‘I’m Going to Hell for This’: Images of Libertarianism, Populism and Freedom of Speech Online

Robert Topinka

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


    The circulation of visual media constitutes a pressure point in the crisis of traditional media which has been unfolding over the last two decades. Digital photography, social media networks, and cheap and accessible photo editing software makes it possible to circulate and modify images with unprecedented speed and flexibility. In liberal thought, the circulation of speech—which has long included image and text—is thought to promote democratization. Of late, a loosely libertarian group of digital consumers-cum-activists have begun advocating for unrestrained freedom of speech by producing and circulating images designed explicitly to shock offend. Their target is often the digital activists they mockingly dub 'Social Justice Warriors’ (SJW’s), left-liberal digital activists who critique hate speech and other misrepresentations of minority groups. I examine this tension on the social networking site Reddit, focusing on the community (or subreddit) known as “r/imgoingtohellforthis,” which trades in purposefully offensive memes and images. Increasingly, the subreddit's users are targeting the perceived force SJW’s with by repurposing traditional media images to explicitly racist and Euro-nationalist ends. After the photograph of the dead body of a Syrian boy on a Turkish beach attracted international attention, users on the subreddit began photoshopping the boy in a variety of offensive ways, including producing a fake Buzzfeed article with the Syrian boy topping a list of the ’31 Best Planks.’ Drawing on analysis of the image and user comments, I argue that online freedom of speech debates have become a flashpoint for competing modes of visual representation and of competing visions of identity politics. At stake in this battle is the liberal conception of freedom of speech, which is increasingly being aligned with a form of libertarianism that provides cover for the nationalist populism currently spreading in European and American politics more widely.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 2014
    EventPolitical Studies Association Annual Conference - Manchester, United Kingdom
    Duration: 14 Apr 201416 Apr 2014


    ConferencePolitical Studies Association Annual Conference
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom

    Cite this