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Metaphors, powerlessness and online aggression


Abstract: A lockdown was imposed in Wuhan, China, the alleged epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, on 23 January 2020. Rattled by the short notice and severity of the restrictions, many grabbed the last opportunity to escape, an act widely criticised on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging site. This study aims to examine the unsavoury discourse deployed by Weibo users to express impoliteness and discursively construct negative identities of the lockdown escapees. Posts on Weibo criticising, reporting and threatening the escapees were analysed, revealing that the escapees were dehumanised through vivid animal metaphors to highlight their irresponsibility and call for their punishment. Animal metaphors can co-occur with various impoliteness triggers to intensify offensiveness, heightening the hostility of interlocutors towards a target. This use of metaphors also showcases online users’ anger, distrust, and hatred towards the escapees, their solidarity-seeking behaviour online and their irrationality.
Keywords: online / escapees / impoliteness / lockdown / Animal metaphors / criticised on Weibo

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