to watch in real time as communities rise, grow, and inevitably fall out of popularity presents a unique opportunity for me to apply what I have learned to the world as it changes on the other side of my computer screen.”