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Playing the Victim: Using YouTube Comments to Analyze the Disputed Victimization of Taylor Swift


Participants in disputes and conflict often claim membership in some category to justify their actions against their opponents; yet a participant’s membership in a category can also be disputed. I examine how the use of categories shows tacit norms associated with those categories and how disputes about membership in categories are used within broader conflicts. Specifically, using a conversation analytic framework adapted to digital interaction data, I analyze how commenters use the phrase “play the victim” in YouTube comments on Taylor Swift’s music video “Look What You Made Me Do” to dispute Swift’s membership in the category “victim” and how doing so positions them in the larger conflict between Swift and other celebrities, along with their respective fans.

By hosting the music video and allowing members of the community to comment on it, YouTube provides both an occasion for those who claim a moral imperative to sanction Swift and a means to do so, however ineffectually. Without a locally and publically available institutional authority to grant victim status, those who take her actions as a serious claim of victimization can take it upon themselves to sanction her for using the category illegitimately. Such sanctions frequently deploy the phrase “play the victim” which members can use to re-categorize Swift as a special type of offender who has the negative features of both the categories “victim” and “offender.” Additionally, commenters can use and subsequently invert the perquisites of victim status afforded to Swift to de-legitimize her claim of victim status. This is because members can reinterpret Swift’s appeal to and use of victim status to relieve her of responsibility for her injuries as Swift refusing to take responsibility for her actions.

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